Music education with human interest and critical intent

In last week’s blog I accepted Robin Hammerton HMI’s invitation to teach without learning objectives. I saw this as a cue for looking again at the idea of the project as offering scope for finding ‘depth’ and ‘rigour’, that is, finding one way of claiming these weasel words? While I have set out some general thoughts about project work in previous blogs [] the idea has been given a particular trajectory with the spread of Project Based Learning (PBL) and its bed-fellow Enquiry Based Learning. [1]

Always intrigued by what is happening on the ground and what promises to break with orthodoxy, I am on my second visit to a school in East London. It is a small 4-18 age school with 75 pupils in each year and is committed to PBL. [2]

Club Dance Minimalist MP3, Sound Cloud Page, Live Event, Silent Disco, Live Gig, Concert, Internet, Podcast, Exhibition-Performance at the Docklands Museum. These are some of the presentational products so far yielded by PBL at Key Stage 3 in Music in the school. [3]

Each project is given structure through an Essential or Enquiry Question(s), a kind of lens through which everything that is experienced is viewed. Projects often involve several subject disciplines working together for the duration of a school term. The ‘essential question’ is the project’s structuring device and provides a ‘line of enquiry’, an all-pervading reason for learning. It is this that chases away the tyranny of learning objectives and petty pre-determined outcomes. However, there is one important principle in place.

The enquiry will yield a presentational product. The teachers involved in each project form a team and focus on the project’s product as a key part of the planning process and together create what it might look/sound like. This involves sharing the ways in which each subject approaches the project’s question, how each establishes its integrity while creating mutual enrichment. [4]

No more music teachers thoughtlessly meddling in the disciplinary knowledge of other subjects but now with an enhanced focus on music-making, meaning-making and always with an ‘authentic real-world’ product in view. [5]

The process of fashioning the product is flexible. There will be problems to solve, the stimulus of those with ideas to contribute from beyond the school gates, multiple drafting of work, continual refinement of work and an absolute commitment to a ‘beautiful’ product. The products are generated by the students together with their teachers constituting an ‘adult’ community of makers. But there is more still. The school places great emphasis on ‘oracy’.

Students learn how to think through talk and are good at it. Hence projects are lively debated affairs with a subtle role for the teacher as both facilitator and mediator. [6]

All this invites, even establishes, a dialogic pedagogy. Next term’s year 8 project brings together History, Music, Drama and Oracy. The project is Slavery with 350 minutes each week dedicated to the project. [‘Slavery’. A very big idea I am thinking. The philosopher Hegel has generated 200 years of thought through his master-slave dialectic, for example.]

Making the essential/enquiry question needs careful thought. The question could be posed not in words but through an image, a video clip, a musical work. Perhaps what is important is that imagination is fired and symbolic thought invoked ensuring on-going curiosity and meaning-making. [7]

Here is a first shot at a question. Why and in what ways was music important for African/American people who endured slavery? There is promise here of coming to appreciate how music functions, to what extent musical practices are socially conditioned and what kind of thing music is while at the same time justifying music-making here and now in response. [8]

Just imagine the pupils coming to their music lessons from Drama and History thick with knowledge, context, questions, musical impulses ready to be stirred. Just imagine the pupils going to their Drama and History lessons with songs in their heads, songs in the making, riffs rotating, bodies buzzing.

In music there will be work songs to perform and compose, spirituals to sing, blues to make, bands to form, professional recording to master… I will have more to tell about all this later next term. [9]

But does this sound like a music education with depth and rigour? Well, at the least there is the promise of a music education with human-interest and critical intent. And it is rather more than learning to play an instrument.


[1] An internet search will reveal a global movement, a plethora of resources and a vast array of solutions to the education of today’s children and young people. In some cases these are allied to the idea of 21st century skills, learning futures and other futurologies. PBL could also be viewed as a synthesis of 21st century skills and attention to disciplinary subject knowledge. A heretical idea to some!

[2] The school is newly formed and this provides opportunity to create a unifying vision, purpose and approach to curriculum planning and pedagogy. In this school it is the thinking of American Ron Berger that is the main source of inspiration for PBL.

[3] The Key Stage 3 music curriculum is built through a series of termly projects, which ensure musical development through recurring threads of music-making and thinking processes. So not a Cook’s Tour , not a ‘bitty’ approach and not genre driven.

[4] A music education needs to reach outwards as well as inwards and find meaning through what pupils experience in other curriculum areas as well as their lives. Too many attempts to draw in other parts of the curriculum in time designated for music fail miserably in secondary schools. It may even be the case that music teachers unintentionally undermine the development of other than musical aspects of the curriculum.

[5] For more on inter-disciplinary work in music education see Chapter 3 in Teaching Secondary Music, Cross-curricular approaches in music education, Jonathan Savage, in Teaching Secondary Music ed. Jayne Price and Jonathan Savage. Sage: London.

[6] The role of mediator places responsibility on the teacher to bring significant knowledge to the classroom. There is culture to mediate, fresh thinking to generate for these newcomers to the world. This involves placing something of significance before students. See

[7] Many contend that making meaning goes to the heart of music educational purpose. It deserves a separate blog.

[8] Music Ofsted has introduced the concept of ‘musical provenance’ into our discourse. You will see it as part of subject specialist criteria for inspection. Here is perhaps an example of ‘rich musical provenence’.

[9] The school’s music teacher sees scope at GCSE level for a project approach. Centering on a musical work works well for this.


8 thoughts on “Music education with human interest and critical intent

  1. davidashworth

    I’m in the process of bringing together 2 PBL schools – one in Burnley, the other in Doncaster. Both have dedicated music specialists who are working in similar ways.

    Vicky Povey at Burnley High did a PBL on Slavery which might well be of interest.

    Martin Said of XP School in Doncaster wrote an excellent chapter on PBL & Music in “Teaching Music” [Rhinegold Education, 2014] with some excellent video footage of teachers wrestling with wording the enquiry question.

    I’ve flagged up this blog with both of them. Hopefully, there may be some dialogue…….

  2. Sorry to say I haven’t read Martin’s chapter. How do I access it?
    The idea of 21st Century Skills is cause of debate within the wider educational world. Skills (progressive) v knowledge (traditional). That’s why in my blog I show interest in subject content/knowledge and even reference to subject disciplines. So seeing if there is a middle way and whether the split can be healed. What is intriguing is that the East London School is flagship progressive while there is a West London school flagship traditional. Both Free Schools. Both making citizens of the future but with opposing visions.

      1. teacherandmusician

        Great post, John. Have to agree that Martin’s chapter is excellent. Also lots of good thinking about enquiry questions from Ark Academies; see ‘Creating Outstanding Classrooms’ for more detail.

  3. Thanks for the link teachermusician even if I am not too enthusiastic on creating outstanding classrooms. Good enough ones will do.
    Enquiry learning raises plenty of good questions.
    1. skills-knowledge: what kind of knowledge?
    2. potential for critical pedagogy
    3. quality of music-making
    4. implications for ways of thinking about assessment.
    5. musical thinking-thinking about music interdependency
    6. enquiry questions penetrating the nature of music; its cultural-political significance; processes of making
    7. depth of teacher’s musical-cultural knowledge
    8. shifting locus of control between teacher-pupil
    9. role of image, symbol, metaphor in creating a line of enquiry and enabling a holding form
    10. related conceptions of music and musicking

  4. Hi John, I’m an avid reader of your blog as I’m sure you know but David has prodded me to leave a comment and so I have obliged in doing what I should have done many times before.

    What I particularly like about this blog is that I come away with more questions than before I read, which is a most welcome and satisfying thing.

    I’m also in a new-new school now, just Year 7 at the moment and 50 students, with a model very similar to Berger’s expeditionary learning schools. We went out to see some in the US and remarkable as those schools are (and believe me they really really are), sadly music is not high on the agenda however a liberal arts education certainly is. I think it is a contextual thing really as the band model in America is pervasive and so a music education means something entirely different there, though to be honest we’re not all that certain what it means over here are we?

    At XP each student has music weekly in a group of 17 ish and the expeditions (read projects) either run parallel to or directly contribute to the expeditions in other areas of the curriculum .Our first term’s culminating event involved every student performing as part of a class ensemble, a programmatic piece which their class had written reflecting the processes involved in the formation of either igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic rock; the STEM expedition was on the geology of the permanent school site.

    I’ve shared this story a few times on a couple of forums and webinars but easily the most beautiful moment of my teaching career happened mid-term in a classroom workshop. A group of pianists including a girl, let’s call her April, were just playing their idea to the class – a swirling melody which represented molten magma cooling and solidifying.

    Upon hearing it, a tough lad, let’s call him Evan, broke the silence at the end of the performance and said “It’s good, but I don’t think it sounds finished, you need to go Dum-dum-dum-dum Dum-duuum-duuuuum…. Daaaaaaah” and, albeit shakily, sang their final phrase but now with a rallentando, an extra passing note and fermata before the final note.

    Whilst this was happening I noticed April’s jaw slowly open and stay there. As Evan finished, I asked her why was her face so? “I never knew he had so much talent!” was her heartfelt reply.

    I had a governor who is also a musician observing (read performing as part of the rhythm section) that lesson and he could not believe how this group of young people were acting, no not acting, being, being musicians.

    I don’t say and of this to blow my own trumpet, truth be told I can’t get any note of significance out of any brass instrument. I can make satisfying honk if you give me a reed but that is besides the point. Whilst I think I may, on some days, be an adequate teacher I can’t help but feel it is the envelope in which these students are asked to work that produces these moments.

  5. Hi Martin, the swirling melody story illustrates how there is an open space for conversation in the classroom and how teacher-pupil agency can be a fluid matter – related to the dilaogic principle.

    My knowledge of the American system of music education is limited. But as you say the Band (performance) model is pervasive and there is a liberal arts tradition (often centred on Literature) that you refer to. But the liberal arts tradition is content rich and has critical elements. In this country there has been a shift in the direction of the Band (whole class instrumental playing-performance).

    A major line in my thinking is the need for a music education to have ‘thinking about music’ as a core and PBL is an example where because of the strong content there are interesting possibilities for developing this.

    ‘Thinking about music’ can extend to ‘critical pedagogy’ (see the work of Gary Spruce). I see PBL as a possible stepping stone in this respect.

    The school in my blog has only now introduced Music. But in introducing it it is placed at the heart of the curriculum. Although ‘heart of the curriculum’ is an inappropriate term I am thinking. There appears to be on equal curriculum.

    I hope things develop well in your school.

  6. Pingback: Year 8 Blues band tribute | Music Education Now

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