Musical engagement for what?

There was a time, perhaps at the turn of the century, when classroom teachers were observed in their teaching with a focus on the moment by moment attention of their pupils. Full attention was even considered to be an indicator of maximum learning. It was as if by appearing to attend equated with learning. A pupil’s gaze out of the window meant that the pupil wasn’t learning.

In feed back on their teaching teachers would be informed about the degree of their pupils’ attentiveness, and often in precise quantitative terms. While this particular reign of terror may not have been common, it is an example of the way in which what has come to be labelled pupil engagement became a marker of successful teaching and viewed as being co-extential with learning. Musical engagement equals musical learning.

It would seem that engagement has become a quick and easy label through which all kinds classroom activity can be justified, and a good selling point for particular methods and materials – ‘This or that will engage your pupils.’ – presented as an end in itself.

The promise of engagement erases … well … disengagement, a lack of engagement, dispirited pupils, pupil alienation.

My purpose here is not to bury the idea of engagement but to clarify what it might mean. And I must confess the origins of my own interest in the idea.

Somewhen in the 1990s Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory attracted my attention. I engaged with it. Flow theory offered some understanding of how we are when deeply involved in an activity, and music seemed to be a good example, so involved in fact that we lose all sense of time, distractions are excluded and self-consciousness disappears. One attractive element here was that engagement could be linked to intrinsic motivation, often thought to be some ultimate goal of education. [1]

In the case of flow I was thinking of engagement on a micro here and now time scale, that state of being where we are … well … deeply engaged in the music. But then I came across the term engagement being used on a macro time scale referring to pupils musically engaged over the period of a year meaning that during that time they were learning to play an instrument. These pupils may or may not have experienced flow. The term engagement here meant a commitment over time.

Unfortunately, research into the idea of engagement has failed to yield much in the way of clarification, except that there are three kinds of engagement: behavioural, emotional and cognitive. [2] This doesn’t seem to take us very far and begs the question, what engagement is for?

‘Engagement for what’ would seem to be a reasonable question. Is it sufficient to view engagement simply as a matter of pupil motivation, as getting involved, committed? The implication is that once engaged, then you are off rather like a motorist engaging a gear and releasing the clutch.

This would make sense if your view of music education is that of a teacher stimulating their pupils to make music and being the facilitator of musical learning as a sufficient end in itself. However, if your view of the teacher is of somebody who places substantive matters before pupils, musically worthwhile ones, then engagement would be seen as emanating from the pupil themselves in the act of understanding something significant.

So, are your pupils musically engaged? What is it that is engaging them? What are they coming to know and understand?


[1] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991) Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial.

[2] See Frederiks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C. and Parks, A. H. (2004) School Engagement: Potential of the Concept. State of the Evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74. 1, pp. 59-101.

Music education’s secret garden

This week marks the fortieth aniversary of prime minister James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech.

The speech is often viewed as a seminal turning point in education policy making in England.

Two quotes will give a flavour.

‘There is now widespread recognition of the need to cater for a child’s personality in its fullest possible way … There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they do not have the skills.’ [1]


‘… to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other but both.’ [2]

Callaghan skilfully attends to the ‘both’ seeking neither to acquiesce to the calls for a utilitarian education where it would be judged solely on criteria related to industrial productivity and economic success, nor one closer to the fulfilment of the individual in society whose life is rewarding in itself.

In the debate that followed the term ‘secret garden’ was used to indicate the way in which the education establishment (teachers, schools, unions) was unaccountable to the public sphere. For some the failure of the school system was to blame for the nation’s decline. It was time to pass education from teachers as the producers to the public as consumers and this would mean bolder government intervention in determining the school curriculum. [3]

Thus followed the moves towards a national curriculum, standards, accountability measures, managerialism, the drive for perpetual improvement and much of what now is taken for granted in the life of a school and its teachers and of course its music teachers.

The term secret garden can also be used in a narrower sense to refer to the unknown classroom practices of teachers, the music teacher’s classroom as existing behind a closed-door and never revealed.

Opening up the ‘secret garden’ of the music classroom is of course now being achieved  through the use of social media. It is fascinating to wonder just what impact all the exposure of classroom practice is having on the development of classroom music.

In a previous blog ( I cautioned against making assumptions about how this worked. It couldn’t be assumed that exposure to other’s practices would be  a catalyst for change. Indeed, far from it.

There is certainly the potential to forge online communities of music teachers gaining reassurance that they are not alone and that other teachers are on their wave length. And this certainly seems to be flourishing within particular music education movements and interest groups where a common ethos is being shared. And for the twitterati there are bursts of classroom music making to be viewed, most often the products of teaching rather than the process of teaching. At least the garden is open and we can have a peek into it.

Then there are music teachers’ blogs and like so many other teacher blogs they are much more likely to set out a quaisi-theoretical perspective, a position or simply the way they approach their teaching, a point of view, opinion or in general terms what it is that the teacher is up to, their priorities and enthusiasms. But then there are the blogs, still fairly rare as far as I can see, that describe particular classroom situations and transactions and that take us inside the classroom.

An example is the blog of Stephen Jackman who acknowledges the inspiration of another blogger, Jane Werry. Jane is generous in the way she shares on going developments in her thought and practice. (See  and see another generous spirit.)

This is Stephen.

A little bit of what’s been going on in my classroom this half term… 

Photo published for What I’ve been up to in my classroom

What I’ve been up to in my classroom

Stephen writes:

Inspired by Jane Werry’s  fantastic blog post titled “what’s going on in my classroom right now” I thought I’d share too. The new Edexcel Music GCSE  I’ve started with one of the Setworks- ‘Release’…

Can you imagine that you are there in the year 10 class? I can.

Then I was struck by Will Green’s blog describing his teaching and his pupils’ responses and with a powerful reflective tone throughout. To account for one’s own teaching in this way is not easy. It is to be admired. Here is how it begins.

‘The group enter the room looking less than wholly enthusiastic (!) They settle down with an almost perfect split down the middle of the room between the boys and the girls. This is quite normal and it begins around Year 2 (aged 6/7 years old) which I think is remarkably early. I ask them if they have done that week’s Class Challenge*. They have done it! I say ‘Off you go’ and the whole class claps a 16 beat rhythm, that they’ve invented and memorised during the week, while saying the rhythm names. It has quavers (ti-ti) and crotchets (ta). They do it quite well and nearly everyone joins in.

Next I switch on the backing track to Mary Mack**. This is a lovely traditional Scottish Gaelic song and its two parts fit together very neatly. These children have been singing it since they were in Year 4. They begin singing straight away and by the end they are doing so with some enthusiasm, though by no means lots of enthusiasm! I split the class so that it can be sung in two parts. Now they are enjoying the challenge more and it’s starting to sound good. We finish by singing along with the cheerful backing track until it stops at which point both groups continue to sing in the two parts. There is a sense of accomplishment by the end of this.’

For the full account see:

New post: Yr6_The Weekly Class Challenge

Of course, what Will has to offer may not resonate with some others (‘Oh no, not that tonic solfa-we don’t do that’.), it is an example of a music teacher reflecting on his teaching. And what a chronicle of a teacher’s practice he is constructing, creating a narrative of his professional development and celebrating his professional autonomy.

Just imagine if Will’s lesson had been observed by another and an account written to compare with Will’s. There would be the source of a valuable discussion, an idea for Ofsted.


[1] Callaghan, J. (1976) Towards a national debate: speech by Prime Minister James Callaghan at the foundation stone-laying ceremony of Ruskin College, Oxford on October 18. Education Guardian [online]. Available at http:/ greatdebate/story/0,574645,00.html [accessed: 16 April 2009]. Page 6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For previous reference to the secret garden see

Knowledge, creativity, music education and making special

A strong current within contemporary educational discourse within England is to subjugate the idea of creativity to the power of knowledge. Simply put – you can’t be creative until you know alot and there is talk of a knowledge-based curriculum the fruits of which may in due course be creativity. The creative impulse is held in check until such times as sufficient inherited wisdom has been assimilated. This position rests on closed conceptions of both creativity and knowledge. [1]

However, like knowledge, creativity can, and often is thought of as a multi-varied concept. It can be defined and deployed in a variety of ways.

One way in which to celebrate this fluidity is to link creativity to the act and art of making things, making music, for example – making a perfomance, making a piece of music. ‘Create’ and ‘make’ would seem happy enough bedfellows.

Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayke uses the term ‘making special’ in her book ‘Homo Aestheticus: Where art comes from and why’ arguing that art is central to human evolutionary adaption. The act of making special, a creative act, is a human behaviour that enables participants to grasp and reinforce what is important to their cognitive world. [2]

I wonder what kind of knowledge is being invoked here.

Art educator Richard Hickman develops the idea of making special.

‘There are many who do not consider themeselves to be artists, but exhibit all of the tendencies which artists often display: a passionate desire for creating something which looks good and feels right – something which has particular significance, whether it be a birthday cake, a garden, or a hairstyle. In such activities intuition, expression, skill and a consideration of aesthetic form – all attributes of artistic activity – are considered important. What everyone needs is the opportunity to create something of aesthetic significance, that is something which has meaning for the person who created it. The term which I prefer then is ‘creating aesthetic significance’. ‘ Creating’ because of the word’s association with creativity and inventiveness, concepts which have particular resonance when talking about human development; ‘aesthetic’ because because we are concerned with the senses, while ‘significance’ is associated with meaning and ‘signs’ which are highly expressive and invite attention. I am not aware of any culture in the history of mankind which does not create aesthetic significance.’ [3]

‘Intuition, expression, skill, aesthetic form’ – I wonder what kind of knowledge is being invoked here and how will it interact with knowledge of existing musical practices? It is the creative management of this interaction, which will include the judicious selection of what is placed before pupils, that requires the teacher to exercise great responsibility.

The call then is to give dignity to creativity within the curriculum at all ages and stages and to see it as co-habiting with multi-varied forms of knowing lest the calls for a ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ become a destructive dogma.


[1] For a valuable discussion of closed and open concepts see Goehr, L. (2007) The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An essay in the philosophy of music, Oxford University Press pp. 90 n.

A full overview of the idea of creativity can be found in Pope, R. (2010) Creativity: Theory, History, Practice. Routledge.

[2] Dissanayake, E. (1999) Homo Aestetheticus: Where art comes from and why, University of Washington Press.

[3] Hickman, R. (2005) Why we make art and why it is taught. Intellect Books, pp 103-103.





Why is learning from music classroom examples so difficult?

Randall Allsup, writing about laboratory learning says:

‘To illustrate what I mean by a musical laboratory, I offer some insights from my own practice. Yet I share Estelle Jorgensen’s caution that in reimagining practice it is ”easy to slip into a descriptive mode and address only literal situations in schools …. when teachers hear situations described that they believe do not apply to them, they are inclined to dismiss the entire argument … The difficulty of using literal examples is that they are taken literally rather than figuratively.” ‘ [1]

To take examples literally rather tha figuratively is an interesting point.

So what Estelle is saying I think is that as teachers there is a tendency that we observe/fix on an example of classroom practice and respond to it literally. ‘So is this what I am being recommended to do – replicate this way of working as seen here?’

At that point we may well say, ‘but my classroom is not like that and I …’ and thus dismissal takes place and the wider value offered by the example is lost.

I think this kind of thing happens a lot in music education.

There is the extreme response ‘we couldn’t do this here’. Perhaps the teacher is simply saying ‘ I can’t see myself in this, so it’s not for me’. And I have an extreme example.

In 1980 I spent a day being introduced to the work and principles of the School’s Council Secondary Music Project. In one of the examples shown to the secondary school music teachers we observed a teacher working in a  music room that had two grand pianos. They weren’t being used. The grand pianos were no part of the teacher’s work. However, one teacher present pointed out that he would be unable to work like this as he didn’t have two grand pianos in his classroom. This needs some thinking about. He was taking what he saw very literally.

One way forward might be to treat examples of practice as case studies and to do this thoroughly. The term case study is used widely to mean simply example. But case study is much more than this. It is a unique example of a practice and not in any way generalisable or replicable. It belongs in one place and at one time. It is history.

So if a case study is to mean anything, if it is to resonate with the outsider it requires a great deal of contextual information for it to have significance and validity. For a classroom musical practice to be understood and learnt from the outsider needs to know not only general information about the uniqueness of this situation but importantly what specific constraints and freedoms allow this practice to exist.

Then I think we may be able to move from the literal to the figurative and to engage with what is being offered.


[1] Allsupp, R. (2016) Remixing the classroom: Toward an Open Philosophy of Music Education. Indiana University Press. (p.69)

And cited Jorgensen, E. (2011) Pictures of Music Education. Indiana Press. (p.14)