Might we go beyond the comfort of chat?

In last week’s blog I worked with the case of music teacher Ellie to illustrate how teacher research starts from the teacher identifying a problem they encounter on a daily basis. I showed how through a systematic approach (six principles) Ellie’s enquiry claims the status of research. Ellie goes beyond simply describing novel practice or reporting strategies which work. Ellie’s is a critical enquiry drawing upon research knowledge and producing new knowledge of professional significance.

In concluding her research report Ellie writes:

‘The starting point of this research project – Rachel’s ‘’Miss, I hate composition’’ – is still a factor in composition lessons … I am starting to notice, however, a subtle change. In addition to compositions showing greater diversity and the changed nature of our conversations about composing, I am coming to realize that self-efficacy [1] and enjoyment are not as closely linked as I might have assumed. Improved self-efficacy may be the first step towards enjoyment.’ [2]

Here Ellie raises a fresh question and challenges a popular assumption and, engaged in educational discourse, becomes ever more articulate.

This week I tweeted to draw the attention of music teachers to the blog of English teacher Andy Tharby. [3] I was struck not only by the elegance of Andy’s writing but also by the way pedagogical knowledge was being articulated. Here is a teacher-researcher able to analyze and describe classroom interactions in fine detail.

It struck me that here was perhaps something for music teachers to aspire to. Might we go beyond the comfort of ‘chat’, the habit of describing, both of course important?


[1] Ellie draws on Bandura’s 1994 definition of self-efficacy as ‘people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives…the conviction that one can successfully execute the behaviour required to produce the outcome’.

[2] ‘Creating composers: An exploration of the teachers’ role in GCSE composition.’ University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education, page 82. (2013)

[3] See http://reflectingenglish.wordpresss.com

‘Miss, I’m sorry, but I hate composition …’

‘Miss, I’m sorry, but I hate composition – I’m rubbish at it. Why do we even have to do it?’’ said Rachel, during a year 10 composition lesson. Unfortunately, Rachel was not expressing an exceptional or unusual opinion. [1]

Teacher research starts with the teacher identifying a problem.

In this case Ellie was intrigued by the fact that although her GCSE class showed negative self-perceptions in respect to their composing capability, they were actually good composers.

PRINCIPLE 1: A particular problem is identified.

I will use the example of Ellie’s research to illustrate what might count as valid teacher research bearing in mind that teachers are in any case likely to be continually reflecting on their practice and changing it in the light of experience. But what counts as teacher research?

Ellie had identified a problem of professional significance to her practice affecting her students and herself in her situation together with them. Ellie writes:

‘The fundamental aim of this research project is to develop a better understanding of how I can cater to the needs of a GCSE Music class that is made up of different types of musician when teaching them to compose.’ [2]

This involved Ellie examining the notions of formal and informal music learning and the categories of formal and informal musician. This was important as in Ellie’s GCSE class, and from her relative inexperience as a teacher, there existed a clear distinction between these types each with a very distinct attitude towards composing.

Further to this, Ellie needed to stand back and review the place of composing in the curriculum. Why was it there? What was it for? How is it taught, how is it learnt? And why is it that experienced musician-teachers find it a challenging area to manage?

PRINCIPLE 2: The problem is made explicit by placing it in a wider context drawing on existing knowledge.

This enabled Ellie to pose three research questions:

1. To what extent am I able to facilitate my pupils’ access to composition tasks using skills that they already possess?
2. How can I enable my pupils to recognise the validity of their music ideas and to feel capable of composing?
3. To what extent can I help my pupils to develop and improve their compositional ideas without restricting their creativity?

PRINCIPLE 3: The problem is framed as an enquiry through the construction of research questions.

Ellie now makes clear that these questions can be answered best through an action research approach and makes a research plan. This involves planning a series of lessons comprising the first cycle of research. These lessons marked a departure from Ellie’s usual practice while the second cycle that followed resembled her normal way of working.

For each of the research questions Ellie identified sources of data which included questionnaires, group interviews, teacher observations and the assessment of pupils’ work. Thought was given to how the data would be analysed.

PRINCIPLE 4: Both methodology and methods are made clear.

In due course Ellie presents her findings by addressing each research question in turn and sets out the themes or issues that have emerged. These now inform her future practice but not before some reflection.

PRINCIPLE 5: Findings are presented and discussed with self-critique.

Teacher and pupils experience change. The teacher has developed professionally and the problem identified has been to some extent resolved.

Ellie is able to make a model showing how informal and formal musicians progress differently through a composition task before making recommendations that other teachers might consider, that is, if they see in this research similarities to their own situation. Others generalise and test relevance in their situations.

PRINCIPLE 6: New knowledge (theory) has been created and can be shared with others.

This knowledge is reasonably grounded.

Ellie now better understands her role in creating composers and better equipped to spot those snake-oil salesmen.


[1] ‘Creating composers: An exploration of the teacher’s role in GCSE composition.’ Univerity of Cambridge, Faculty of Education, 2013, page 1.
[2] Ibid. page 5.

Time to see off the snake-oil salesmen

There is currently much interest in the need for educational research to inform teacher’s practice. School reform minister Nick Gibb says that teachers would be ‘liberated’ from the ‘shackles they have laboured under for too long’ once they had access to evidence-based research. [1]

Teachers are being encouraged to challenge the snake-oil salesmen handing down what is pseudoscience – brain gym, stuff about learning styles, for example.

Brain gym seems to have been particularly popular in primary schools. Good fun no doubt, energizing, no harm done, except in thinking that there was a basis for the claims it was making.

A vast army of educational consultants has grown up around the desire from schools to become in some sense more theorized, more professionally creditable. This in turn calls for senior leaders to take on the mantle of expert as purveyors of quasi-theoretical knowledge that can be handed down and then surveyed, managed and inspected as key to whole school improvement.

Thus, the frequent disenchantment of music teachers with in-school professional development and the joy in finding their own on-line communities. Then what?

What about music teachers becoming researchers?

But what does this involve and what criteria need to be met in order to count as research?

More next week with some examples.


[1] ‘Pseudoscience has nested in schools’, TES 12.09.14 (p. 10-11)

Let’s scrape the palimpsest

Palimpsest: A very old document on which the original writing has been erased and replaced with new writing. [1]

Let’s think of our music education as a very old document, as a palimpsest.

Scrape away the new writing and it doesn’t take long to reach the 1970s, the experimental seventies as Bernarr Rainbow called them. Here we find a lively conversation about the future of classroom music. One contributor, Christopher Small is gathering his thoughts through a series of three articles –‘Towards a Philosophy’ in the magazine Music in Education. [2] [3] He writes:

‘… what I am trying to say is that far from discouraging or blocking the acquisition of traditional musical skills, creative work forms a nucleus for all the other activities which are called into action as and when needed – fed by the work of creation and in turn feeding back into it. Children will develop their skills, in fact, as far as they feel the need to take them.’ [4]

Does this sound familiar?

Being part of the 1970s creative movement will have been exciting for those teachers leading the way, while disconcerting for those observing what they saw as the demise of traditional musical skills = the reading and writing of music, its aural underpinning in singing, moving and playing instruments and the appreciation of music listened to.

For Small there need be no tension between traditional ways and new ways. It was about changing the order of things. However, this involved changing the social order making things doubly problematic.

The argument went, open the door to creative work and all other things will flow there-from. This was the ambitious claim. The child’s ‘needs’ were to be the guide, implying a music education that would be open-ended as well as what we now call ‘dialogic’. As things stood Music in school was part of a closed system – time for music in school to be ‘de-schooled’ as it were. [5] [6] Small writes:

‘… we need no formal curriculum, no syllabus, no streaming, perhaps not even any age segregation, no aptitude testing, no research into the musical development of children … The children are no longer the objects of our instruction, they are active agents whose creations are the curriculum, whose musical experience is the syllabus; it is they in collaboration with ourselves who are doing the research – and research after all is only another name for exploration.’ [7] [8]

Does this sound familiar?

Read the script of 2014 and there are hints of Small’s vision coming close at realization, while confounded by and accommodated to newly imposed structures: a new curriculum, a reformed GCSE, Ofsted expectations, new school protocols etc.

Irreducible tensions?

The conversation continues.

Always worth scraping the palimpsest.


[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/palimpsest
See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palimpsest
[2] The three articles appeared in Music in Education, May/June; July/August; September/October 1975.
[3] Small also contributed articles on music in the 20th century.
[4] Small, C. (1975) ‘Towards a Philosophy, Part 3: Creation and Curricula’ (p. 205).
[5] This stage of Small’s thinking was fully set out in 1977 in the book Music-Society-Education published by John Calder.
[6] By 2010 Small had concluded that music should be removed from the classroom to a network of music centres where people of all ages could engage in musicking and dancing, and where instruction is offered as the need is felt for it. (Afterword in Sociology and Music Education, Ed. Ruth Wright, Ashgate, 2010)
[7] Small, C. (1975) ‘Towards a Philosophy, Part 3: Creation and Curricula’ (p. 205).
[8] Small argued that the western classical music tradition perfectly represented the West’s devotion to scientific rationality and its obsession with abstract knowledge. But there were other ways of doing music (musicking) that provided fresh possibilities for how we could relate to each other and how society might be.