Read the tweets from #mufuchat 8th Jan HERE

A recent #mufuchat started a discussion about what should be in the music curriculum and why we select the content that we do. Using a quote from an article by Dr Martin Fautley (above) as a starting point, this got me reflecting on the curriculum we deliver and what prompted us to choose the topics we have. My conclusions have been that ours is a complete mixture. Some projects are genre based, some are linked to study of a particular piece of music, some are approaches. Some were left from previous schemes, now over 10 years old, others have come in as a result of our work as a Musical Futures champion school.

What I’m keen to avoid here is any discussion of how the work is delivered, the choice of approaches whether formal or informal, the place of notation, how it can be assessed have been widely discussed and I feel confident with my current decisions about my own practice for now. My personal development in my own practice is separate from the decisions we need to take as a department about what it is we are actually teaching.

I look forward to following the #mufuchat discussions as it’s definitely time we took a long-overdue look at what we are teaching and why, now that we have the how established and embedded across the department. Actually shouldn’t this have come first?

I have been mulling over what I think are some of the reasons why people choose what they choose to include in the music curriculum.

1. We do what we know

My first job was in a one-person department line managed by the Head of Art. I was a NQT in a challenging school and had been left absolutely nothing by way of schemes of work or resources. I had to start with what (little) I knew. This fell into two categories Firstly things I had tried in (or stolen from) my placement schools or had developed during my PGCE and secondly projects I dreamed up myself. As a formally trained musician, despite having done some jazz and improvisation on my PGCE course I didn’t feel confident enough to stray too far from what I knew. We played ‘classical’ tunes on keyboards at KS3 and did a bit of singing while I tried to get a ‘switched off’ year 11 through their GCSE in a year. Needless to say, none of those projects have found their way into my current curriculum! It took a lot longer to become comfortable with delivering music of other styles and genres as I needed to become competent in these areas myself before working out the best ways to deliver this to students. The question of authenticity is one I still haven’t addressed. I’m not sure how I can teach about the gamelan well using some broken tuned percussion and guitars, but that’s another blog.

2. Starting with assessment

Digging through old blog posts, I found John Kelleher’s reflections on his scheme of work ‘tenets’ written at a time when he was looking to redevelop his approach to assessment at KS3. His attempts to tighten up the National Curriculum levelling criteria by linking it to national qualifications are grounded in a huge amount of thought and reflection, but as he says, ‘this is not a new scheme of work’. However, assessment remains number 1 on his list of tenets that he feels should underpin the curriculum.

This considered approach is in stark contrast to teachers feeling so constrained by the need to sub-level their students every 3 weeks and demonstrate progress at every opportunity that they develop projects for the sake of fulfilling whole school assessment requirements rather than to develop musical learning.

However, it’s not for me. I’d like my students to create something musical first then we can use assessment for learning to identify how they can get better and work together on the next steps. Again, that’s for another blog.

3. Project Based learning and mobile technology in the classroom

I love Martin Said’s work on his ‘Create’ curriculum in a school devoted to developing project based learning – his blog explains it far better than I can. I also enjoyed a whole-school INSET by Hywell Roberts where he encouraged all subject teachers to link content to a real-world experience, something he developed through his work as a drama teacher. However, this can demand some form of cross-curricular communication and as a school we’re not there yet!

For the last 2 years, we had a half-hearted go at a cross-curricular project between the Music, English and ICT departments. Developed by a staff member as part of her Masters, the idea was that students would create and film a story-board in English, set it to music with us then put it altogether in their ICT lessons.

The first problem was the number of classes and teachers involved. For my two year 8 groups I was working with 4 different staff in the other departments. I was told I should have a discussion with them myself about the timing of the project and how it would work. English staff could only spare a couple of weeks squeezed in between assessments and until I finished my bit, there wasn’t much for ICT to do. This meant that my students were arriving with unfinished work and rather than working as departments, we were working as individuals. With no time for discussion or feedback, it gradually just tailed off and no outcomes were shared between departments.

The second issue was much more interesting. At this point, we had started to use iPads in the music department as part of our involvement with the Musical Futures Find Your Voice approach. The English department were using flip cams where content had to be uploaded somewhere, students had to have access and this was all too much for our department with just 1 networked PC! Students had no way of editing the video and so were trying to compose music for an unfinished film. It felt clunky and tokenistic to me and to them. As I was on the point of stopping, students started to use their own mobile technology to make their films in my lesson, downloading free apps to edit the video and splitting their groups themselves as some filmed and others composed and recorded the soundtracks. This group was the first to get frustrated with the technology the school could provide finding their own solutions in their pockets. Others followed.

My conclusion? Planning a cross curricular project or experimenting with PBL has to be supported by all involved, have clear leadership with a clear strategy and timescale and be of benefit to learning in all subject areas. This year, I will be doing this project on my own with the ipads.

When students have ready access to technology that far surpasses any we can make available in school, does this influence the choice of content or merely the delivery?

5. Personal motivation

3 years ago, I returned from maternity leave to a department I no longer recognised and no longer managed. Space issues had been resolved by removing year 7 from practical music, my ‘Music for Everyone’ strapline had disappeared from the newsletter and the ethos of the department, extra curricular music had been reduced to a series of small ensembles where a few students played in everything bulked out by teachers (and members of teachers’ families). The curriculum was a series of projects loosely based on what I had left, yet the resources on the shared drive consisted only of worksheets and a powerpoint for every lesson with a year map showing which lesson in the scheme should be taught at which point in the term.

For the first year, I asked to teach mainly year 8 and 9 classes to try out more of the Musical Futures work I had been watching in other schools during my mat leave. Picking up classes of year 8 that had done very little ‘music’ in year 7 was a massive challenge for me going in with a practical approach. Motivation, musical skills and behaviour were poor and worse still students were being ‘advised’ that to take GCSE you should be able to play a musical instrument to grade 3 level and to be able to read music. Options numbers that year dropped from 30-11 students.

This coincided with the start of a new role for me. I was asked to ‘set something up’ with local primary schools. Without a year 7 class of my own, I was able to take a really objective view watching lessons in various primary schools, getting to know the music co-ordinators and teachers in our feeder schools and trying out a few ideas with classes from years 2-6. Everything I thought I knew about the year 7 music curriculum was wrong. I was meeting enthusiastic children who were comfortable making music in a familiar environment and stacks of pedagogy that I could take back and learn from. I questioned what had happened to my year 8s in that first year to switch them off music so much and started to evaluate all my previous year 7 projects in a new light. I also kept an eye on year 7 lessons in my school to see what happened between phases. Why start with tokenistic warm-ups that lead nowhere and lessons that concluded in repetitive and unmusical recitations of the meaning of the elements of music? Why keep ‘practical’ lessons for older students and not year 7? Why not make secondary music lessons something for year 6 to look forward and aspire to by firmly building on what they had done before and taking it to the next level?

What I learned formed the start of our curriculum review beginning with a completely new approach to teaching in year 7 and the start of an interesting discussion with SLT about transition and how what I was learning could improve the experience for students. I love the year 7 curriculum now and they seem to as well.

6. Has anyone asked the students?

I was reminded of an old blog post by Abigail D’Amore. Visiting a school known to be ‘good’ for music she met a student who felt her needs were not being met, yet was doing her very best to be positive about her music lessons. If we asked our students their opinions about what they would like in their curriculum could we predict the answers? And would we be prepared to really listen to what they have to say? I wonder.