Singing and those silent corridors

Yesterday news came of the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, endorsing an initiative to tackle unruly behaviour in our schools. The endorsement included the practice of silent corridors, pupils moving between lessons in silence as a mark of disciplined behaviour. Such an idea inevitably gives rise to debate or rather the forming of polarised positions attached to deeply held values. And I won’t pursue the debate here. Instead simply tell about a practice I had heard of a good number of years ago, one that had lingered in my ever curious mind. Yes, here were children going between lessons, not in silence, but singing their repertoire of national songs. This was in Switzerland and under the influence of the reforming educator Johann Pestalozzi. I find the image appealing in the light of some of current debate.

This silent obedience being called for in schools at the present time provides an image at odds with the joy often associated with singing, singing playgrounds and the contemporary call to Sing Up and for singing to permeate the whole life of the school – indeed a stark contrast to the Swiss children of two hundred years ago,

Of course, the silent corridor could be populated by pupils singing silently but it would likely result in body movement thought to transgress the behaviour expectations of the silent corridor.

Presumably silent corridors expect docile bodies.

The deep dive that turned out to be a shallow disappointment

The headteacher had nominated music as a place for the inspector to make a deep dive. And the music teacher felt just a little flattered at being selected. The inspector appeared in the music department just as the school choir were singing Seal Lullaby. It was sounding good. Did he want to listen?

No. Where is the department office? May I see your curriculum planning document?

Lesson observed. Questioning of pupils. Then the conversation with the music teacher.

And this revealed an inspector out of his depth. For it seemed he had no knowledge of the variegated nature of musical knowledge. Rather, for this inspector, musical knowledge corresponded to words. (Scroll down for last week’s blog.)

That grasp of a concept about music might take time to grow in a way that would give it meaning was not understood.

Is it fair to expect inspectors to go on deep dives and get out of their depth?

Some problems with conceptual understanding in the case of music

Using the so-called ‘elements of music’ was helpful at the time, that is, in the early 1980s.  We had found a fresh way of structuring what we did.  There they were – pitch, timbre, rhythm, pulse etc.  These were thought to be the building blocks of music. And we could see how this was paralleled in visual art: colour, line, perspective, composition etc. And even better, these elements could be thought of as ‘concepts’. Yes, music had a conceptual framework of sorts and something was needed in order to replace the ‘Theory of Music’ as a legitimate framework. (How can a theory be a conceptual framework?)

But as Keith Swanwick pointed out, music doesn’t have elements, it has features, and it is these features that give music character, interest and stylistic distinction and that get noticed. Not elements. These are abstractions, monster words and some distance from our musical perception. No wonder then that for the last thirty years music teachers have been coercing children to say them without much success. In fact the key words movement seems to have achieved very little.

The distinguished Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky had something to say about this.

‘Pedagogical experience demonstrates that direct instruction in concepts is impossible. It is pedagogically fruitless. The teacher who attempts to use this approach achieves nothing but a mindless learning of words, an empty verbalism that stimulates the presence of concepts in the child. Under these conditions, the child learns not the concept but the word, and this word is taken through memory rather than through thought.’ [1]

Vygotsky compares this empty learning with ‘living learning’ implying that the concept needs to be internalised and in some sense personalised before it is useable. In the case of music, itself being non-verbal, while allowing concepts to be formed about it, the distance between experience and concept appears especially great. Thus we attempt to place conceptual musical understanding in a relationship to existential musical understanding. That is, what this means to me in relation to what this means more generally.

Of course, musical features can be thought of as concepts as well as elements. But at least they are what strike us about the music we encounter; a characteristic rhythm, a facet of melodic movement, a sharply articulated short sound, for example. End Licks, Snaps, Turn Arounds … these are the features that contribute to our sonic meaning making and that are everywhere to be sensed, perceived, felt, cherished and that inspire emulation. These we could refer to as first order concepts, although I am bit unsure about this. One thing that I am clear about is that in music our concepts need to be open and dynamic rather than closed.

So what might count as second order concepts?

Oh no! Please not the elements of music.


[1] Vygotsky, L.S. (1987). Thinking and Speech. In L.S. Vygotsky, The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky, Vol. 1, Problems of general psychology (pp.39-285) (R.W. Rieber & A.S. Carton, Eds.; N. Minick, Trans.) New York: Plenum Press.

Breadth and balance post 14.

I recall, somewhen about 1985 in my Basingstoke comprehensive school, the question being asked by a parent at a year 9 options evening: why don’t pupils continue their study of all subjects in years 10 and 11?

This question was asked in the public forum and alongside other parents who questioned the compulsory ‘aesthetic option’ requiring all pupils to study an arts subject post age 14. The next day teachers of art, ceramics, music, film and drama were called to a meeting with the head and deputy. We sensed that our highly prized aesthetics option was under threat. We went to the meeting armed with chapter and verse on the value of the arts. At the time there was no shortage of philosophical enquiry into aesthetic and artistic knowing and the uniqueness of this way of understanding the world. We presented the head and deputy with reasoned arguments supporting our place in the curriculum. We deployed the weight of intellectual authority with confidence and conviction.

The aesthetic option lived on and in end of course evaluations pupils expressed great satisfaction with the ways in which the uniqueness of the arts had enriched their lives and how the experience had been sharply different to other subjects. It was part of a comprehensive comprehensive school education, a result of progressive 1970s thinking reviving a liberal education and saving education from a lazy form of traditionalism.

Now, some thirty years later there is the EBacc and the arts are excluded and only a few enlightened headteachers feel confident enough to sustain an argument for an entitlement to a post 14 arts education.

Some point to the compulsory nature of English and English Literature and all that is offered there in the cause of an arts education. But many will have noticed a general shift in discourse towards a certain view of rigour, competence and functionality. The idea of an aesthetic dimension to education is now unheard of and long silenced to be replaced by reductionist notions of knowledge.

Pupils between the age of 14 and 16 will be wanting to give meaning to their lives through artistic expression and aesthetic experience and there should be a broad range of options available across a school’s offering.

Did you know that a first DfE proposal in respect to the formation of the current GCSE examination in music was that 80% of the marks should be allocated to a written paper and that the ABRSM graded theory exams were considered as a model?

Interestingly, in the final reckoning there is a component of the exam referred to as ‘knowledge’, not aesthetic knowledge, not the wonder of occurrent knowledge. personal knowledge or embodied knowledge but, you’ve got it, propositional knowledge.

Alas, our current political masters have a poor grasp of the order of things.