Specifying values and beliefs

Post twenty-nine in our (re)learning to teach music series. This is the second post this week responding to the tasks in chapter five in Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School. This is week six of the collaborative blogging. 

Task 5.2: Consider a GCSE or A-level music specification you teach, have taught – if you haven’t taught one perhaps look one up. What particular musical values and beliefs about what important knowledge and skills do you think are being promoted through the specification? To what extent do you feel that these values and beliefs are able to accommodate and support the development of all musical learners?

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

Rather than commenting specifically on GCSE or A-Level for today’s blog, I’m going to provide some general thoughts on my experiences teaching music within the Scottish, Australian, English, and International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula. Having had the pleasure of teaching music in many different countries, I’ve found the values and beliefs of each regarding knowledge and skills to be quite different. The fascinating thing is how differently each approaches the three seemingly universal components of listening, composing, and performing, the standards expected of each, and the percentage value assigned to each component. Having taught each of these curricula, there are two themes that become apparent. (1) None of them successfully accommodate and support the development of all musical learners, and (2) It is potentially nigh on impossible to design a curriculum that does so. 

Whenever I’m asked my thoughts on having taught each, my mind immediately turns to two continuums – the Perceived Academic Continuum, and the Perceived Accessibility Continuum. The below diagrams come from my own discussions with teachers around the world who have also taught each of these curricula. I’m not aware of any formal comparative analysis of them, however that is most definitely something that would interest me.

When it comes to values and beliefs about the promotion of knowledge and skills within each, they are all clearly committed to the three components of listening, composing, and performing. Where they vary greatly is in the criteria and standards by which the knowledge and skills taught in each are assessed. This is where the Perceived Academic Continuum (below) comes to the fore. The applied criteria and required standards of assessment for the Scottish curriculum vary significantly to that of the IB curriculum, with the Australian and English curriculum situated between the two. The further along the continuum you get, the greater the valuing and promotion of high-level knowing ‘about’ and knowing ‘how’. To put it differently, the IB curriculum successfully prepares pupils for entry onto any traditional university music degree, while the Scottish curriculum isn’t deemed appropriate for entry onto some traditional university music degrees outside of Scotland. Is this of importance or not? That’s for another debate.

To flip this continuum is to reveal the Perceived Accessibility Continuum (below). From what I’ve observed and experienced, the greater the valuing and promotion of high-level knowing ‘about’ and knowing ‘how’, the less accessible the curriculum becomes to all musical learners. While someone with limited prior musical engagement at school could partake and learn from the Scottish curriculum, this would simply not be possible with the IB curriculum. What does this say about each? Well, that depends on who you talk to and the experience of formal music education that they’ve had to date. All I know is that at either end of the continuum, pupils can be lost to music forever. This also occurs at every point of the continuum, highlighting the complex and challenging nature of designing a music curriculum that accommodates and supports the development of all musical learners.

What I tend to believe is lost in all these curricula is the promotion of knowledge ‘of’. The reason for this, to me, is because you cannot assess or report the knowledge ‘of’ music gained by a musical learner. Having said this, while they don’t necessarily promote it, they are not devoid of it either. There are opportunities for it to be encouraged and nourished, however this is inevitably lost to the rigours of meeting assessment and reporting guidelines. I wish I had the answer to where the answer lies. I would most certainly take the best elements of each (below); however, I still don’t think I’d have the ideal music curriculum in my grasp. For me, this shows the complexity of what we’re all trying to achieve.

To return to my tree analogy from yesterday – every tree is fertilised by a different experience of music; every child wants to climb the tree at a different rate and by taking a different route; some want to climb to the top, some want to go part way up and enjoy the view, and some of them just want to sit underneath the tree and enjoy its shade and comfort. Melding our values and beliefs of knowledge and skills with theirs is going to be a constant juggling act, and one that we’ll have to constantly make comprises on just to get close to accommodating all. Ultimately, it’s how we support each musical learner that determines the success, or not, of each unit within an overall curriculum.

Liz Gleed @MrsGleedMusic

I have taught three of the main specifications over the years and they have all been driven by the three core areas of performance, composition and listening and appraising. These three skills are assessed individually and promoted as separate entities. As such my students often talk about a strength and weakness within them, which I dislike. The skills of musicianship are knitted together in a much more detailed way than that.

The performance module at Edexcel GCSE allows for both solo and ensemble performance, which promotes the equal importance of technique and expression within both a solo performance and within a collaborative performance with others. It is a good way to value overall music making plus most genres of music are shown to be accommodated and respected. I do find there is a steer towards a preference to Western Classical music and pop. I have found that advice and support for world musical instruments is much slimmer and skills such as DJing are becoming increasingly marginalised to music technology specifications. Sadly there no longer exists a technology pathway at Edexcel so, according to this exam board successful musicianship must include a good level of live performance ability.

Composition is such a difficult thing to assess. I have blogged before that composition should either be taught as compositional techniques or as free composition. Even though technically one of the compositions at Edexcel GCSE is called ‘free’ there is still an enormous amount of hoop jumping for students in order to evidence their skill base: structure, development and use of the musical elements. Students who write in a popular style often find development hard to evidence when being stylistic and using lots of repetition. I joke with students that some of the greatest songs written would score badly under a GCSE music criteria. I feel the exam board does show its value of compositional technique and a ‘right answer’ over pure creativity.

I like the way exam boards have made wider listening a part of their specifications, I enjoy this at Edexcel. Their set works are not the most inspiring set I have ever seen and I am flummoxed by some choices. The inclusion of fusion/world music both at GCSE and A Level feels tokenistic and the steer certainly seems to be towards Western Classical Music. But with wider listening across the entire course a teacher can and should work to choose pieces and make connections to make the course relevant to the students and authentic to their musical experience. I enjoy this freedom and the opportunity to evolve the listening pieces year on year.

I do believe a teacher has to be a student’s ultimate champion and it is their role to make the music curriculum accessible from entry at the school through to exam study. In making it relevant for every one of their students it is also essential to build in the time and space for them to develop as musicians on their own terms. Every cohort of students is different and finding the right language, framing of resources and practical ways to showcase each individual musician’s skills in coursework are a vital part of that task.

David House @House_dg

I have taught courses under the auspices of at least six different exam boards for both GCSE and A-level. There is a common thread underpinning their content, that of requiring familiarity with notated music and knowledge of subject-specific vocabulary. A recent trend has been to include listening and appraising questions of a more generic nature but the familiarity with notation is always there. I do not see this as a problem as I feel that all students can be taught to read music and understand scores which are presented to them. There are, of course, separate issues to do with the content presented by exam boards – this has frequently come under scrutiny from various quarters as being unrepresentative of particular groups in society. The same problems have been found with other curriculum areas: English, Religious Studies and History for example. Such debates are critical to engage with when choosing a specification [I wonder why the use of ‘Syllabus’ has declined] in conjunction with knowledge of the students in one’s own setting, their cultural context, aptitudes and interests.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

GCSE specification on the whole follow a route where skills and knowledge are separated out for the practical work and combined for the listening paper. For the performing practical. It is all skills based. Play a solo, play in an ensemble. Marks differentiated by difficulty (using a multiplier) and marked according to tuning, timing and musicality. Composition is also mainly marked on skill with some knowledge thrown in. Again, do a free composition and one to a brief. Show that you can develop ideas, put them in a structure and add technical details.

The specification both favour students who are performing and composing in a Western Art style as most of the marks and the way the specifications are written are geared towards these. This is because when writing popular music and other styles, students find it very hard to develop their material. This causes problems as a standard verse, chorus structure has very little development apart from maybe some melodic changes to fit words and a few accompaniment embellishments. This means that their own authentic music making and learning experiences are somewhat stunted as they cannot produce music that they are familiar with.

For the listening aspect of the GCSE, the balance between knowledge and skill is set towards knowledge. You need to know about many things; the skill is being able to listen to the music and identify how to apply the knowledge. Some boards have totally fixed syllabus’ with all set works whilst others have a mixture. I find that the more mixed boards help students to better develop their all round musicianship as it is much harder for them to just go away and learn fact to regurgitate. The actually have to develop their own listening and aural analysis skills to be able to complete the questions.

I think that GCSE syllabuses have the right sort of ideas to help students develop their musical learning and the new post 2016 specifications are more musical in the way they present musical works. However musics outside of Western culture are badly represented and maybe this is one of the reasons that many students from different cultural heritages avoid both GCSE and A Level, the specifications do not really connect with their past like they do with the European pasts.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

Thanks to Jessie McCabe Edexcel/Pearson A-level Music was able to show music was written by more than men. The first iteration of the revised A-level for teaching 2016 onwards did not reflect that diversity, though there were attempts to offer a range of musics grouped by themes. The study of set works promotes the idea that we can study music through the scrutiny of (surface details) in scores, coupled with some broad contextual study. It promotes the idea there is merit in comparing and contrasting music from different times and places can help build a picture of how music is a social practice. Or does it? I wonder if it genuinely promotes that, with composers/authors of music taking centre-stage to the audience. The musicianship skill expected in the examination are very much notation based, with one question that encourages some comparison of an unknown work with studied works. 

It seems a difficult figure to justify performing for eight minutes (as a minimum) – it does take some competency to put together a sustained convincing performance for that amount of time. It is open to a great variety of performances and from experience the western classical tradition dominates. The marking criteria might promote a western classical lens for assessing performance (judging certain musical elements as indicative of performances) and this appears to the case for composing. Composition assessment is a minefield (which is worthy of a PhD and such projects exist) and the criteria have worked hard to be applicable to a range of musics but it does promote the belief in certain compositional approaches as more successful than others. This is a challenging concept to debate. 

A-level Music will never suit all musical learners. And thankfully we have a range of KS5 level qualifications that enable different musical learners to progress in their training/study in a way that suits their aspirations and musical practices. We need to choose the qualifications that fit our musicians over choosing qualifications that are for the musicians we’d like to teach. The choice is a difficult one. 

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