Missed Opportunities

Our seventh post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week focus on the tasks in John Finney’s chapter ‘The Place of Music in the Secondary School’.

What opportunities are missed for collaboration across the arts?

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

Since becoming a father, my physical activity philosophy has been governed by the following statement – “I know it’s good for me, but I don’t have the time or energy”. It’s of no surprise that undertaking my daily exercise as part of the current lockdown has emphatically confirmed that exercise is good for me, and it has clearly reminded me that I do have time (if I make it), and that doing exercise results in me having more energy than if I hadn’t.

The above personal account reminds me of many a conversation I’ve had with teachers regarding Interdisciplinary Learning (IDL), both in The Arts and across the wider curriculum. Most teachers are aware of the benefits of IDL; however, many bemoan the fact that they don’t have enough time, energy, support, or shared willingness to engage in it. Then there are the other teachers who I’ve come across who sadly don’t see the benefit of IDL at all. I had thought (and hoped) that such teachers were rare, however, during my time as the Teaching Fellow in Music Education at the University of Edinburgh, I was constantly met with this mindset from the students I taught. They all agreed that IDL was of benefit, and would be enjoyable for the children, however it had been engrained in them that there were more ‘important’ or ‘pressing’ matters to attend to in their teaching. Therefore, this passive resistance to IDL must be more prevalent in the profession than I first thought. This doesn’t, and shouldn’t, need to be the case.

For me, there are four questions that need answering if the wonderful benefits of IDL in The Arts are to occur and be fully realised. In the schools I’ve worked where IDL collaborations have taken place with great success, the answers to the below questions have always been, ‘yes’:

  1. Is IDL valued by the staff?
  2. Are the staff willing to invest extra time to undertake IDL?
  3. Are there more than two strands of The Arts offered in the school?
  4. Is there broad support from the SLT for IDL to take place?

I have also worked in schools where the answers to the above questions have been yes to all, except number three. If there are only two strands of The Arts offered in a school, then IDL can most certainly still take place, and often due to the creative and adaptive thinking required, it is usually of a great success. My final thought on IDL collaborations across The Arts is based on my love of baseball. In the film, Field of Dreams, a whispering voice says to Kevin Kostner, “If you build it, they will come”. The same can most certainly be said for collaborative projects across The Arts. If such projects are valued by the staff, they’re willing to ‘build it’, and there is broad support from their SLT to do so, then ‘the children will come’, they will embrace it with open arms, and the benefits to all will make any initial foreseen obstacles seem trivial at best. So, are opportunities missed for collaboration across The Arts? For me, the answer is very school and staff specific. After all, “If you build it, they will come”. Many of my greatest memories from teaching so far have come from collaborative projects across The Arts.

As for other highly beneficial projects whose initial foreseen obstacles have been proven trivial, it’s time to go for a bike ride with my family. This is one collaborative project that won’t be missed, or taken for granted, ever again.

Liz Gleed @MrsGleedMusic

As teachers of arts subjects you will often find the departments stand together both within their locations in school buildings and in their passionate advocacy for their own subjects. Often the arts are grouped together in schools as faculties and all too frequently in 2020 a cut in timetabling of the arts has resulted in teachers of the arts leading or teaching across a range of the disciplines. But, as the chapter says, they are not in any way interchangeable but do thrive together. Arts teachers do thrive in the tried and tested collaborations, such as a whole-school event such as a whole-school musical. Opportunities for deeper and richer connections can be harder to establish.

Qualifications linking the arts are limited and are predominantly vocational. I taught the Creative and Media Diploma over 10 years ago and it certainly was not a perfect qualification by any means. Saying that the students had a day a week with a teacher studying a topic through the arts. Some had music as their core interest, some art, some dance and some photography and film. They had the time to explore a range of arts together and this became so organic as they had time to do so. There were some remarkably rich cross-arts outcomes, presented at professional venues. I have never seen anything like it since and that crossover is certainly an opportunity that could be explored in all key stages, but a brave real allocation of time is needed to make it meaningful. It makes space for it to be child centred and allow the child to really explore themselves as an artist.

Alongside this an opportunity missed is a continued obsession with controlling option subjects at the end of year 9. I have had so many conversations with parents, students and staff insisting that students take just one arts subject at GCSE. I understand the need for students to have a balanced curriculum, but I do believe we should allow students who thrive in several arts subjects to continue to do so at exam level and put the arts at the centre of their curriculum. Restricting them to a choice between the arts is not one I am comfortable with. Maybe don’t get me started on the Ebacc… There is space for so much deeper collaboration here, we do have so much in common. I often feel the authors of exam specifications for music could learn a lot from how art is approached and assessed at GCSE, especially with regards to composition. It is very much of value to open up some more conversations around this.

Luke Smith @COLAHH_Music

This is a really interesting topic because there are obviously plenty of clear links between the arts in terms of cross curricular content and also in the methodology of our teaching.

In our school we have a ‘cross curricular’ observation as one of our three per year. Different staff members are paired up across the school to carry out an observation of each other. This year I was paired with the head of art and in the meeting after the observations we had both picked up on missed chances to overlap subject knowledge.

The lesson I saw in art had students painting quick impulsive responses to short pieces of music in a variety of styles and genres. The pictures were then looked at collectively to see if there were similar responses by the students to the music. There could have been so many chances to talk about the piece of music itself and the inspiration and story behind it as well as then looking at art from the same period and time as the music to see if the students had interpreted it in the same way. It was interesting to see that the responses did have common features in terms of their textures and colour pallets used and I’m sure there could be a whole response into synaesthesia mentioned here too. I’m sure the same issue could be said in music lessons however, when I teach baroque concertos I don’t spend lesson time looking at the art of the baroque world.

Another example I saw was identical teaching methods from a French teacher and a violin teacher, two subjects that may not typically be linked. Both were teaching new content to their students, one vocabulary and the other notation on an instrument. Both teachers first demonstrated the content, got students to repeat it, picked up on incorrect technique and repeated before working 1-1 with students who needed help. This was something I later mentioned with the French class when I was teaching them music and some of them responded very differently when they realised that it was the same lesson and expectations. 

It is worth pointing out that I don’t think the problem here is staff not noticing or understanding the links with other subjects. I’d argue that it’s more that staff aren’t given time to work together on finding and effectively building on this common ground. I’ve heard of some schools which have drop-down days where all teachers look at the same topic in their subject for a day and some primary schools that even have this as an approach to all their learning. Surely this is something that could be effectively built into the curriculum through cross-curricular planning.

If music teachers worked with the science teachers to be talking about instrumentation at the same time as they were studying how sound is made in physics. If geography and history were studying castles and kings at the same time as a music module on fanfares or folk music. I’m sure there are plenty more that we could collectively think of too.

I know lesson plans often have a section for cross-curricular links but I don’t think these are ever fully followed through. This is something that could create fully immersive learning for students if teachers were able to work together on teaching overlapping units at the same time. How achievable this is I guess would be down to the staff responsible. Maybe with some time now to reflect and look at planning for the next academic year this is something we could try and challenge ourselves to do?

David House @House_dg

My initial reaction is that planned opportunities are missed by the nature of discrete subjects on most school timetables – certainly at KS3. The implication of discrete timetabling [and assessment] leads to a somewhat insular route, whereby each subject is ‘looking out for itself’ and the chances to collaborate have to be worked into otherwise tightly packed school year. Many chances are taken for collaboration in a wider sense – inter-House competitions, school productions and so on – but these invariably involve a portion of a year group and are not necessarily an entitlement. I have found it enlightening to encounter other schools where there is more of an established Performing Arts faculty, in such cases collaborative work across all the arts is rather built in to how teachers there might operate.

Elizabeth Dunbar @HuntSchoolMusic

Before I get into collaboration across the Arts, I would like to say that the most successful Music collaborations and partnerships we have been involved in at Huntington, have been with a specific cohort of students in mind. Things like A level composition with Martin Suckling, A level studio work with Russ Hepworth-Sawyer, ‘Secret Choir’ working on blending with Robert Hollingworth, ‘Man Choir’ working with ‘Sons of Pitches’.

When it comes to collaborations across the Arts, I think there are plenty of opportunities missed but also occasions when collaboration doesn’t quite hit the mark when it comes to intended outcomes. Sometimes it’s simply down to having enough time. In a perfect world, we would explore all those projects we’ve planned in our heads during sleepless nights. All those unexplored collaborations with all those great practitioners. It’s not surprising that collaborative opportunities are missed because there are only 24 hours in the day.

But let’s imagine we did make the time to do this properly and to do it justice, what might it look like? Well to begin with, collaboration comes in many forms, both useful and not so useful. It can be unbelievably rewarding but also immensely frustrating and potentially disappointing. So how do we make it valuable and rewarding for everyone concerned?

I used to think that all types of Arts collaborations were good, and I used to think that everyone thought like me but now I realise that people have very different ideas about what good looks like and what valuable collaboration actually is.

The first thing for me these days is the importance of not diluting the currency. If you are going to spend all that time and energy on it, everyone has to feel that the experience has moved them forward in some way, and that there’s something of quality to take away from it. That ‘something of quality’ doesn’t have to be the end product by the way. For me it’s about where the experience takes us from and to.

I remember seeing Complicite’s 1997 production of ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’ at the National Theatre. (Bear in mind I live up north where we still write on slate and live in wattle and daub huts. It’s not every day I get to go to NT).

It’s an experience I come back to when I’m thinking about collaborative work. The reason I come back to that production is that no one discipline that went into its creation was compromised. Each element had integrity and was elevated in some way by the others. In contrast, the worst kind of collaboration for me, is when combinations of disciplines are artificial, and connections are tenuous.

What I love about the Huntington Arts Festival is that the Art department can create large scale sculptures, 3d installations and light shows inspired by global digital art spaces such as Atelier-Lumiere in Paris and the (first) digital Art Museum in Tokyo. This kind of work is a far cry from painting the back drop for a stage show. The Drama students get to work with a real-life writer, devising and scripting work from scratch for final performance

We generate ideas together as an Arts team, but then go our separate ways as discrete subjects and respond to the stimulus imaginatively, creatively and with integrity. As the event develops in the coming years, we hope to become increasingly collaborative with choreographers and composers, but it’s a work in progress.

At the forefront of our minds are two really important things. For students it’s the quality and type of learning they gain from collaborating in vertical groups, unconstrained by age, ability and examination course requirements. For teachers it’s the freedom to think outside the box, to invigorate and renew our own practice.

I have an endless appetite for collaboration when it is done well. When the stars align and you’ve got the right team and the right conditions, the results can be really worthwhile. When we moved from doing full scale stage productions to the Summer Arts Festival format at Huntington, I endured 2 years of opposition, and I thank Arts colleagues for their support in making it happen. People don’t like change. But four years on, everyone loves this way of working, and students, parents and staff talk about the quality of the learning experience, the inclusivity, the creativity and imagination of the event.

High quality collaboration is priceless, but there’s always the danger with piecemeal collaborations that we are in danger of harming the perceptions and value of the Arts.

Sean Dingley @DGSMusicdept

I’ve always wondered whether we, as the voices of Arts subjects, should have collaborated more in schools on evidencing student learning and assessment. As subjects where the learning is very seldom written, finding a similar way to evidence and assess student progress would be helpful for student, parental and SLT understanding of our subject pedagogies.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I think that a lot of collaboration happens between the arts within schools from school productions, to arts weeks and other cross collaborative arts events. Whilst the collaboration may not be to the scale of a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, nevertheless in terms of extra curricular provision, most schools have good collaboration. Curriculum is the place where very little if no collaboration occurs. This is due to a number of factors; limited planning time between departments; schemes of work being based on subjects/themes that do not translate well between arts subjects and at KS4 and KS5 a total divergence of any connection between the arts when they are taught discretely. Even KS4 and KS5 performing arts qualifications expect students to specialise in one of the many art forms on offer.

Whilst it would be ideal for the curriculum for the arts to be streamlined so that cross-curricular projects based around theme were more common, this is very unlikely to happen with most arts departments in schools run by a single teacher/subject leader who also has to balance extracurricular commitments with marking, planning, assessment and the other myriad of jobs that a modern school requires of its staff.

Whilst students are given the opportunity in their music lessons to experience other arts through looking at context of composition/performance and exploring art forms such as the musical and opera as well as looking at genres such as minimalism which have been explored in other arts such as painting, most of the cross curricular learning that takes place in schools is very implicit in the classroom. Some schools do have totally cross curricular learning where in Geography they will look at Africa, study African drumming, look at African art etc but a lot of the time trying to find this very explicit links are difficult with the pressures of delivering a broad curriculum at KS3 that prepares pupils for their KS4 and 5 study. It is an interesting idea to look at but I think very ambitious and would need a large commitment of time and planning across a school to enable it to work successfully.

Kate Wheeler @KateMarieWheeler

Creative curriculum is the title given to our faculty of Music, Performing Arts (Drama and Dance) and Art. Over the past few years Performing Arts and Music have always worked collaboratively at least once a year to create a whole school performance, whether that be a musical or a pantomime which takes place during extra-curricular activities.  This year we were more ambitious and our three departments collaborated to host an Arts Festival, we invited creative industries from around the North West to join us at school to showcase careers within the Arts and advertise post-16 opportunities for our students. Again, this Festival was an extra-curricular project.

For me the opportunities that can be missed are the chances to collaborate within curriculum time and I know that this is something that I would be keen to consider and plan collaboratively with the other curriculum leaders. Opportunities to create a project including pieces of music, art, dance and drama based upon a country, time or place that allows the work to have a deeper context and hopefully provide a deeper understanding for pupils, strengthening their knowledge and memory.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

I recorded my response for today; whether or not this is a coherent ramble or not will be left for the listener to decide. 

 

Alex Laing @KHSArtDirMusic

Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today,

Oh how I wish he’d go away.

How do we know what opportunities for collaboration across the arts are being missed until we have our next bright collaborative idea? 

Contributions to this blog on previous days have already given some examples of combining music with other things: learning about fractions in maths (not an arts subject incidentally) by means of music was mentioned yesterday by @MusicEdu4All. And @HuntSchoolMusic wrote about the collaborative richness involved in putting on a show or festival (again including non-arts specialists as well as arts ones).   In my opinion schools can be, and often are, hotbeds of such collaborations.  Quite what form they may take depends hugely on the personalities and expertise of those who instigate them and those who take part.

The background paragraphs we were asked to read before tackling this question do, however, point out the difficulties very clearly – at least if collaborations are to happen within the classroom.  The classroom is almost certainly the most efficient place for pupils to learn the very varied skills required for each individual arts subject and is not ideal for collaboration.  Most schools with performing arts departments will make sure that they put on one or more collaborative show a year – whether it be a musical, an operetta, a dance performance, or a play with incidental music.  Such enterprises are collaborations of the best sort, mainly because they are indeed extra-curricular and not bound to the classroom.  They may involve different age-groups who might not normally work (or play) together. They will bring together those whose talent is in acting with those who are better at music and each can learn from the other.  They will include those talented in art or handwork in building and painting the scenery.  Costumes and props may be created by a similar team, and the technically minded will get involved in the lighting and sound.   We all know how much work and energy and commitment is involved in such productions but how (as a result) they generate a very great deal of team spirit, satisfaction and pride.  Similar positivity is generated when one collaborates on enterprises with other schools.  It is, for instance, a great joy to host Ex-Cathedra’s Singing Playgrounds which always brings together several different local primary schools.

So what might we be missing?  Coming up with new and revolutionary ideas just for the sake of it runs the risk of being either disappointing or gimmicky or both. Collaborations will emerge in schools where like-minded teachers in different disciplines spark off each other and make something happen.   Creativity is hard work and cross-disciplinary creativity can often be harder.  It only becomes a delight when enthusiasm is met with enthusiasm and that cannot be forced.  

2 Comments

  1. There are some interesting insights from contributors here and, once again, they reflect a variety of perspectives and teaching contexts. Sadly it seems that collaboration across the arts, let alone across a wider range of subjects in schools, has diminished in secondary schools over the past decade and to me this is a cause for regret. It is such a pity given that in ‘real life’ music is so often combined with other art forms, in theatre, film & tv, dance etc. In my experience collaborative practice across the arts in most schools tends now to be solely in the extra-curricular domain – the school show, dance events to live music (at best composed and performed by peers) etc. I am probably overstating it but there then becomes the danger that the events are real music and music in the curriculum runs the danger of being nothing more than ‘school music’.
    Anyway, for those who know the book Learning to teach Music in the Secondary School well you will be aware that the final chapter (by Chris Philpott) ‘Music, the arts and education’ is a nice counterpoint John’s first chapter and it offers further historical and philosophical perspectives on today’s question. Particularly pertinent here is the work of Peter Abbs in the 1980s (see p.229) which I suspect is the influence for at least one of today’s contributors.

  2. There are some interesting insights from contributors here and, once again, they reflect a variety of perspectives and teaching contexts. Sadly it seems that collaboration across the arts, let alone across a wider range of subjects in schools, has diminished in secondary schools over the past decade and to me this is a cause for regret. It is such a pity given that in ‘real life’ music is so often combined with other art forms, in theatre, film & tv, dance etc. In my experience collaborative practice across the arts in most schools tends now to be solely in the extra-curricular domain – the school show, dance events to live music (at best composed and performed by peers) etc. I am probably overstating it but there then becomes the danger that the events are real music and music in the curriculum runs the danger of being nothing more than ‘school music’.
    Anyway, for those who know the book Learning to teach Music in the Secondary School well you will be aware that the final chapter (by Chris Philpott) ‘Music, the arts and education’ is a nice counterpoint John’s first chapter and it offers further historical and philosophical perspectives on today’s question. Particularly pertinent here is the work of Peter Abbs in the 1980s (see p.229) which I suspect is the influence for at least one of today’s contributors.

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