‘How shall we know them?’

‘Assessment consists in evaluating or judging the value of something, or someone, in accordance with certain expectations, an idea or a reference, related to personal and/or shared values.’ [1]

One notable attempt to bring assessment under control was Derek Rowntree’s book ‘Assessing students: how shall we know them? first published in 1977. [2]

Reading the book in 2016 I am struck by how little has changed in the way assessment is thought about. Rowntree sets out systematically, chapter by chapter, the nature of assessment, its purposes, the question of what to assess, how to assess and so on.

In Rowntree’s chapter ‘How to assess?’ there is a section titled:

Idiographic vs. Nomothetic Assessment

Idiographic is about the individual while nomothetic is about the making of general laws. [3]

So in the case of assessment the idiographic is concerned with understanding the uniqueness of the individual, how the individual is thinking, how they are making music and what value they are seeking to give to their endeavour.

Set against this is nomothetic assessment that collects data about individuals and aims to understand people in general and this means measuring them against each other and against standards.

One obvious difference from the time when Rowntree was writing is the extent to which standards are no longer a matter of the local or national but a matter of international comparison leading to what for music teachers in the UK can be an overbearing and barely tolerable audit culture. (See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/music-teachers-taming-the-audit-culture/ )

It is this culture that pushes against seeing the individual pupil and their musical work as ‘sui generis’ – in a class of its own. It is the audit culture that exasperates the long-standing tension between valuing the work of the pupil as sui generis and some external standard.

(See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/the-problem-of-standards-in-music-education-and-the-loss-of-happiness/ )

Rowntree cites William James on the tendency to classify and label the pupil.

‘’The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and dispose of it. ‘I am no such thing,’ it would say; ‘I am myself, myself alone.’’’

Writing in 1993 Ross et al. noted that:

‘For many children assessment means enduring a form of mental and emotional derangement, the morbid exchange of a warm, living experience for a cold, dead reckoning.’ [4]

For Ross et al., the radical solution found was to ensure that judgement in the arts ‘’must be and always remain ‘suspended judgement’’’ and thus provide the pupil with an experience that was uniquely freeing and empowering.

In this view assessment is quite simply a matter of sensitive conversation in which the personhood of the pupil matters greatly and far removed from being a unit of accountability.


[1] Beauvais, M. (2011) Assessment: a question of responsibility. UNIVEST. Retrieved from http://dugidoc.udg.edu/bitstream/handle/10256/3592/Beauvais_en.pdf?sequence=2

[2] Rowntree, D. (1977) Assessing Students: How shall we know them? Kogan Page.

[3] Greek words adopted by German philosophy.

[4] Ross, M., Radnor, H.,Mitchell, S. and Bierton, C. (1993) Assessing achievement in the Arts. Open University Press.


Embodied Musical Knowledge

Knowing how to as practical knowledge embodied is the most powerful knowledge of all. We could then talk about a knowledge-led curriculum and that would go down well in important places.’ [1]

In last week’s blog I briefly illustrated embodied-knowledge with examples from Yehudi Menuhin and Steven Feld.

Below Gary Spruce engages with Michael Fordham on the subject of embodied musical knowledge. Michael is a history teacher and member of a school leadership team.

@mfordhamhistory @Johnfinney8 books.google.co.uk/books?id=VMSKB…. This does a good job, I think
 Link not working. But see

  1. http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781472419613 J. Murphy McCaleb, Kidderminster College, UK; Series: SEMPRE Studies in The Psychology of Music; Performing in musical ensembles provides a remarkable …

This is the kind of explanatory work we have to do in order to educate the wider profession about the nature of musical knowledge. The work needs to be disruptive.

And I met another visible example of embodied musical knowledge as I travelled by train last Friday. The young man across the aisle caught my attention through his dancing upper body as he listened to whatever it was on his audio device. It appeared as if his embodied musical knowledge was making the world his own.

(No knowledge independent of the knower. Discuss.)

This is knowledge and understanding that can’t be reduced to discursive thought. No, it is not there waiting to be revealed as knowing this and that. This is not to say that it can’t be reflected upon. And now the teacher has great responsibility.

Wait a minute, have you noticed? I have slipped from knowledge into understanding.

L. A. Reid points out that while a conceptual distinction can be made between knowledge and understanding, existentially they are the same. [2]

And having reached this point we can make a link to meaning. [3]

(No knowledge without meaning. Discuss.)

Why speak about engagement, skills, fun when we can speak about knowledge, understanding and meaning making?

Now, if we can have a more confident discourse around the nature of musical knowledge, we may be able to think more intelligently about assessment.

Without starting with the nature of musical knowledge assessment is left to run around like a headless monster.


[1] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/music-education-and-its-practical-wisdom/

[2] Reid, L. A. (1986) Ways of Understanding and Education. Heinemann Education Books.

[3] See Green, L. (1988) Music on Deaf Ears: Musical meaning. Ideology and education. Manchester University Press.













Music Education and its practical wisdom

‘… a confident discourse surrounding the nature of musical knowledge, one that is understood and is fluently expressed amongst teachers and music educators; a confident discourse surrounding musical understanding; a confident discourse surrounding musical meaning.’ [1]

What are musical knowledge, musical understanding and musical meaning? And wouldn’t it be good if we were more confident in talking about these things?

The curriculum since 1980 has been framed by ‘knowledge, skills and understanding’. It trips off the tongue. And each subject is expected to set out what knowledge, skills and understanding form the content of its curriculum.

Despite distinguished attempts to set out how knowledge can be thought about in the case of music [2] there has been little enthusiasm for talking about it. Understanding does better and best of all is skills.

A while ago there was a wave of music teachers talking about a skills-led curriculum. Teaching musical skills seemed to make sense. After all music was a practical subject and you need skills to be practical and make music, and skills are developed through practising.

Out in the wider world, and increasingly this means the world of social media often linked to official sources, have you noticed the clamour for a knowledge-based curriculum, a knowledge-rich curriculum and the bringing back of knowledge? Not a wave but a tsunami.

In my meeting with this wider world I run up against the desire to view knowledge as most definitely one kind of thing that approximates to fact or knowing that. To suggest that this kind of knowledge poorly represents what musical knowledge is is frequently met with distain.

While there is some recognition that ‘knowing how’ may be a legitimate way of expressing what knowledge is, there comes the proviso that ‘know how’ be subordinated or reduced to ‘knowing that’, to a body of knowledge or even the theory of music. [3]

To introduce into the debate the idea that to know music is for it to be embodied (embodied knowledge) leads to either incredulity or quite reasonably, a call for clarification.


‘Until the current flows from the toes to the fingers … and you feel the weight and movement of the body … you wont get the music.’ … ‘Don’t try for accuracy before you get the feeling of the motion …’ (Yeheudi Menhuin) [4]

‘The grooves are the feeling and the participatory experience of music …’ (Steven Feld) [5]

Thinking of musical knowledge as chiefly ‘knowing how to’ make music well is a good place to start. [6]

‘Knowing how to’ provides the teacher with a powerful start to a learning objective, for example, and solves the ‘doing – learning’ problem.

And ‘knowing how to’ as practical knowledge embodied is the most powerful knowledge of all. We could then talk about a knowledge-led curriculum and that would go down well in important places.


[1] From Chris Philpott’s address at a Music Education Symposium, London, September, 2014.

[2] One fine example is Keith Swanwick’s ‘Musical Knowledge: Intuition, analysis and Music Education.’ Routledge.

[3] The upcoming GCSE is a good example of a poor grasp of the nature of musical knowledge

[4] Cited in Louis Arnaud Reid’s ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’. Studies in Education 18 University of London.

[5] Cited in Charles Keil’s ‘Music Grooves’. The University of Chicago Press.

[6] By knowing how to make music well I imply something more that mere skill. See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/knowledge-academic-rigour-and-music-education/  (November 11, 2015) for an example of practical wisdom.





They are singing our tune to their words

The second half had started with the score Norwich 0 Southampton 0 and with my tribe (as away fans we numbered about 2,000 +) bursting into song, well just two songs actually.

There is ‘Come on you Saints’ and ‘Oh when the Saints’. The first falls a minor third on ‘Saints’ and the second is faithful to the original but with a clapping accelerando leading to exhaustion and fade out. The first is sometimes sung in a way that creates an echo effect.

The chorus masters pitch the songs so high that I settle for an octave lower that regrettably contributes very little to the overall effect. The man sitting next to me making tentative efforts was floundering between octaves, so I was pleased when he eventually latched on to my pitch.

We sang with all our hearts for a good fifteen minutes after which time the other side scored what proved to be the winning goal.

Alas! The impotence of music.

Which leads me to think again about the popularity of music education advocacy [1], that unrelenting chorus of ‘did you know that music is good for you’, ‘that music transforms most if not all things’.

There’s no holding it back. My twitter feed bubbles with it. [2]

In Jackie Schneider’s New Year’s A-Z. https://primarymusicmatters.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/a-to-z-of-primary-school-music/

‘A is for advocacy: Can we stop it please it doesn’t work.’

Jackie knows something about music in our schools that many of the advocates for music and music education don’t.

You see the powers that be have long ago learnt how to soak up advocacy, bring it on, take from it, play with it, play along with it and sing its tune but with their words.

Advocacy is rather like fiddling while Rome burns. The tune may be sweet and ‘music to our ears’ but what a long way it is from

‘… a confident discourse surrounding the nature of musical knowledge, one that is understood and is fluently expressed amongst teachers and music educators; a confident discourse surrounding musical understanding; a confident discourse surrounding musical meaning.’ [3]

The past year has seen a continuation of the secondary school music teacher struggling to assert the way their subject should be within school cultures of accountability, where evidence of learning is expected in pupil’s writing, for example. And this means that the requirement is for musical knowledge to be of a propositional kind – that is, knowing this and knowing that about music, and no other kind. ‘Today I have learnt that …’

But wait, this may be coming your way in a new form. There is much talk of a knowledge rich curriculum, of powerful knowledge, of cultural capital and canons.

This will need music teachers to have a ‘confident discourse surrounding the nature of musical knowledge’, the nature of embodied knowledge, tacit knowledge, knowledge experienced, practical knowledge, aesthetic knowledge and why any of this can’t be reduced to propositional knowledge, and why there is no knowledge without meaning. I had better say more about this next week.

So we lost 1-0 with the Norwich fans finally singing our tune to their words. My disappointment didn’t last long, for to have sung in a choir of 2,000 + was good and no doubt played a part in my overall feeling of well-being as I travelled home. But much more important was the experience of being a part of music lived as culture. And therein lies the power of music.


[1] Quite a leap I know but I do have a mobile mind.

[2] Advocacy comes in many forms. I am here thinking in particular, but not wholly, of the uncritical promotional variety.

[3] From Chris Philpott’s address at a Music Education Symposium, London, September, 2014.

This quotation doesn’t do justice to Chris’ overall argument, which deals with the way music education is easily subverted by its attraction to ‘soft’ justifications.