Exchanging Notes

Post thirty in our (re)learning to teach music series. This is the third post this week responding to the tasks in chapter five in Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School. Today the task is loosely connected to a task in chapter five but is also a slightly departure; reflecting on how the curriculum responds to young people. This is week six of the collaborative blogging, and we will have a week off before returning in June. 

Extract from Exchanging Notes report

Young people’s passion for music is clear: in recent research  we found that 97% of young people had listened to music in the last week and 67% of young people had engaged in some form of music-making activity. They’re engaging in music regularly, but this isn’t always in school. Twenty-five per cent of young musicians said that they are teaching themselves and 23% had been taught by a friend or family member.

We found that young people’s creative identities outside of school often go unrecognised in music education, something we’ve heard time and time again from young people on our programmes. This view was echoed in an Exchanging Notes interview:

It’s interesting because a lot of schools still classically deliver in music education in a way that doesn’t really engage a large section of young musicians that are interested in music, so there’s, you know, most young musicians are very interested in music but don’t see the connection between their interest in music and their music lessons.  (Music leader) 

What implications does the extract above have on how you approach curriculum design/planning?

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

Mike Morgan @MikeMMusicED

Teaching in an international school, I have up to 15 nationalities in my classroom. This leads to more pressure to ‘diversify’ the music curriculum to engage pupils from different cultural backgrounds. How to find the balance between pupil’s own interests and experience ‘unfamiliar’ music, is the million dollar question in music education.

I have considered this when designing my own curriculum. Basing the curriculum on concepts, Rhythm, Melody and Harmony, as opposed to topics, gives way to pupils to explore many styles of music within a term, rather than one topic or style. When exploring rhythm, pupils could access African Drumming, Samba or Reggae (syncopated guitar). Time signatures can be explored through Waltz, Jazz styles (Take 5 e.g.) or Four to the Floor House music. This allows a range of musical interests to be explored and capture interest from the pupils. Alongside this, I have considered how the IBDP Music model of exploring music in different contexts can be implemented. They state that music can be engaged with in a Personal, Local and Global context.

Personal – Music that has a significance to the student and they are familiar with. Local – Music that has local significance from the student’s local, regional and cultural communities.

Global – Music that pupils are unfamiliar with and are not connected or engaged with. While we are not an IB school, I’ll be considering the model in my curriculum to allow pupils to explore music that is meaningful to them. From here, they will be encouraged to broaden their horizons by engaging with music in a global context. What will this look like for Key Stages 3 and 4? In practical lessons, I don’t know yet. Over the course of the year pupils will have opportunities to consider these contexts as part of their course.

Taking a holistic view of the school experience, is this problem considered in other subjects? Are teachers in History, Geography or Languages linking pupil’s interests to the subject matter? With my focus on music education, am I ignorant to changes in other subjects, or is music more impactful on society and young people?

Liz Gleed @MrsGleedMusic

This is a powerful piece of research and I was especially drawn to the statement about the students that said: ‘An important factor was that the type of music explored in the curriculum wasn’t imposed on them – it was instead decided and delivered with them’

The implication of this has to be that we must keep student interests at the heart of what we do and plan for. I believe this means every music department should have a unique curriculum design, no two schools and their musical intake are the same. It can be often misunderstood that involving students in curriculum design is purely about engagement, it isn’t. Involving them is about making their curriculum relevant. This doesn’t mean any kind of dumbing down or compromising on high quality musical learning to entertain and delight them, but to make young musicians feel they have ownership of what they are doing and see the value of the learning, the skills they are developing and the relevance of their musical learning to their own lives. A carefully crafted curriculum should be the centrepiece of our role as music teachers.

Where I find this difficult, in line with last night’s post, is in how we reconcile a thriving and relevant key stage 3 curriculum to feed into key stage 4. We average a 40% uptake to music GCSE at BCCS and we let our students down if we do not prepare them to access the chosen key stage 4 course fully by the end of year 9. Equally we have half of our students leaving formal music education at the end of year 9 and do not need any such steer towards a key stage four curriculum. It is an age old question, but I do think exam boards would do well to reflect on this as well.

David House @House_dg

I recall reading the Exchanging Notes report in 2019 and finding it a rather frustrating that generalised conclusions were being drawn and many unspoken implications lay behind the writing. I can only speak from the context of my own school, however, and so all the evidence that I am using has that as its background. As such I would agree with the survey’s finding that over 90% of students had listened to music in the last week, this would be the case on a daily basis amongst our students I am sure. However, the implication is that those students are all engaging with the music – in many cases I find that the music is just ‘there’ in the background [apologies for the generalisation!] and there has not been too much in the way of engagement. With the next statistic, which was that 67% of young people had engaged in some form of music-making activity, I was surprised – in our school the figure is around 55% [and I include classroom music in that, so covering all of our Y7&8 students – we have a 3-yr KS4]. The statistics go on to say that 25% are teaching themselves, again my view on this would be lower. This is where the difference between a survey, with an uncertain field of respondents, and one’s own situation frustrates me.

The report implies then that the creative identity of students outside school often goes unrecognised in music education. I would completely agree with this and it is something which we are working to rectify in frequent student-voice surveys and our increased use of a student music portfolio, in which examples of all sorts of musical activities and interests can find their way [in my current Y7 cohort I have examples of students who pursue their own interests in Russian music and sequenced composing quite independently of our curriculum – I know about that because I have got to know them as individuals, encouraged them to share their interests and keep examples in their portfolios. The next statement is that “most young musicians are very interested in music but don’t see the connection between their interest and their [classroom] music lessons”. This quote is from a music leader, I am assuming of a community music project. It contains so many assumptions that do not seem familiar to me, yet I concede that often curriculum content and exam board specifications are not all young peoples’ cups of tea. The report did make me think about this quite hard and the “double lives” that students often lead [doing “school” things in school, and “their” things in their own time] and this helped us to begin our portfolio approach – however, there are still individuals who do not want to share their interests from outside school, for whatever reason, and we must respect that whilst encouraging them to engage with our curriculum in a positive way.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

The extract doesn’t surprise me. I think most of it boils down to the way music education is taught in higher education. Most people who read music at university or conservatoire spend a great deal of time studying Western Art music and therefore this is their area of expertise. The PGCE reinforces this as people tend to then teach schemes of work based on either what their training school is delivering and if they have to write their own, it is usually on something like film music which again links back to the Western Art music tradition that has become a mainstay of the film music genre.

How many pupil voice activities does the average music teacher do? I ask as it is one of my key ways of finding out how my department is progressing. I ask questions of the pupils that can make difficult reading for myself but I find that it is the best way to see how engaged pupils are with the curriculum. These pupil voice feedbacks have made me question some of the things that I used to deliver; again based on what had to teach in other departments, on PGCE etc. Whilst key musical knowledge and concepts, as well as instrumental, singing and compositional skills are still taught so that all pupils have the opportunity to take GCSE if they wish, the way in which some of these are delivered has been changed directly as a result of pupil voice. For instance, we now look at the basics of creating a beat electronically by getting pupils in Year 7 to listen to various songs and try and recreate the beat they hear through their own aural listening and transcription skills. This teaches them about rhythm, electronic drum timbres and improves their listening musicianship. They then go on to create their own beat which is then used later in the year in a pop music project where they add accompaniment and either sung or rapped lyrics. When asked at the end of Year 7 about which school lessons have stood out during parental engagement evenings, their music lessons tend to be mentioned. These skills are then further developed through Years 8 and 9 as they are essential skills that are needed for GCSE listening and composing.

BY asking pupils what they like and then building good programs of study around these likes to engage pupils but also to develop and challenge them musically means that they see music as a ‘proper’ subject like maths or science and are much more likely to carry on with formal music making after KS3.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

“This new model curriculum and the new money for our successful music hubs will make sure the next generation of Adeles, Nigel Kennedys and Alex Turners have all the support they need in school.”

‘Gibb said studying music “isn’t a privilege, it’s a vital part of a broad and balanced curriculum” and all pupils should study it until at least the age of 14′. Controversy aside of the drafting of a model curriculum, I find it fascinating that Gibbs suggests its purpose is to ensure a diverse range of musicians, not just ‘western classical’ musicians, can be enabled to develop through the music education in schools.  

Rather than be supposedly in conflict with pupil interests, classical music is supposedly increasingly appealing to younger listeners.  

The launch of a new classical entertainment station aimed at younger listeners is based on more than a hunch. Research found that a new generation of listeners was switching on to classical music through different sources, with 48% of under-35s exposed to it through classical versions of popular songs, such as the Brooklyn Duo version of Taylor Swift’s Blank. And 74% of people in the same age group had experienced classical music via a live orchestral performance at a film screening, according to analysts at Insight working for Bauer Media, owner of the new station.

The Making Music report shared some interesting statistics. 

More remarkable still is the number of young people who self-identify as playing an instrument but state that they have never had lessons; some 21% of children who play are therefore learning through informal routes such as peer-to-peer networks, by accessing digital tools, or by being self-taught in other ways. There is also a possibility that these children may have played an instrument in the classroom, but did not identify this as being an instrumental lesson.

There will never be one curriculum for all, but a model does no harm in showing how we can make good use of all those years of compulsory music education. It’s a big ask to go from planning a unit when training to then planning many years of meaningful music education. This leap for trainees seems under considered, with little tangible work evidence in bridging the gap between the reality of the classroom and lofty ideals of those beyond the classroom. We need to be brave to respond to our pupils and plan a curriculum that we feel is the most appropriate journey for them; real pupils, not imaginary ones. If we want to share our thinking regarding our curriculum design we present the opportunity for challenge and criticism, and I wonder if that is why many classroom music teachers can be quiet on their curriculum design. Plenty of press challenged the relevance of classroom music teachers’ choices (however anecdotally and under-nuanced) and subsequently diminished teacher confidence to do the job we work so hard to do.

With so much music-making clearly possible beyond the classroom we can carve out a distinct purpose for a classroom music curriculum that extends and enhances what young people bring; I don’t think a curriculum designed by a teacher should be exclusively be side-lined to be a mirror for pupils’ interests, but it shouldn’t ignore the opportunity for young people to pursue their interests. 

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