Teaching music without levels in year 9

Music teacher Mike and head teacher Ged have agreed to explore how teaching music without levels might work. Like many schools, and in this case an academy chain, there is thought being given to transition to a world without levels. For this year the school and its associate schools are continuing to work with levels. But here in music, in this school, it has been agreed to pilot an alternative with one Key Stage 3 class of 28 students.

First, the structure within which this pilot is taking place.

1. Teaching throughout the academy chain is underpinned by Bloom’s Taxonomy.
2. All students in all subjects keep a record of their ‘learning’ in a booklet known as a ‘learning dialogue’. This involves a written dialogue between teacher and student.
3. Projects in music are termly in duration throughout Key Stage 3.
4. Projects are designed within the conventions of arts pedagogy. Techniques are introduced, explored and mastered within a cultural context. These become the building blocks with which increasing levels of self-directed learning become possible leading to divergent outcomes.
5. Weekly music lessons are 50 minutes.
6. Teaching is observed by SLT termly and, only if staff request, graded.

The music department is seen as a model of good practice in the school and this has been endorsed by Ofsted as part of a general inspection.

My role has been to share with Mike recent thinking about assessment and progression as set out by the ISM. [1]

Mike is mindful that in creating an approach to assessment, recording and reporting simplicity is essential and that students will need to be participants in its design and implementation.

Students have been used to the awarding of sub-levels. They are heavily level-conscious.

They are also used to coming to understand criteria for success as an inductive process through whole class music-making.

They understand that they must make choices about which tasks they work at and the labels ‘basic; intermediate; complex’ help to define these. Until now it has been these markers that have informed levels.

Now Mike introduces an element that disrupts this. He takes the ISM proposal that any criterion can be met in three degrees: e.g. working towards, working at, working beyond, for example.

Mike experiments with novice, competent, expert but the class discuss this and settle for beginner, accomplished, expert. So now we have:

Beginner               Simple
Accomplished      Intermediate
Expert                   Complex

referenced to what is being learnt, what is of imminent interest.

So, students are able to identify on the grid what they are setting out to achieve.

Their learning dialogues with Mike, in conversation and in writing, speak of matters such as ‘becoming more accomplished at fluent phrasing’, ‘beginning to create a lyrical structure’, ‘being expert at bending notes’…

A popular expression is ‘becoming more …’. The students seem to like this way of evaluating their progress and it serves to nuance judgements about musical quality. [2]

So far Mike has not taken to the proposal that student profiles can be created using curriculum dimensions such as singing, composing, listening, general musicality etc. or personal attributes such as team working, resilience etc.

For Mike, and for the time being, this would create unhelpful complexity.

While formative assessment is embedded in the ongoing learning dialogue, we will need to wait until later in the term to see what makes sense in terms of summative assessment.

I raised the question of standards expected in music in this school and their comparability with other schools with Tony, deputy head responsible for managing data in the school. We agreed this needs more thought, although both Mike and Tony held the view that some reference to GCSE criteria might inform this as the Key Stage comes to an end. [3]

However, there is circumspection in this regard and any over reductive approach to turning Key Stage 3 into a ‘flight path’ to post 14 expectations is firmly rejected.

More to report later in the term on this case.

The transition from a heavily audited system driven by sub-levels to an alternative, while maintaining a highly differentiated approach to teaching, is a challenge with no easy solutions.

What is encouraging in this case is that the students are making good sense of life without levels.

But now to investigate another place doing things differently.


[1] See http://www.ism.org/nationalcurriculum
Also see ‘Further thoughts on radar diagrams for assessing without levels’ werryblog.com
[2] Here and now judgements about musical quality may be at the heart of musical assessment and not at all the same thing as judgements about musical learning.
[3] There appears to be a longstanding resistance to fixing standards in music education and more generally in the arts. While post 14 examinations and the ABRSM examinations leave no option in the matter, in the classroom there does seem to be an attachment to an ethos free from nationally-universally fixed or even negotiated standards. Was it this that lay at the root of the failure of NC Levels?

Some may recall the Welsh Curriculum Authority’s setting out of standards through exemplars in a time before levels when there was an end of key stage ‘working towards, at, beyond’ approach to managing the challenge of setting standards. However, like levels, this was quickly abused in the rush to data fabrication as the maelstrom of ‘performativity’ overtook education.

There is also the question of whether GCSE in Music is fit for purpose with its current and future incoherent epistemology.

See also Gary Spruce (1996) ‘Assessment in the arts: issues of objectivity’. In (ed.) Gary Spruce, Teaching Music, London: Routledge.

One thought on “Teaching music without levels in year 9

  1. Pingback: Music teachers taming the audit culture | Music Education Now

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