GCSE and Music Education’s process ambivalence

This week saw the publication of the subject content for GCSE Music as part of the reformed programme for GCSE, AS and A Level examinations to be first studied in 2016. https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/gcse-subject-content

Also published were the Confirmed Assessment Arrangements for Reformed GCSEs, AS Qualifications and A Level qualifications for first teaching in 2016. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/398252/2015-01-26-confirmed-assessment-arrangements-for-reformed-as-and-a-level-qualifications.pdf

Central to this are decisions about the balance of exam and non-exam assessment. The difference between the case of Music and the case of Art is striking.

‘GCSE in art and design are currently assessed wholly by non-exam assessment, because of the practical nature of the skills being assessed and the content focusing on the student as the artist rather than on art appreciation or art history.’

‘We propose that marks for non-exam assessment in GCSE, AS and A level music qualifications should be 60 per cent, reflecting the balance between the practical and theoretical elements in the subject content.’

In Art the content recognises ‘the student as artist’.

In Music there are ‘theoretical elements’.

In Art the skills assessed are of a ‘practical nature’.

Are there no theoretical elements in Art?

In Art is there no appreciation or art history?

Of course there is. It is inscribed in the process of art-making.

Art education understands that critical and contextual understanding is developed as part of the student being engaged in artistic processes and made manifest through their art-making. And, of course, this art-making is heavy with theory. Understanding of theoretical elements are made manifest in the out-workings of the student.

Different arts subjects have different histories, different trajectories.

Can Music Education learn anything from Art Education?

Might it have the desire to develop a curriculum and pedagogy that has trust in the process of music-making, trust in valuing the process of making, that is assessing and giving value to process?

Art Education has long set out how this is achieved without loss of reliability and validity while maintaining integrity. Art is a popular subject in part because of this along with its approach to the discipline and rigour of art-making.

Yet, Ofqual concludes that Music Education is not equal to this.

I suspect that there are voices within Music Education who would rather Music Education were not equal to this.

And now on to consider those Areas of Study and the opportunity to imagine the unimaginable. [1]


[1] For further discussion relating to the conceptual formation of GCSE Music see blogs of 29.08.14: 16.05.14; 04.04.14.

In search of good music education

I recently received an email from a quizzical secondary school music teacher. Katie had been observed by a senior member of staff and challenged on the size of the groups working in her class. The observer advised that the optimal size for group work was four.

In this instance the pupils were working as Samba Bands with eight or nine in a group. Katie thought that four in a group would miss the point.

The four in a group perspective is presumably based on some perceived general principle of learning, some generic wisdom derived from experience or there may even be research purporting to show that four is the optimal size of a group for effective learning.

Group work is orthodoxy in music education and it is possible that music teachers led the way in the use of group work in the 1950s and 60s as classroom instrumental work developed alongside singing. However, the efficacy of group work has more recently come under scrutiny, not so much in the case of music but certainly more generally.

In the fight back against the so called progressive educators the so called new traditionalists promote direct instruction in place of discovery learning, knowledge in place of skills, and, whole class teaching in place of group work.

The race to finally define the nature of good wholesome traditional teaching is on.

You may have noted the Music Teacher Magazine headline ‘Education Study Favours Traditional Teaching Styles’ in the December edition. And amongst these is ‘high-quality instruction techniques’. This is from a recent study published by the Sutton Trust and Durham University. [1]

Martin Fautley has written a compelling critique of the report highlighting the inadequacy of treating all subjects as if they were STEM subjects. [2]

We would like to think that the teaching of music does have distinctive, even idiosyncratic characteristics. Just imagine some of the subtleties of what might be thought of as high-quality instruction techniques in music. Many of these might be wordless and conducted through the medium of music itself (e.g. call-copy) and just who are the instructors in Katie’s Samba Bands? Would the Sutton Trust-Durham University researchers or Katie’s observer begin to understand, I wonder? [3]

Katie’s case neatly shows the pull between what is thought to be effective teaching as a generic concept and the music teacher’s musical judgment about what is effective in this situation for this specific purpose, and in view of the teacher’s beliefs about what is a good music education.

As Gert Biesta points out, prescribing what is effective teaching without considering ‘effective for what’, without consideration of value and values, is starting in the wrong place. [4]


[1] http://www.suttontrust.com/researcharchive/great-teaching/

[2] http://drfautley.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/what-makes-great-music-teaching/

[3] This week I had a long conversation with an art teacher who was in her first year of teaching. Like all newly qualified teachers  (NQTs) she has a mentor, an experienced teacher from the senior leadership team, a teacher of a non-arts subject. While the NQT values the relationship with her mentor, observations of lessons aren’t able to engage with matters pertaining to the teaching of art. While managment of the class can be discussed and other technical matters, none of which are unimportant, it is a frustration that artistic purposes, the teacher’s beliefs and values can not.

[4] Biesta, G. (2010) Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy. Paradigm Publishers: London.

Where is the right place to start? See Blogs of 2.1.15 and 9.1.15.

Advocacy, Justification and Music Education’s struggle for recognition

Distinguishing between advocacy for a music education and justification for a music education is a theme running through a number of my blogs. [1]

Perhaps some will find the distinction merely semantic, typically academic, unhelpful and of no practical use. Perhaps some will think the first feeds the second. Perhaps you just haven’t given it a thought. Perhaps you will stop reading now.

I will argue, with as few words as possible, that the purposes of advocacy and the purposes of justification are different and helpfully so.


Advocacy is a necessary strategic tool in the art of political persuasion central to securing funding and above all recognition.

The art of political persuasion requires the skilful use of rhetoric involving the deployment of claims drawn from a variety of sources, some reliable, some less so. Close scrutiny of claims is not required or expected. [2]


Unlike advocacy justification is not concerned with securing funding or even a place in the curriculum, although it may help, but about clarifying and understanding purpose.

In clarifying purpose it becomes possible to justify music as a school subject. There is a basis for understanding music’s relationship to other subjects, to the whole. There is a basis for planning a curriculum and for devising pedagogical approaches that together will go towards satisfying the purposes of a music education.

This is important if music is to be a subject and more than a participatory activity in the same way that physical education is more than sport.


Music educational advocacy is a necessary part of being in a market place where resources must be fought over and where the struggle for recognition goes on.

On the other hand, justifying a music education is necessary in clarifying purpose and discerning the ethical demands placed upon those who teach.

While we need to work at both, and marginalized voices certainly need advocates, much greater attention needs to be given to working at and refining the justifications we make for music education. After all, as Chris Philpott reminds us, ‘music can be bad for you’. [3]


[1] See Blogs of 29.12.13; 13.4.14; 18.4.13; 31.10.14.

[2] Wayne Bowman (2005) defines advocacy as ‘…promising the world, without asking about the circumstances under which its promises might be realized, or acknowledging their contingency. It invests all its energies and resources rhetorically and politically, treating musical value as self-evident.’ See ‘Music education in Nihilistic Times’, in Music Education for the New Millenium: Theory and Practice for Music Teaching and Learning, edited by D. K. Lines. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

[3] See Philpott, C. (2012) The justification for music in the curriculum: music can be bad for you. In (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce pp. 48-63. Debates in Music Teaching, Routledge: London.



What is music education for in the age of measurement?

In last week’s blog I took a step back from the world of music educational advocacy and the seemingly insatiable desire to name the benefits that engagement with music offers.

I attempted to move beyond an interest in the language of inputs, outputs and outcomes and instead asked the question: what are the purposes of a music education – what is a music education for? In finding a way forward I drew upon the three areas that Gert Biesta proposes through which educational purposes function.

I took the step of reinterpreting Biesta’s scheme for music education. This should really be seen as a Venn diagram.

  1. Qualification: the ways in which music education qualifies people to do things-equipping them with knowledge, skills and dispositions to make music well and to think about it critically.
  2. Socialisation: the induction of newcomers into existing practices, into the cultures of making-music.
  3. Subjectification: the person becoming a unique individual, subjectively enriched and able to feel a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music.

But before considering these further another step back is needed.

If the purposes of education function through qualification, socialisation and subjectification, is there not some greater qualifier, some overarching purpose or goal?

One such qualifier, and often deferred to, is the Greek concept of Eudemonia. Here a major source is Aristotle.

One commentator writes:

‘In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that eudemonia means ‘doing and living well and being content’. For Aristotle this implies that eudemonia involves activity and a striving for excellence. It is human nature to strive for self-development. Therefore the best form of eudemonia is gained by the proper development of one’s best powers and the most humane attitude. This identifies us as ‘rational animals’. It follows that eudemonia for a human being is the attainment of excellence (arête) through the use and application of reason.’ [1]

Eudemonia represents a life-long goal. There is no point of arrival and ‘happiness’, merely being a state of mind, is not what Aristotle is thinking of. And ‘well-being’ misses the mark too.

If music education’s greatest qualifier is eudemonia, that is, a music education for living well, flourishing as a human being and now further qualified through

  1. Qualification: the ways in which music education qualifies people to do things-equipping them with knowledge, skills and dispositions to make music well and to think about it critically.
  2. Socialisation: the induction of newcomers into existing practices, into the cultures of making-music.
  3. Subjectification: the person becoming a unique individual, subjectively enriched and able to feel a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music. [2]

Then we can concentrate on making music well, thinking about it critically as we encounter and master particular musical practices, while the dialogue that constitutes being educated continues.

Further still it enables highlighting and attending to the structures that prevent this from being the case, to inequalities and social injustices.

Seeking outcomes such as improved social skills, personal attributes such as resilience and self-confidence or a self-identity that says ‘I am a musician’ become a distraction.

If a music education is thought of in terms of human flourishing (eudemonia) as part of an education for human flourishing then as Wayne Bowman maintains, music and music education need to be thought of as a set of musical practices.

‘… practices whose value depends upon whether and how they distinctively enable their practitioners to thrive, none of which follows automatically or necessarily from musical engagement. The values afforded by music-making depend on the kind of music at hand, the ways we engage in it, and the uses to which that experience is subsequently put’. [3]

Thus the music teacher is not so much one who is accountable but one who is ethically responsible for what they choose to teach and the questions that this gives rise to.

None of this is easy in an age of measurement where accountability rather than responsibility is called for. In the age of measurement the teacher’s not infrequent sense of virtuosity is likely to go unrecognised.

They ask ‘what is to be the future of music education?’

Not much future without asking ‘what is music education for?’


[1] I apologise to the author who I can not name having lost the source in the worldwide web.

[2] Biesta recognises that the term ‘subjectification’ may invite in the negative idea of ‘being subjected to’. Sujectification is an awkward word but as I explained in footnote 6 of last week’s blog such potentially alienating concepts given sufficient context can become valuable resources for thought.

[3] p. 4 ‘The ethical significance of music-making’, Wayne Bowman, Music Mark Magazine, Issue 3 – Winter 2013/14.
In this highly significant article Bowman lays to rest the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic value.

Language, ‘learnerfication’ and music education

jackie schneider @jackieschneider · Dec 18
Why do schools persist in saying “engage with parents”? What does it actually mean? Sounds like patronising jargon to me.
0 replies 2 retweets 3 favorites

Yes,‘what does it actually mean?’

I think it may mean that ‘engaging with parents’ is a strategy through which gains are to be made, there will be outcomes to measure. I think it may mean that this is more about a transaction than a relationship.

Does any of this matter? Well, yes it does, because language and the way it is used shapes the way we think, limits or expands the way we think, manages and controls the way we think and above all infects the values we hold. The expression ‘engage with parents’ is one that has formed only recently. The expression has only recently been thinkable and thus an indicator of social change and a move towards education being thought of in managerial terms. [1]

Jackie’s example leads me to think more generally (and I hope she wont mind me doing this) about the language of education and in particular the language of learning that currently dominates educational discourse.

Have you noticed how the language of learning grows by the week? You may know about ‘learning walks’, ‘learning behaviour’, ‘learning mentors’, ‘the learner’ and there is ‘life-long learning’ spoken about as if we have no choice in the matter. Language does political work.

In all this there is loss of attention to the idea of education.

For some time this has been the concern to Gert Biesta, who argues that the concept of education is in danger of being reduced to learning and learning in danger of being reduced to a matter of inputs and outputs. In this the teacher’s responsibility to exercise judgement is diminished. [2]

This ‘learnification’ [3] of educational discourse gives nurture to the idea that there is a ‘what works’ out there waiting to be universally adopted in order to maximise outputs. ‘Learnification’ is there to do political work.

‘Learnification’ encourages certainty, induces the avoidance of risk. Yet Biesta maintains that the wonder of education lies in its uncertainty, its invitation to take risks and the possibility of the teacher experiencing virtuosity.

The question is sometimes asked: what are the ideal outcomes of a music education? Outcomes-outputs!

Would we ask: what are the ideal outcomes of a holiday, of learning to play an instrument, of attending a concert, or listening to a piece of music? Perhaps, but this is the wrong question. [4]

What if the question were: what are the purposes of education and in tandem the question: what are the purposes of music education? Or better still: what is education for-what is music education for?

Biesta sets out three overlapping areas in which educational purposes function. Below I translate these into the case of music.

1. Qualification: the ways in which music education qualifies people to do things-equipping them with knowledge, skills and dispositions to make music well and to think about it critically.

2. Socialisation: the induction of newcomers into existing practices, into the cultures of making-music.

3. Subjectification: the person becoming a unique individual, subjectively enriched and able to feel a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music. [5]

Now learning has been put in its place with the teacher exercising responsibility; for 1, 2 and 3 call for the exploration of values so that action has an ethical basis.

jackie schneider @jackieschneider · Dec 18
Why do schools persist in saying “engage with parents”? What does it actually mean? Sounds like patronising jargon to me.
0 replies 2 retweets 3 favorites

Yes, Jackie is right. What does it mean? Why not ‘work with parents’, ‘work alongside parents’?

What might have been a relationship has become a transaction in the cause of securing particular outcomes-outputs.

Without attention to the concept of education and its purposes ‘learnification’ and its narrow vocabulary of key words, with ‘engagement’ to the fore, will continue to grow in influence shaping how we think, what we think, what we say, what we do and ultimately infect the values we hold.

‘Musical learning’ – there’s one to watch!

And of course ‘engagement’ can be the most beautiful of words. [6]


[1] See Fairclough, N. (2011) ‘Discourse and Social Change’, Polity: Cambridge.
[2] Biesta, G. (2013) ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education.’ Paradigm Publishers: London. (See also Biesta’s ‘Good Education in the Age of Measurement.’ Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.)
[3] Biesta regrets introducing such an ugly word. However, it makes the point.
[4] I first met ‘learning outcomes’ when attending an introduction to the Key Stage 3 Strategy. Outcomes were distinguished from objectives. I asked how they differed. I received an answer of technocratic complexity that left me none the wiser.
[5] Biesta, following Ranciere (see ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in intellectual emancipation’, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1991) offers a fresh way of thinking about emancipation.
[6] In drafting and re-drafting this blog I have found myself using language thoughtlessly. Alot more could be said about the use of language. Ok, here is a little more.

In January’s Music Teacher Magazine David Ashworth criticises academics for their use of jargon. David gives the example of ‘cognitive dissonance’, ‘existentialist’, ‘pedagogical’ and ‘meta’. However, these words relate to rich and valuable concepts and as such aid thought, analysis and understanding. What is important is that in using such words writers consider their audience. If the audience is broad and inclusive then don’t use them or use them with qualification and within a generous context so that they can be understood. Otherwise there will be alienation. I wince when I see academics parade esoteric knowledge in a manner that feels like an expression of power. Cognitive dissonance by the way is when I bought a car, thought my choice was fully justified only for my daughter to progressively point out the car’s faults. I stood my ground at the cost of experiencing cognitive dissonance. It wasn’t painful. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance – Eventually I changed car.