Critical intent

My recent blogs have been about teaching music.

By working through thick descriptions of music lessons I have so far proposed four dimensions of music teaching that might help in the observation, interpretation, analysis and valuing of music teaching.

Remember, my starting point was the ‘good enough’ music lesson avoiding the labels that have dominated the evaluation of music teaching in recent times.

Today I add a fifth dimension supported by descriptions of two lessons.

Each dimension is expressed as a disposition, a tendency towards a way of thinking and acting.

Five dimensions of music teaching

1. Ethical commitment

The teacher’s disposition towards nurturing the pupil-teacher relationship that makes teaching possible.

 2. Cultural mediation

The teacher’s disposition towards expressing authority through the transmission of cultural knowledge in the medium of music, involving instruction that is responsive to the receptivity of the pupils.

3. Thinking bodies

The teacher’s disposition towards recognising music-making as a form of embodied knowing in action.

4. Facilitation

The teacher’s disposition towards enabling the expression of musical thought in the medium of music.

5. Critical intention

The teacher’s disposition towards promoting enquiry, curiosity, thoughtfulness, discrimination, questioning – calling for a growing awareness of what music is, how music is used, how music is given meaning and how meanings are continually negotiated and re-negotiated – a recognition that music has ‘human interest’ – social, cultural and political.

Two lesson descriptions that show an emphasis on ‘critical intention’

No colour coding this week leaving the reader to make their own interpretation and analysis. Accepting that the fifth dimension is strong in these two cases, it might be interesting to think about how this dimension relates to the other dimensions.

1. Here the teacher’s scheme of work was underpinned by the question: what does music mean? In lesson two the class was set the task of composing a piece dedicated to the victims of the recent Japanese tsunami and earthquake.

I did not observe this teaching but the teacher writes:

‘All students sat in a circle playing barred instruments. The first third of their piece used the Japanese semi-tone major 3rd scale on B (B-C-E-F-A). Against the backdrop of a pianissimo rolled E, an F was gradually faded in and out, exploring the initial tensions of the tsunami. The B-C was then added to emphasise the nervous mood. All the notes gradually underwent a crescendo and were sustained fortissimo for a few moments before a sudden silence. A similar process was repeated, this time using a second, more blues-like Japanese scale. The familiarity of the sound led one student to interpret this section as the reaction of the international community.’

(And the following I have constructed from the teacher’s reflections.)

And now another pupil has the idea of using the two scales at the same time. And so the lessons proceed in dialogic fashion, with the teacher skillfully leading the way provoking thoughtful questions that challenge assumptions about music and its meanings. And now the introduction of the composition task: to make a soundtrack for a montage of if images of the recent Egyptian revolution using the Japanese scales. Why Japanese scales, some pupils ask? More dialogic work follows, with more thinking nurtured by the teacher’s gently teasing responses.

2. Who wants to start the conversation?

This was the question asked by the teacher at the beginning of a year 8 music lesson today. Last music lesson of the term. Previous project completed and now an introduction to next term’s work. So what was the conversation to be about? The class had entered to Mars from Holst’s The Planet Suite and had settled quickly and attended to the music. White boards given out and pupils asked to write down a question they would like to ask another pupil, the teacher or their visitor (me) about the music.

And so now the question from the teacher:

Teacher: ‘Does anybody want to start the conversation?’

The first question is directed to the teacher:

Holly: ‘Why did you pick this piece of music?’

Teacher: ‘It is a piece to react to; a piece to feel and think about. It’s a piece to respond to’.

Second question from Holly to Samantha: ‘What is your favourite part of the music?’

Samantha: ‘I like all of it. And you want to know what is going to happen next’.

Next: ‘Have you ever heard music like this before?’

Now the Star Wars connection comes out and is in play as part of the conversation. Then an interesting turn.

Pupil: ‘Was this music composed by a boy or a girl?’

Pupil:  ‘Boy, its loud and dramatic.’

Pupil: ‘What was going through her mind when she composed it?’

Back to Star Wars: ‘Do you think this music is scary?’

[Toby is away with fairies and balancing his pencil on outstretched fingers.]

Teacher intervention: ‘Let’s listen again, how does it start?’

Pupils: ‘Really low notes’; ‘it folds in and folds out’; ‘tapping’.

Teacher links these responses to earlier pupil questions.

Now composing as a whole class. Each inventing a response.

The insistent rhythm is introduced through a neumonic on the board as one possibility.

Samantha wants to tell me that she has been playing her drum in unconventional ways in the last project. She beams when she says unconventional. I repeat the word with a reciprocal beam.

Whole class improvising very quietly to start with and sustain their musical ideas with Toby bringing the piece to an end on cymbal with music at its loudest. The class are pleased with what they have done. Quite a few faces lighting up.

One boy on keyboard has replicated Holst’s c g f# figure but held down the g and f sharp to create a dissonance. The teacher and class receive this with admiration. Now a short time to rehearse and refine their ideas. I teach Samantha the rhythmic figure. Then some silent time to imagine what they will be playing.

Off we go again. Class applaud themselves at the end. Listen to Holst again with attention.

2 thoughts on “Critical intent

  1. davidashworth


    Your fifth dimension, Critical Intention, completes a worthwhile set of dispositions for music teachers to consider. It is perhaps the most important dimension – and it might also be one of the hardest for music teachers to take on.

    Why? Because it may not have been a part of their own learning, at school or beyond, and there may have been little during their teacher training time which will have prepared them for this. Of course, some teachers would take to it naturally. Those who enjoy generating and taking part in thoughtful discussion and are happy to let the lesson follow its course, confident that it will lead to somewhere of interest and value.

    But there will be others who are more diffident. How will I know what questions to ask? How can I steer the discussion in worthwhile directions? Should I be doing this, or should I just trust that the process will take us in useful directions? What do I do if the conversation dries up? Should I be giving up precious lesson time in order to do this? How will I assess it!

    Of course, I’m playing devil’s advocate, because this dimension is really important. If we don’t do this, we are not really doing our job properly. So a really worthwhile CPD for teachers would explore this more thoroughly and prepare teachers [of all subjects] to better engage with their students in this way.

    Does such a CPD opportunity already exist? Is the work of Robin Alexander or Neil Mercer relevant here? What about the Education Endowment Foundation research?

  2. Critical intent I suggest is a disposition held by the teacher and in the blog I give examples of this in two lessons. In both cases the teacher is making space for thinking about music, how it’s made and what kind of thing it is in the world. In the ‘who wants to start the conversation lesson?’ pupils provide an agenda for ongoing critical thought that can inform music making.
    I will blog this week about dialogic practice. And I will look at the Education Endowment Research.
    I will shortly have more data from teachers working dialogically.

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