Raising standards of attainment and achievement in music

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Excelsior Academy (EA) is a new school, opened in 2008, set in a mixed socio-economic area in the west of Newcastle Upon Tyne. Underpinned by the ethics of 'enterprise' EA is comprised of four schools specialising in Business and Economics, Creative and Performing Arts, Design, Construction and the Environment, Health Related Studies and a Sixth Form College. All told it caters for 1800 students aged 11 to 18. For the younger students, it bases its 'learning to learn' approach around the SATs and its own core subjects of 'English/literacy, numeracy, science, information communications technology (ICT), enterprise and citizenship' (Excelsior Academy 2008, online). EA is Trust school set up with the Department for Schools, Families and Children (DCSF) and Lord Laidlaw. It espouses personalised learning and a positive attitude and defines its pedagogical processes primarily through curriculum fulfilment and student achievement.


My role within Excelsior Academy is to contribute positively to raising standards of attainment and achievement in music through providing high quality teaching and high quality support and guidance to all pupils in my care, through fully utilising their skills, talents, knowledge and expertise. This is fulfilled through planning and delivering a curriculum appropriate to the individual needs and abilities of these pupils. Following this, one particular cohort of year eight pupils were proving challenging in terms of both managing behaviour and in commitment and enthusiasm in the subject. On reflection, this was down to lack of personalisation and planning for different learning styles. The majority of the pupils in this group are made up of activist learners; these love novelty, and will try anything once. Give them a task, and they will throw themselves wholeheartedly into it. They like to get on with things, so they are not interested in planning what they are about to do. The remainder of pupils are pragmatists; these are also keen on ideas, but want to try them out to see if they work. They are much less interested in actually developing the ideas. They enjoy experimentation, but are not interested in the long dissection of the results that would appeal to the reflector. They take the view that if something works, that's fine, but if it doesn't, there is no point in wasting much time wondering why. Teaching had been mostly didactic and therefore pupils of this nature were somewhat disengaged.

After completing several courses on the Musical Futures programme, it was decided to try and establish that particular approach to teaching and learning within Music.

Musical futures began in 2003 when the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, instigated an initiative to find new and imaginative ways of engaging young people in meaningful music activities. The basis of the investigation was to understand the factors affecting the disengagement of school pupils with sustained music making activities, at a time in their lives when music is not only a passion for many young people, but plays a big part in shaping their social identity. (D'Amore et al, 2006). After carrying out extensive research, the first available materials were published to teachers in 2006. 'Musical Futures was initially designed for secondary schools, with a particular focus on 11-14 year old students (Key Stage 3), as this has traditionally been an age when students can lose interest in music learning in school.' (Musical Futures, online). It is also the point where music education is compulsory until they elect to continue (or not) at key stage four. Musical Futures has also been tailored for use with students in challenging circumstances, for example students with special educational needs, or in Young Offenders Institutes and Pupil Referral Units. (Musical Futures, online)

It brings non-formal teaching and informal learning approaches into the more formal context of school. Musical futures is not a specific scheme of work, 'It is based on the belief that music learning is most effective when young people are engaged in making music, and when their existing passion for music is acknowledged, reflected on and built-upon in the classroom.' (D'Amore, 2006: p.9). Students work through a variety of non-formal and in-formal learning styles whilst ensuring that their individual needs are met. It values students own musical interests ensuring motivation is at the heart of their learning. It also incorporates the use of aural learning which places equal emphasis upon the skills of listening with practical music making, improvising and composing.

Firstly, the initial stage 'dropping students in at the deep end' is trying to encourage the students to emulate the learning process and practices of popular musicians. The students were asked as a homework task to think about the material they would like to study and bring in a hard copy next lesson. As a starter activity to the next lesson, the pupils created a thought shower of how popular music musicians learn to play their instruments, sing and compose music. Answers ranged from having instrumental lessons, being self-taught, using computers etc. However, it was explained after the discussion that these answers are indeed correct, but as Green points out (2008), they also learn by informal means, that is, listening to their favourite music and copying it. Pupils were then told that they were going to learn in that exact same way, within their friendship groups, using a selection of tuned percussion instruments called boomwhackers.

With this learning model, it is imperative to establish firm ground rules about acceptable behaviour from the outset. Several members of staff had expressed concerns about unsupervised students 'doing whatever they want' and were quick to point the finger at behavioural problems as a result of the situation. In reality, behaviour problems involved exactly the same students causing difficulties in other lessons. Situations did not escalate beyond which could not be dealt with accordingly.

During the initial stage, it is both daunting for teachers and pupils. For the teacher, there needs to be a lot of trust as students are left on their own to work independently. For the pupil, they are given no direct instruction as to how to succeed with the task. Each group were given a pack which contained a CD, music, instructions and assessment criteria. For many of them it may be the first time they have used that particular instrument. It was very difficult to just stand back and observe what goals pupils were setting for themselves without getting involved. Instead you must diagnose what the pupils need in order for them to realise their goals. (Green, 2008: p.34) The pupils were aware that if they needed any assistance that they could ask if required. As Green points out, (2008) this process is called 'modelling,' which is different from the usual 'teaching' role, partly because, 'it was based on the diagnosis of and response to learner-perceived, immediate need, rather than on pre-established teacher-set aims...'(p.34).

Inevitably at first, it became apparent that there was high demand for teacher guidance. However, students needed to be left alone to solve the issues for themselves. I had to adopt a learning approach to this style as it proved difficult to just stand and observe the situation. Over a period of time this seemed to build stronger relationships with some pupils. As D'Amore points out, (2006) 'the willingness to adapt as a learner alongside your students, and to react to the challenges informal learning poses, is often key to developing a good relationship and a sense of trust and respect between yourself and your students,' (p.134). She also adds that the role a teacher takes on in the informal learning model is critical to its success. Overall, it is important that the teacher establishes an environment in which students are free to approach the task and take on responsibility for their own learning and progress.

According to research, 'Musical Futures has been effective with all young people, no matter what their background and prior musical experience.' (D'Amore, 2006: p.24). However it is designed to be adapted and personalised by individual practitioners to meet the needs of individual learners. These needs maybe learning difficulties, behavioural or emotional, physical difficulties, learning styles or if they are more able and talented in music. The Musical Futures programme clearly encourages the strands of the music curriculum. For example with stage 1, the integration of practice: 'participate, collaborate and work with others as musicians;' 'adapting to different musical roles and respecting the values and benefits others bring to musical learning.' For creativity: 'using existing musical knowledge, skills and understanding for new purposes and in new contexts and exploring ways music can be combined with other art forms and other subject disciplines.' For communication: 'exploring how thoughts, feelings, ideas and emotions can be expressed through music.' (QCA, 2007: pp.180-181).

Musical Futures also takes into account the Every Child Matters agenda, notably students are enjoying and achieving, staying safe and making a positive contribution. (DfES, 2003). It also meets the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills criteria to encourage independent learners in all aspects of school life. The aim is to promote 'independent enquiries, creative thinkers, reflective learners, team workers, self managers and effective participants.' (Green, 2008: p.47).


There are many different theories of how people learn. It is useful to consider the application to how students learn and also how you teach in educational programs. It is interesting to think about your own particular way of learning and to recognise that everyone does not learn the way you do. Burns (1995, p99) 'conceives of learning as a relatively permanent change in behaviour with behaviour including both observable activity and internal processes such as thinking, attitudes and emotions.' It is clear that Burns includes motivation in this definition of learning. Burns considers that learning might not manifest itself in observable behaviour until some time after the educational program has taken place.

The emphasis here is on the importance of experience, meaning, problem-solving and the development of insights (Burns 1995, p.112). Burns notes that this theory has developed the concept that individuals have different needs and concerns at different times, and that they have subjective interpretations in different contexts.

Kolb proposed a four-stage learning process with a model that is often referred to in describing experiential learning (McGill & Beaty 1995). The process can begin at any of the stages and is continuous, ie there is no limit to the number of cycles you can make in a learning situation. This theory asserts that without reflection we would simply continue to repeat our mistakes. The experiential learning cycle:

(Brooks 1995, p.66)

Kolb's research found that people learn in four ways with the likelihood of developing one mode of learning more than another. As shown in the 'experiential learning cycle' model above, learning is:

through concrete experience

through observation and reflection

through abstract conceptualisation

through active experimentation

Differences in learning styles

As already discussed, the idea that people learn in different ways has been explored over the last few decades by educational researchers. Kolb, one of the most influential of these, found that individuals begin with their preferred style in the experiential learning cycle (see above).

Honey and Mumford (1986 cited in McGill & Beaty 1995 p.177) building on Kolb's work, identified four learning styles:

Activist (enjoys the experience itself),

Reflector (spends a great deal of time and effort reflecting)

Theorist (good at making connections and abstracting ideas from experience)

Pragmatist (enjoys the planning stage)

There are strengths and weaknesses in each of these styles. Honey and Mumford argue that learning is enhanced when we think about our learning style so that we can build on strengths and work towards minimising weaknesses to improve the quality of learning.


The value of music in education has been the source of much debate. Within formal educational situations, these debates range from perceived difficulties with formulaic assessment (Harrison 2007, p. 221) to the 'forms of music in Music' (Moon 2002, p. xix). These debates go the heart of Western educational philosophy and its dichotomies. For example, whilst advocating individualisation and putting the onus on teachers to plan individually, the system is increasingly formulaic through assessment and curriculum. The Musical Futures programme goes against the philosophies by basing its pedagogy around informal learning, not teacher led. Learning outcomes are not identified throughout the materials, as part of the informal nature of Musical Futures learning is the scope it holds for unexpected, unplanned musical and personal outcomes. The advice provided by Ofsted focuses on students understanding the importance of their learning, why they are learning in this style and for the teacher to be clear about what it is the pupils are aiming to achieve. (Ofsted, 2009)

The UK emphasis on inclusive education demands that teachers cater for all ways of learning, visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (learning/cognitive styles e.g. see Krause et al. 2003, p. 155), and ways of thinking. Indeed, Gardner's multiple intelligences (e.g. see Krause et al. 2003, p. 201) include music as a specific area. However, as Spruce (2002, p. 125) points out, Gardner recognised that 'linguistic and logical mathematical' intelligences form the basis for much of the formal schooling. Naturally, within the more formal setting such as Excelsior Academy, the assessment strategies derive from this academic basis and do not always fit comfortably with subjects such as music. Those who sense the vulnerability of this subject area within the curriculum argue that:

… it is important to value music as a set of processes, skills and formal elements that give the subject structure and distinction.

Finney 2009, p. 28

This vulnerability is perhaps not helped by the terminology and direction of official approaches surrounding the method and content of music in the Key Stages. One of the many examples is the Foundation subjects: Key Stage 3 music - A professional development programme (DCSF 2006) which aims at a closer definition of teaching approaches and a stronger focus on outcomes. Its stated aims were to:

…provide professional development materials that align with the Secondary National Strategy's underlying principles of teaching and learning, and to enhance the quality of teaching and learning in Key Stage 3 music classrooms. The materials also aim to improve all pupils' standards of attainment in and engagement with music at Key Stage 3.

DCSF 2006, online introduction

However, the inclusion of Music in the curriculum does show value placed upon it and indeed the National Curriculum Program of study identifies Music as integral to individual development especially in that it can '…develop pupils' competence as learners and increase their self-esteem' (QCA 2007, p. 179). How this translates into practice varies between formal and informal according to the situational dynamics and the teacher.

Naturally, these formats used for music education also vary. Excelsior provides a formal learning situation in the majority of lessons that, whatever the rhetoric, remains strongly tied pedagogically to curriculum, assessment and outcome. Within Music, whilst advocating certain pedagogies through its philosophy, is much less constrained by the ideals of formal learning. Formal learning, as Green points out (2008), tends to be most concerned with scaffolded progress that breaks music down and constructs each element. Green views the informal, immersion technique whereby students attempt to copy what they hear also as a valid element in learning. She argues that the West's focus on formal learning may, whilst bringing more 'accuracy', lose 'feel' (p. 55). It is within the more formal setting that Marsh and Millard's (2001) warnings concerning encroaching upon the 'cultural worlds of children for educational ends' (p. 173) is most appropriate. They suggest a degree of student complicity in formal education as a perceived structure that does not cope well with use of external cultural components.

For Music at Excelsior, the dynamics and motivation of students working within the organisation differs significantly to that of core curriculum subjects and here there is plenty of space for both formal and informal learning and teaching. From this perspective, music may also contextualise Foley's arguments for 'emancipatory learning' (1999, Chapter 2). This argues for an appreciation of informal learning that frees students from the indoctrinations of dominant discourses.

Informal learning and its associated motivational level has increasingly attracted attention with regard to context. Moon (2002, p. 4) contrasts the intrinsic motivation attached to the following of a personal interest, such as football or fashion, and the learning that can go with it. As the research shows, this may include subjects that children struggle with at school but in the informal context find no problem. This research is reflected within the music curriculum at Excelsior; lessons have had a less formal approach, it has encouraged creativity and students responded differently, especially when offered a degree of 'circumstantial autonomy' (Green 2008, p. 112). This contextual and pedagogical variation suggests that both identifying and catching the student's interest are means of creating motivation and therefore good educational principles have followed.

Within the setting of Excelsior, it is often extremely difficult for the students to become independent learners and indeed for them to understand why. The reason for this is they are not taught the necessary skills to allow them to be independent; the main focus at key stage two is knowledge.

At the end of the topic, the students were given a questionnaire based on what they thought of the musical futures programme concept. The general consensus is that the majority of students preferred this teaching and learning approach based on the fact that it emphasises a lot of practical activity. They were grateful of the opportunity to be allowed to work unsupervised and to be able to choose their own friendship groups. However, there were several problems encountered which goes against current research. These are explained in the next section.


Delivering a Scheme of Work based on the concept of Musical Futures highlighted a number of factors for consideration for future topics delivered using the same theory. Musical Futures focuses on the emphasis that students may not need to have prior musical knowledge (traditional knowledge) to be able to recreate a piece of Music. Students will apply their learning styles and needs to complete the task and work independently with little support from the teacher. The concept and the reality have proved to be very different due to a number of factors, the main one being prior learning. From watching the students working in groups and choosing songs which the teacher would deem 'too difficult' to attempt, it was clear there is a certain amount of knowledge that students require before attempting this type of project. Prior learning necessary for a higher degree of success would require students to have focused more on listening skills, mainly because the main element of their task is to be able to listen to and recreate what they hear in their own interpretation (simplified form). It is this element of the task that proved the most difficult and taxing for the member of staff as the natural reflex is to step in and guide the students in the right direction.

On reflection, the majority of pupils worked extremely well and successfully completed the tasks set (Activists and Pragmatists). However, there were two pupils who were more reflective learners and due to time restraints were almost left out of the process. They were keen to observe the situation, analysing what it was they were being asked to do; however the activist learners were very quick to establish what they were doing and led the task. This did not give these two pupils a chance to shine or take on a lead role within their group. For future practice, a number of changes will need to be in place for the strategy to be completely effective. These will include the member of staff selecting pupil groups in order to have a selection of learners within each group and also having more emphasis on skills during lessons to enable to the pupils to complete the tasks more independently.