Practical knowledge and music education

In last week’s blog I wondered about the idea of a skills-based music curriculum at a time when there is an intensified discourse surrounding the idea of a knowledge-based curriculum extended to a knowledge-rich curriculum. [1]

In my blog I differentiated between ‘knowing how’ and ‘skill’. However, I have to say that the difference is close to being one of semantics. So musical knowledge thought of as ‘knowing how’ is worth pursuing as a significant but of course not the only way of thinking about musical knowledge.

I am particularly attracted by the idea of knowing how to make music well. In the world we see a lot of music being made well. In school this is not always the case as evidenced by a lack of fluency, expressivity and where there is a paucity of personal and shared meaning making.

The conservative culture critic Roger Scruton writing about types of knowledge makes a point of valuing ‘knowing how’ (practical knowledge, skill) and is thinking in terms of ‘technique’, knowing how to ride a bicycle, for example. Or we might say knowing how to create melodic patterns over a chord sequence. [2] Both knowing how to ride a bicycle and how to create melodic patterns over a chord sequence are intuitive processes, that is, not in need of theoretical knowledge (knowing that). In the case of the latter it will be what feels-sounds right. And this is a crucial part of developing aesthetic judgement and critical thought about music.

The current propagation of knowledge-rich curricula and its associated notion of cultural literacy is in danger of missing the heart of the matter. Their bodies of knowledge may all too easily become corpses.


[1] See Knowledge-rich teaching brings us all together, Mark Lehain, TES October 20, 2017, (30-31) for an exposition of how the knowledge-rich curriculum will ’empower students later in life.’

[2] Scruton uses the terms knowing how, practical knowledge and skill interchangeably. See Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Scruton, R. (2007) Encounter Book: New York.

The book’s sleeve notes that Scruton is ‘Boldly standing up to today’s nihilisms and debasements of taste. Culture Counts offers a noble and compelling defence of high culture and the centrality of rich aesthetic experience for a full human life.’

For Scruton knowing how takes us to knowing what to feel, knowing what are right feelings and to moral ends.

His argument deserves engaging with.


Skill and knowledge in the music curriculum

Currently there is much talk of knowledge-based education. The minister of state for schools has this to say about it, for example.

A narrative is created whereby skills are set against knowledge. Skills bad-knowledge good.

While knowledge is being conceived of as subject-based, skills are being thought of as generic and it is maintained that curricula based on generic skills such as the ability to problem solve, collaborate and be creative work to counter the primacy of each subject’s store of knowledge.

Mention skill and the wrath of the new guardians of culture is likely to be roused.

Music teachers however, like to speak of a skills-based curriculum and I think they mean ‘musical skills’ and not generic skills.

So what is a skill? I have added musical examples.


1. the ability, coming from one’s knowledge,practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well:

Carpentry was one of his many skills.
Being able to shape a musical phrase when singing folk songs was one of his many musical skills.


2. competent excellence in performance;expertness; dexterity:

The dancers performed with skill.
The musicians performed with skill.


3. a craft, trade, or job requiring manual dexterity or special training in which a person has competence and experience:

the skill of cabinet making.
the skill of composing music.


In this view a skills-based curriculum is built on and for ever permeates our musical knowing.

But now let’s be reminded of how musical knowing can be thought about.

In this I make no mention of skill. Instead I refer to ‘knowing how’. So for example we can say ‘knowing how to make music well’. Is skill interchangeable with knowing how. Well not quite. The once skilful keyboard player sadly lost his/her hands in an accident and now, while having know how, is no longer skilful.

The distinction between skill and knowledge is a valuable one.

And if a music teacher wishes to speak of their skill-based music education then it may be helpful to make clear that these are musical skills derived from and feeding musical knowledge while keeping in mind the particular nature of musical knowledge. 

Music curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and the order of things

In last week’s blog I wrote about assessment in music education. As part of this I offered a working definition of assessment.

‘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]

I also suggested that assessment, curriculum and pedagogy exist in a symbiotic relationship, needing each other to live and speak. [2]

Ok, so let’s have a definition of pedagogy:

‘Pedagogy, understood as ‘the core acts of teaching (task, activity, interaction and assessment) framed by space, pupil organization, time and curriculum, and by routines, rules and rituals.’ [3]

Here we note that pedagogy is framed by curriculum. So it may be that curriculum has the upper hand in this three-fold relationship.

In my recent post (see I reported on ways of thinking about curriculum as developed by Carolyn Cooke and as set out in chapter 5 of the book Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School. [4] Here curriculum is viewed as ‘lived experience’.

All this prompts me to offer a definition of curriculum and in particular a music curriculum. Here goes:

The music curriculum can be defined as a dynamic set of musical processes and practices framed within historical and contemporary cultural discourse and dialogue that comprise the material musical encounters of pupils and teachers.

A definition that is partial and of course ideological. Discuss.

In the October edition of the Music Teacher Magazine Anthony Anderson makes a case for ‘Time to Think’ about the music curriculum and above all else the process of curriculum design. [5]

This call would seem to be prescient in view of recent utterances from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools.



[1] Beauvais, M. (2011) Assessment: a question of responsibility. UNIVEST. Retrieved from

[2] See Bernstein, B. (1975) ‘On the Curriculum’ in Class, Codes and Control, Volume III Towards a Theory of Educational Transmission, Basil Bernstein, Routledge and Keegan Paul.

[3] Alexander, R. (2005) Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk. York: Dialogos.

[4] Cooke, C. (2016) What is a music curriculum? In Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School edited by Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce (3rd edition), Routledge.

[5] Anderson, A. (2017) Time to Think. Music Teacher Magazine, October, pp. 47-48.






Music Education and assessment

At the recent Music Education Council’s gathering those of us interested in curriculum came together to discuss the music curriculum. (Wouldn’t it be good to have a whole day together!)

The music curriculum seems to be a kind of dialogue between ‘what’ musical processes and ‘whose’ music. And then there is the view that curriculum, pedagogy and assessment as being inseparable. Each needs the others to live and speak. As was pointed out, the last forty years have produced robust models of music curriculum, alas too easily forgotten in this age of music educational historical ignorance.

I did point out that there were no agreed standards in our curriculum 4-14. This was a surprise to some. Mention of standards and thoughts about assessment arise.

I sometimes wonder why in books on music education assessment comes to be considered later rather than sooner.

‘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]

In this view assessment is about valuing and we usually enter into teaching music with value intentions.

In the MEC curriculum discussion group I wasn’t alone in lamenting how profligate we are with the past, with those good sturdy ideas that have been thoughtfully established in the past forty years. In the case of assessment we might well turn to Derek Rowntree’s book ‘Assessing students: how shall we know them? first published in 1977. [2]

Recently reading the book 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 aiming to understand people in general and this means measuring them against each other and against standards.

In England there are no agreed standards pertaining to the music curriculum 4-14. Music teachers are wary of going down the path of standardisation and there are good reasons for this. Yet, standards are what has driven education policy in England in recent years with standards 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 barley tolerable 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.

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.

‘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] Beauvais, M. (2011) Assessment: a question of responsibility. UNIVEST. Retrieved from

[2] Rowntree, D. (1997) 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.