Talking to think in music education

Chatting over lunch with two of the music teachers at our recent Cambridge Conference I heard how they had mastered the art of teaching a music lesson where music alone did the ‘talking’. One had demonstrated the lesson to a senior manager as a way of explaining that music itself is the medium of learning in music lessons. And we recall Ofsted’s call for music to be the target language. In the context of the conference where we were thinking about the place of talk in music learning, my response to the two music teachers was, ‘well, after that there must have been alot to talk about.’

Before lunch we had heard four different approaches to the place of talk in music lessons. In last week’s blog I reported on one of these, Becky Clarey’s work based on a ‘critical thinking skills’ approach. In her conference presentation Becky made the point that while time is found for talk at the post 16 stage, this didn’t seem to be the case at earlier stages. In commenting on last weeks blog Vicki Love pointed out that with one hour weekly for music (and not always that), and with urgent attention needing to be given to musical skill development, a ‘critical thinking skills’ approach is unlikely to gain traction at Key Stage 3. The most urgent need is to ensure that music lessons are musical in what Vicki maintained was a skills-led curriculum.

Interestingly, none of the other three morning presentations had taken a ‘critical thinking skills’ approach. Lis McCullough had shown how primary school pupil’s talking while composing, with a little help from the teacher, were beginning to master exploratory talk dealing with the process of composing as well as occasionally touching on philosophical matters. Vicki Waller showed how in paired composing at Key Stage 3 talk was not always as productive or creative as it might be. And Katie Hasler leading a whole school research project on dialogic teaching was discovering the value of an approach based on ‘philosophy for children’ at Key Stage 4.

Together the four perspectives make sense when connected to what Mercer and Littlejohn (2013) refer to as ‘interthinking’ and this relates to our teaching of music at whatever stage.

It is difficult to imagine a music classroom, unless particularly contrived, where there is no talking, no reason to talk and where the music making, the musical interthinking, and musical skill development has no counterpointing dialogue. Whenever pupils are working with others, whether in a pair, group or whole class, there will be interthinking through talk. But how productive is this? Do pupils know how to benefit from ‘exploratory’ talk, for example? The effects of exploratory talk on individual reasoning it is maintained promotes:

* Appropriation – transmission of knowledge and problem-solving

* Co-construction – synergistic construction of new knowledge through discussion

* Transformation – tool for children’s reflection, promoting ‘metacognitive awareness of how they talk and reason together’, leading to internalisation of Exploratory Talk as a model for reasoning

So might we find time to teach pupils what exploratory talk entails, how it can help them to think better and understand more?

In the Appendix below I have set out ways of establishing productive exploratory talk through the use of talking points.

Becky Clarey teaching year 9 to think and make music for film posed the question: Is ‘mickey-mousing’ the lowest form of film music? I don’t know how this question was integrated into the development of musical skills surrounding music for film. It may have been the enquiry question set in place at the outset of study, a question to be continually returned to as skills and understanding develop. The point is that by providing pupils with talking points/thinking points and through their learning to think about music as well as think in sound, they hopefully engage with and reflect upon their processes of creating music leading to working more intelligently and with questions of their own arising.

Learning to talk well about music, think critically about it and make it more intelligently is a worthy component of progression within a musical education. It could be the first step in developing a critical pedagogy. But that is another matter altogether.


Talking points: some examples

These examples are not necessarily perfect (!), but do give an idea of where ‘exploratory talk’ might co-exist with making in music (teaching and learning contexts). The idea of talking points has primarily been researched and used, so far, in the primary school context but many of us are now beginning to explore their use within a variety of secondary school contexts.The original idea can be traced back to Neil Mercer’s ‘thinking together’ project. First the need for ground rules.

Ground rules for exploratory talk
(Littleton and Mercer 2013)

• Everyone offers relevant information
• Everyone’s ideas are treated as worthwhile – but are critically evaluated
• We ask each other questions
• We ask for reasons and give them
• We try to reach agreement
• People trust each other and work as a team

Ground rules for writing talking points
(Finney and Earl 2013)

• Talking points must be inclusive so that everyone can understand them and find them interesting.
• Talking points need to be constructed so that there are simple answers and more complex ones. This keep groups engaged.
• Talking points need to be ‘enquiry’ based not focussed on developing specific skills.
• Talking points work when pupils don’t want to stop! Building them, in a spiral curriculum,’ to the KS3 curriculum should help pupils develop their own ‘thinking (rather than just ‘fixing’ strategies) by the time they get to KS4 and 5)
• You need to keep groups to time when they do talking points (no more than 5-7 minutes initially) and encourage them to explore as many as they want to/can. Otherwise they just get stuck on the first talking point and never explore any wider or deeper.
• Everyone’s ideas are treated as worthwhile.
• Talking points work best if you pilot them first (e.g. with other adults?) and see which ones in practice promote exploratory talk (Mercer) rather than cumulative or disputational talk. If they work for you they’ll work for your students, usually.
• Talking points need to be contextualised in the lesson at a point where it is ‘natural’ to expand talk for exploring a ‘line of enquiry.’ e.g. just before a group performs their own composition or just after they have sung, They aren’t ‘starters and plenaries.’
• Writing good talking points is a new skill for many of us and it takes time to learn which ones work. Be ruthless in eliminating TP’s which turn out to be about ‘pushing’ an angle of our own or which just ask pupils to ‘comprehend’ what a particular aspect of music is. The teacher needs to be clear what mix (or separation) of making, social practice and/or ‘big questions’ the talking points are directed at.
• Talking points which involve researching something outside the context (making ,social practice, big questions) usually don’t work.
• Talking points work on the principle that the teacher does know, basically, the range of possibilities of what might be discussed. So they are ‘mediating’ the inter-thinking, not just allowing ‘any old thing’ to emerge.
• However the potential for a wide range of ‘pupil owned’ ideas is enormous, so write the talking points in a way which ensures they can work from their own music practice ‘then and there’ rather than speculating about ‘music in general.’
• For use in the classroom (and once you are sure what works), produce high quality powerpoint slides or cards and laminate them/keep the images up to date for re-use It builds an expectation in pupils’ minds that the activity is worth doing.

Sample talking points

A. Making
1. I can hear what I want the piece to sound like, from the start, in my head.
2. Sometimes I just need to play with sounds alone before ideas begin to work.
3. I don’t know what makes one composition better than another.
4. Composing really interests me. You never know what’s going to come out.
5. I am not sure why we ended up with the piece being this way. I think it might be because we agreed on the ideas but we didn’t know how to…..
6. I’m sure we ended up with this piece being this way because we agreed on the ideas and we did all know how to….

1. It’s easiest to sing by matching what someone else does.
2. When I sing I hear my voice inside as well as outside (myself).
3. I like it when I sound like other singers in the group.
4. I can increase the number of ‘voices’ I have.
5. If I play with my voice I can make all sorts of differences to the sound.
6. Singing out of tune is fun. Why not?

B. Music as social practice
1. There are only two things to do with a musical idea/motif: repeat it or change it.
2. Minimalist music doesn’t really have an ending.
3. Minimalist music can’t tell a story.
4. There is too much going on in this piece of music. (Steve Reich)
5. This music is ‘easy listening.’ (Philip Glass)
6. In music if you repeat an idea more than twice it is boring.
7. This piece must be difficult to perform. (Reilly’s ‘In C’)

Beat boxing
1. Beat boxing makes you feel as if you are a drum kit.
2. Hip-hop needs beat boxing – beat boxing needs hip-hop – beat-boxing is hip-hop.
3. Beat boxing turns your voice into an instrument.
4. Beat boxing is rhythm and pitch working together.
5. You have to move your whole body when you beat box.
6. Orchestras don’t mix with hip-hop.

Reggae performance
1. Moving to reggae influences the way I perform it
2. The way I move in performing reggae can show what reggae is.
3. Reggae movements feel foreign.
4. The way I move helps our group to perform.
5. Our school reggae performance is different to a Bob Marley reggae performance
6. There are enjoyable aspects to reggae
7. Reggae travels.
8. Why does reggae exist?

C. Big questions
1. Is some music better than other music? Why? Why not?
2. Music is the best possible way to show a feeling or understand an idea.
3. Why does music exist?
4. Why do some sounds interest more than others?


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