Teaching music without learning objectives

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‘Sometimes I like it all to be a magical mystery tour – with surprises round the corner. How boring always to know where you’re going/what you’re going to do!’ (Lis McCullough)

At last week’s music teacher symposium here in Cambridge I dropped into the conversation that Robin Hammerton HMI had recently announced that there was no expectation that teachers use learning objectives.

There was one of those group gasps.

These were teachers well socialized into the technical rationality of contemporary schooling.

Learning objectives – non-negotiable as their managers would say and until fairly recently no objectives on the board meant a lesson observation being rated ‘unsatisfactory’. [1]

Without learning objectives how can learning experiences be planned, outcomes stated, criteria for success determined or assessment brought under control? All those things percolating through National Strategies, reinforced by Ofsted of the time and that have become part of the woodwork. [2]

No learning objectives! But doesn’t that mean no Bloom’s Taxonomy? No purpose, no direction, no way of evaluating the success of the teaching, no way of measuring the effectiveness of the learning? [3]

Presumably Robin Hammerton had behavioural objectives in mind, those objectives that are sufficiently precise for their effect to be visible and measurable. [4]

For Robert Mager ‘an objective is an intent communicated by a statement describing a proposed change in a learner – a statement of what a learner is to be like when he has successfully completed a learning experience.’ [5]

I am drawing from chapter 6 of Elliot Eisner’s ‘The Educational Imagination’. The chapter is called ‘ Educational Aims, Objectives and Other Aspirations’ and must rank as one of the most thorough investigations of the topic. [6]

Eisner comes to the conclusion that a curriculum determined by behavioural objectives would seriously reduce the view of what might be possible. In fact ‘to expect all our educational aspirations to be either verbally describable or measurable is to expect too little’. [7]

Eisner proposes three possibilities in designing curricular.

  1. Behavioural Objective ———–Behavioural activity
  2. Problem-Solving Objective——Problem-Solving Activity
  3. Expressive Activity—————Expressive Outcome

In the arts there will be a place for 1, but it is 2 and 3 and 3 in particular that would mark out creative arts practice as being distinctive.

Eisner again:

‘I believe that it is perfectly appropriate for teachers and others involved in curriculum development to plan activities that have no explicit or precise objectives.’ [8]

This would mean that there could be no specific formulation of what behaviour will be exhibited by pupils at the conclusion of the project. Rather like going to the cinema, the zoo or a musical event, we can’t specify what will be gained from the experience. The experience will of course yield much thought, conversation, questions, the exercise of judgement and associated criteria that help to make sense of what has been experienced and to suggest what may have been learnt.

So, teaching without objectives opens up interesting possibilities and encourages me to think in terms of extended projects with enquiry questions bringing together Eisner’s 2 an 3 above. [9]

Enquiry questions or what some refer to as essential questions help to create structure and direction.

I like the questions that pupils provide like ‘Why does Reggae exist?’ ‘What makes one composition better than another?’ ‘How does beat-boxing turn your voice into an instrument?’ ‘How many times is it good to repeat a musical idea? What is a musical idea, don’t you mean a riff?’ ‘Why did Jay-Z slow down that 1970s riff?

So now we are teaching without behavioural objectives but through critical enquiry and expressive activity and with scope for a dialogic pedagogy. This seems to me to offer the possibility of some musical depth and rigour and to give these weasel words some meaning.

But wait a minute. I would like my pupils to know how to talk well about their music-making and this means that I will need to create a behavioural objective:

Pupils will know how to conduct a group conversation giving each other a voice.

No doubt the true behaviorist will point out that this is too vague, not precise enough.

Nevertheless my critical enquiry-expressive activity is willing to give way to a behavioural objective as the situation calls for.

Enough of all this. We need a living example. I can only stand so much theorising. So, next week I go inside a school in Stratford, East London.


[1] Stories of music teachers playing the objectives game abound. Rarely it seems is the quality of the stated objective or its potential to generate worthwhile experience examined.

[2] This cat and mouse game of Ofsted calling the tune, changing the tune while fermenting bi-tonal conversations is becoming close to farce.

[3] The discourse of ‘effectiveness’ is usually tongue-tied when asked ‘effective for what?’

[4] Behavioural objectives are sometimes referred to as instructional objectives.

[5] Mager, R. (1962) Preparing Instructional Objectives, Fearson Publishers, Palo Alto, Calif., p.31.

[6] Eisner, E. (2001) The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programmes. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.: New York. Third Edition.

[7] Ibid. p.98.

[8] Ibid p.104. For 13 0bjections to learning objectives see http://www.lh.umu.se/digitalAssets/40/40552_inquiry_mckernan.pd

[9] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/wpadmin/post.php?post=202&action=edit for discussion of the idea of the project.

Music teachers taming the audit culture

@tallgirlwgc MusicEdExpo I don’t want to use sub levels in music but how on earth can I not when ENTIRE school systems are set up around them?

And this after National Curriculum Levels have been abolished and officially viewed as detrimental to pupil progress.

And a space created offering emphasis on formative assessment rooted in a framework of knowledge, skills and understanding. And with a cumulative record of musical achievement, a gift from Ali Daubney and Martin Fautley. [1]

However, schools are moving with caution knowing that the efficient tracking of pupil progress lies close to the heart of Ofsted judgements about their goodness and right to exist. [2]

Nevertheless Teaching Schools are out of the slips with their report ‘Beyond Levels: alternative assessment approaches developed by teaching schools. Research Report 2014.’ [3]

And now a government commission on assessment without levels is announced in response to the hiatus confusion. [4]

Compounding the problem we hear of school systems unwilling to recognize the case of music, defiant in the face of Music Ofsted’s ‘There are no sub-levels’.

And so to Anna’s question:

‘I don’t want to use sub levels in music but how on earth can I not when ENTIRE school systems are set up around them?’

This is the context for the third visit to my case study school where you may recall the music teacher has been given licence with one year 9 class to teach without levels. [5]

On this visit I talk with a small group of pupils from the class and also with Mike the music teacher.

At the beginning of the new school year and after discussion with the class Mike has experimented with the idea that pupils identify as beginner, accomplished or expert in relation to tasks that are described as simple, intermediate or complex.

Hence the matrix:

Beginner               Simple
Accomplished      Intermediate
Expert                   Complex

referenced to what is being learnt, what is of immediate interest. In this way the students are able to identify on the grid what they are setting out to achieve. In this there is no reference to National Curriculum Levels.

Now six months later I am interested to find out how Callum, Sophie, Phoebe, Jai and Alana have managed without levels.

Jai tells me about his expertise at scat singing; Callum about his accomplished improvisations; Alan’a expert bluesy singing and how Sophie learnt to take it more slowly as she moved from beginner to expert as a keyboard improviser.

Overall the group were getting used to this and they seemed content to have quietly forgotten about levels and sub-levels in their music lessons. They were however able to tell me their current sub-levels in other subjects. They gave a unifying nod when Sophie pointed out that in year 9 Level 6 was where they should be.

Mike was coming to the conclusion that the matrix was too complex and that what was evolving was not only a classroom without levels but one without the clutter of any other markers. Instead it was a matter of getting better at things and diagnosing and removing the barriers to progress.

‘We all know where we are at and where we are going’ was the message.

‘But what about the school’s tracking system and termly progress checks?’, I asked.

‘Yes, I am still required to supply a level for each pupil in this class. That’s not difficult.’

It’s just that levels are no longer what Mike and his pupils talk about.


[1]  See http://www.ism.org/nationalcurriculum

[2] Jane Werry gives a vivid account of how the professional life of the music teacher is circumscribed by the school’s management labouring under the damoclescian sword of Ofsted. See http://werryblog.com/2015/03/16/the-national-plan-for-music-is-there-a-plan-b-notes-from-expo-lunchtime-debate-13th-march-2015/ and how this is a obsticle to Jane’s professional flourishing.

[3] See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/beyond-levels-alternative-assessment-approaches-developed-by-teaching-schools

[4] See https://www.gov.uk/government/news/assessment-without-levels-commission-announced. Is there a teacher on the commission?

[5] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/teaching-music-without-levels-in-year-9/


Music Education without a centre

Below is the script of my contribution to the lunchtime debate at Musicexpo, at the Barbican, London.

The questions posed for this debate reads:

Are we happy with the current state and provision for music education in the UK?

If not, what changes would need to be made i.e. what is your plan B?

How would your plan B improve education for students and teachers?

The making of a National Plan for Music was an opportunity to reshape music education through identifying ways in which fuller musical participation could be achieved, how music education could become more inclusive, how inequalities of provision across England could be addressed.

The plan set out what will be achieved, what children will experience and how progression and excellence will be driven in music education, how skills and leadership amongst music educators will be improved and how greater quality and accountability will be ensured.

Certainly ambitious and likely to be admired and envied in equal measure around the world.

It was recognised that schools can not do everything alone and that they need the support of local musical structures. Thus the vast majority of funding would be invested in music hubs. The responsibility placed upon hubs is considerable.

So is the plan working? I don’t know. I do know that it is generating a lot of activity and that it gives music education a particular trajectory.

However, we would be mistaken to think that the National Plan respresents what a music education is, what it might be or tell us anything about teaching music or being a music teacher. In fact it might be a distraction from these things.

Like other music teachers I am interested in how I decide what to teach, why I teach this and not that and how I teach it. I am interested in what questions my teaching will raise for my pupils? What questions it will raise for me the teacher? How will it help teacher and pupil together to better understand what music is? How will we together evaluate the worth of what has been experienced? How can we progress from here?

I am interested in what kind of subject music is and what the ethical demands are that a music education places upon those who teach music. I am interested in what a music education is for, what it means to be educated; what it means to be musically educated?

I am interested in making a reasoned justification for the place of music in an education.

Until these matters are properly considered music education is without a centre, fragmented and fractured.

Is there another subject of the school curriculum that is beset by so many well-meaning claims on music’s power to transform lives, to make us more intelligent, emotionally virtuous? Is there any other subject so fixated by its side-effects? But take care not to be distracted from questions about the purposes of music education and what it is.

By clarifying purpose it becomes possible to justify music as a school subject, possible to raise its status, recognise its distinctiveness, discover its relationship to other subjects, to the whole. Now there is a basis for planning a curriculum and for evaluating pedagogical approaches.

The questions that should be dominating our thinking, and that are too easily taken for granted, and that go beyond the Music Plan address the purposes of music education:

  1. What does a music education qualify people to do; what knowledge and dispositions are needed in order to make music well and to think about it critically? What do we mean when we speak of musical knowledge? Are we uncertain about speaking about musical knowledge, why are we more at ease with speaking about musical skills? What does it mean to make music well? What is meant by thinking critically about music? Is critical thinking something we wish for but have no idea how to make a reality?
  2. How will a music education induct newcomers into existing practices, into the cultures of making-music, which practices, which cultures of music making? Are all acts of music-making equally worthwhile? Really?
  3. How will a music education help children and young people to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to feel a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through a music education?

These are questions that don’t have easy answers but they should generate thought and more thoughtful action. They help to frame the subject we call music so inadequately dealt with in the Music National Curriculum with its shabby statement of purpose.

Music education doesn’t need a crusade, it doesn’t need a revolution, it needs a centre, a centre for the teaching of music that is interested in the relationship between the teacher, the pupil and what they together are learning. The National Plan may be a distraction from this.

There is a National Centre for the Teaching of Mathematics. There wont be one for the teaching of music. Instead we need to imagine one, one that is concerned with the education of music teachers, ensuring that music teachers become articulate about their values, articulate about the principles that underpin their practice and articulate about their moment by moment decisions in the classroom.

Without a centre there is a vacuum filled by commercial interests, Ofsted and political ideologies.

The imaginary centre for the teaching of music is a place to continually re-think what a music education is and what it is for. This is music education’s centre. This is Plan B.

Making sense of selves in Katy’s workshop

I am sitting in a circle alongside thirty-six second and third year music undergraduates who have opted for a module in Music Education. They are an interesting mix coming as they do from a western arts based course, a contemporary popular music course and a folk and traditional music course.

Their Music Education module requires that they read my work and yesterday I answered questions that this had provoked and more generally about music education, how it is now and how it might be in the future. Many of the questions raised complex cultural and political issues but all served to open up fresh lines of thinking that helped to clarify beliefs, values and find a better purpose.

Today we are being led by secondary school music teacher Katy, through three workshops – Senegalese Drumming; Samba; Gospel.

These musical practices feature in Katy’s Key Stage 3 curriculum (only years 7 and 8, half term projects with music as part of a carousel). Katy’s school has 2,000 pupils and just one and a half music teachers, although there is promise of another. And, Katy is thankful to the Local Music Service for the loan of classroom instruments.

Ready to go now and Katy, with a lively good humour, sets about transmiting the musical material,

Continue reading “Making sense of selves in Katy’s workshop”