Putting assessment back in its box

The Silent Disco project reported on in last week’s blog provides an example of what has been described as authentic learning connected to the real world. The school reaches out and meets cultural practice. [1]

There was the commitment that all year 9 pupils, yes all, would make ‘excellent work’ (well crafted, polished) and for this to be communally celebrated. [2]

While the process of making was heavily schooled and scaffolded, teacher-led and thoroughly formal in many respects, the commitment to communal achievement resonates with what is thought to be the informality of community music-making where the pedagogy serves the idea of forming a musical community.

The ethos of building a community of music-makers overrides interest in individual talent, differential achievement and the paraphernalia of assessment that marks out formal systems of schooling.

‘This would mean that instead of focusing on clearly defined goals, assessed with some measure of achievement, evaluation would be first and foremost interested in musical experience, valued in qualitative terms. If we accept that education is, at root, ‘a process of living and not a preparation for future living’ (Dewey [1897] 1996), it makes sense to pay attention to the richness of music-related meanings emerging from the active relationships of sonic events, music(k)ers and physical space.’ [3]

So instead of following a typically schooled pattern of assessment where each pupil is measured against norms derived from (in this case) Club Dance practice, the communal achievement of the year group would be evaluated in wider socio-musical terms.

For example, how well has our silent disco enabled us to live/experience/know music, think about what it means to live music together with others? Have we created a community of practice, explored new relationships, musically-socially? Where do we go from here?

But wait a minute, let’s rewind to the commonly understood alternative referred to above where, in the case of Club Dance, assessment would focus on the ways in which the sonic hallmarks of this particular musical practice have been worked with and mastered by these year 9 pupils. For example, how effectively has sonic material been phased, gradually layered, morphed?

In returning to assessment, and leaving aside evaluation, we are faced with the question of norms and standards.

Club Dance is a musical practice that has gatekeepers, that is, those who provide the exemplars and models of successful practice and standards to emulate.

I gave one example of year 9’s work anonymously to one such gatekeeper. It was thought the work represented a standard expected at Key Stage 3. And if all forty pieces had been examined then most likely we would have found some ‘working towards’ this standard and some ‘working beyond’.

Whether focusing on evaluation or assessment or both is there really a need for levels, numbers, grades?

Perhaps the place to start is to develop a music-making community that together produces ‘excellent work’ (music made well, polished). Only then should we consider letting assessment out of its box.


[1] I have been wondering whether a Silent Disco is a dynamic life enhancing form of contemporary sociality or as Roger Scruton might say a form of collective solitude. I have been talking to silent disco experts who are telling me about the new kinds of musical-social relations brought about by such an event.

[2] Is this the ultimate expression of ‘inclusion’?

[3] Odendaal, A., Kankkunen, O., Nickkannen, H. and Vakeva, L. (2014) ‘What’s with the K? Exploring the implications of Christopher Small’s ‘musicking’ for general music education.’ Music Education Research, (16) 2, 162-175.

Dewey, J. [1897] 1996. ‘’My Pedagogical Creed.’’ In The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953. The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898. Vol. 5, edited by L. Hickman, 84-95. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

3 thoughts on “Putting assessment back in its box

  1. John Kelleher

    I like this a lot, John. I used to use the word ‘evaluation’ wherever possible with kids but, eventually, they started to take it to mean the same thing as assessment. I’ll take that as my failing.

    Reading this, I couldn’t help but hear Martin Fautley in my mind saying ‘Who is this assessment for?’ and the answer that kept coming to me was, in the Silent Disco, that this assessment was largely for the music itself. With such a simple goal of ‘excellent work’, the focus must have been on the music and the pupils had to rise to the challenge in return. Will definitely need to do some more thinking on this.

  2. Pingback: Year 9 Katie on assessment in music | Music Education Now

  3. Pingback: Music scholarship, music education and fresh thinking – Music Education Now

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