‘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.


One thought on “‘Miss, I’m sorry, but I hate composition …’

  1. Pingback: Music teachers becoming research savvy | Music Education Now

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