Music in the bones and not easily forgotten

I recently visited a local secondary school for a catch up with the music teacher who took me to the staff room where I was introduced to the Head and who was in discussion with a member of staff about learning objectives/intentions and success criteria. I briefly joined in saying that I had never understood the difference between objectives and outcomes. I have found this statement encourages the technically minded to go round in circles with outcomes merely ending up as sub-sets of objectives or easily interchangeable with objectives.

Anyway, now with cups of coffee, my music teacher host found a quiet space for a chat about the new regime in the school and the insistence that teachers show that pupils had properly learnt stuff by checking that they hadn’t forgotten it – a cue for testing whether low-level or high stake.

Music and the other arts in the school were struggling with this, not because they objected to the link between learning and long-term memory, or for that matter assuring that learning and progress were properly monitored. The problem was the assumption that what was being learnt and remembered was knowledge of this and that, facts, disembodied knowledge.

O dear, here we go again!

In the case of music, if you focus on ‘knowing how’ to do this or that; to sing, play, make, invent, improvise, compose, create, listen for detail, sight-sing, ensemble, talk about music etc. and its associated embodied repertoire of music, then remembering is of a different character to what the headteacher has in mind. And progress looks different too. Remembering how to make music well is actually a strange idea, because the know how comes to be in the bones and not easily forgotten.

From another school the music teacher wrote to me telling how:

‘At the end of a recent GCSE recital an informal 45 music jam broke out, led by students (though after a while the teachers couldn’t help but join in). Students began to play and mash-up various songs that they had studied in big band lessons – Seven Nation Army, Sweet Dreams, Thrift Shop etc.. [1] There was a sense that the students were claiming this music as their own. The outpouring of joy was palpable.’

If the latest zeitgeist rippling around our schools is the connecting of long-term memory with learning then there we are – a 45 minute recapitulation.

There are of course other kinds of things that will be learnt that do chime with the headteacher’s thinking but it’s getting the order of things right that matters and it is this that music teachers continue to struggle with in this age of measurement.


[1] In this school pupils receive two one hour music lessons each week, one whole class band, the other ‘general’.


‘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 )

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 )

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

[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.


Inside the silence

In last week’s blog I told about a music teacher’s playful dialogue with a year 7 class.

The teacher wrote:

‘They follow me well, and enjoy it when I prolong the silence before the penultimate line. When they get it right, it is magical.

I think the silence creates a moment where not a single student can escape from being musical or from being ‘in flow’. In that silence, every student is compelled to engage in musical feeling, watching, breathing, pitching, and enjoying a resolution. All bodies need to be dancing together.’

So, what’s going on here?

In the silence music is thought and felt. It’s that old friend foundational listening. Marion knows what we are talking about.

Dr Marion Long@Rhythm4Reading Sep 19

@Johnfinney8 @MMAmusicnews The power of the magic silence in a Year 7 classroom, achieved through listening together #musiceducation #trust

Minds-bodies are compelled to engage and did you notice that the teacher connects the idea of engagement with ‘being in flow’, a likely reference to Csicksentmihalyi’s flow theory? [1]

To be in flow involves losing a sense of self, distractions are excluded from consciousness, there is no worry of failure, time is distorted.

This is optimal experience.

Altogether a reasonable way of thinking about ‘musical engagement’.

Engagement is its own reward.

In this case the teacher leads the pupils inward, feeling and thinking inside the silence. An example of deep engagement in the moment we might say.

The song wasn’t selected in order to illustrate a key word or two, to advance theoretical knowledge or the pupil’s skill in notational audiation.

It was simply thought to be a beautiful song and there was a beautiful sound to be made.

And of course there was no stress to assess. No climbing some imaginary ladder of progression.

Perhaps a time in itself.

And pupils may have been learning to be a little more discriminating, discerning and curious about music?

Once upon a time assessment in music was near synonymous with learning to discriminate and discern what was valuable and worthwhile.

Perhaps it might be again or is the past really a foreign country?


[1] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper: New York.

See Custodero, L. (2005) ‘Observable indicators of flow experience: a developmental perspective on musical engagement in young children form infancy to school age’ Music Education Research, 7 (2), 185-209.

Also Ambrose, K. (2013) Performing Samba, Finding ‘Flow’: Fostering Engagement in the Classroom. In (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning. Bloomsbury: London.

Also on the topic of ‘engagement’ see and a Jennie Francis reply.

Sitting by Lake Geneva (iii)

JF: In last week’s discussion we examined the central role of cognitive structure in your theory and the idea that we build and develop mental schema through the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation. Put simply, our mental schema give us something to think with. We might well have explored the fascinating idea of conservation, the process whereby we learn to hold in mind different aspects of a stimulus and come to see how these relate to eachother (those inter-related musical dimensions, for example). But we must leave this aside for now as I want to raise another matter.

So far we have been thinking about learning and development as a series of cognitive events which develop the mind so that new and better ways of thinking are established. But this form of cognition leaves out feeling. I know you have acknowledged the role of ‘affect’ in learning, but what seems to be significant about the case of music is that to think music involves both thinking and feeling. I have always found the cognition-affective-motor model unhelpful.

The idea of cognitive-feeling has been spoken of in the arts. I believe there is a grave error made by curriculum makers and strategists in the case of music who hold to some general view of cognition, and who reduce it to a matter of ‘ah, now I see and can say’. Knowing music works at a far more profound level than this, surely?

What is it ‘to know music’, ‘what is the nature of musical knowledge?’ Without clarity here dealing with issues such as assessment become confused. Assessment without an epistemological basis will be a birth-strangled babe and cause no end of confusion. And this is why cognitive-feeling is such an important idea.

JP: I see what you are getting at.

As you will know I did carry out work on the nature of play, imagination and dream work, and I think this is relevant to your question here. I recognise that fine musical performance, for example, appears to require a particular form of cognition, and yes, perhaps the idea of cognitive-feeling goes some way to capture this.

What is clear to me is that the form of knowing and understanding of which you speak is free from the tyranny of language. It is a non-verbal form of cognition. And the significance of this form of cognition is rarely appreciated by curriculum makers. Language, for all its immense power – and let’s be clear about this, it is a remarkable tool as Lev Vygotsky has shown – can so easily prevent learning and development.

JF: Yes, this is a very subtle matter in the case of music. Much more work is needed in understanding how language is acquired in the context of music making, and how it enables thought about music.

You mentioned play so allow me to return to those students I spoke about who were adapting badly to their schooling but who operated so well as musical improvisers. I think I can now see that they took to improvising so willingly because it was through improvisation that experience was easily assimilated. Thinking of improvisation as a form of play is helpful, and there needs to be much more of it in a musical education. Indeed, having playful teachers would also help.

I was wondering whether you knew of the work of a fellow Genevan, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze? His eurhythmic classes, where thought, feeling and action worked together, were the basis of growth in musical understanding and where improvisation played an important part. These were taking place in Geneva when you were a child.

JP: But of course, I was in his class. Moving to the music as well as moving the music as a performer-composer-listener is perhaps the finest form of cognition there is!

JF: Another of your ideas was that in reflecting we come to abstract. We need time to absorb experiences and with the passing of time we come to form generalisations and these generate fresh thinking. You refer to this process as ‘reflective abstraction’. I will be doing some of this on my journey home. Thank you.

Year 9 Katie on assessment in music

Martin Fautley@DrFautley

All those things @tallgirlwgc How long before, as @Johnfinney8 predicted, SLTs realise they need subdivided grades? Sublevels reborn!

Anna G@tallgirlwgc

@DrFautley @Johnfinney8 my 8 year old son is now a B2. I said look just tell me is he on, at or below average for his age. That’s all I need

John finney@Johnfinney8

@tallgirlwgc @DrFautley But Anna doesn’t that require some kind of bench marking of standards (levels)?

Anna G@tallgirlwgc

@Johnfinney8 @DrFautley I prefer, what would an 8 year old be expected to be able to do in xyz subject and how does mine match up to this

Kirsty Hirst@Booza69

@tallgirlwgc @Johnfinney8 @DrFautley what about students who haven’t had the same exposure as others?

John finney@Johnfinney8

@Booza69 @tallgirlwgc @DrFautley I don’t know how to allow for that if at the same time expectations are set.

Above is an extract from a twitter conversation about the ways in which the world without levels is being filled with systems that may not be very helpful to a child’s musical development and progression.

The conversation starts with the spectre of GCSE grade criteria setting the benchmarks for all that comes before and so creating a ‘flight path’ to GCSE.

Then Anna’s point about the use of meaningless labels – the B2 mystery and the call for age-related standards that can be referred to.

Then Kirsty’s concern to take into account each student’s exposure to a music education.

In I explored the tension between individual learning journies of pupils and the need to define ‘standards’.

By standards we imply commonly agreed age-related standards. By the end of Key Stage 3 …

In  I found a way of addressing standards by relating Year 9’s Silent Disco’s Dance tracks to an expert’s view of what could be expected in the field of Dance Music at this age.

In this way the quality of work produced had a reliable reference point. And isn’t this how informal learners monitor their progress beyond the school, measuring themsleves against the models they seek to emulate?

Or another approach to the Silent Disco case offered the idea of whole class evaluation of achievement replacing individual assessment. And isn’t this how community music-making flourishes?

Perhaps Year 9 Katie can help. Katie has experienced her year 9 music without levels and without labels.

‘I found it quite good because we could just get on with our work and do what we want with our piece, without stress of leveling; we could progress at our own steady pace with the freedom of experiences the way we do things in music without the constant idea that we have to be a certain level. However I think sometimes we do need level descriptors to point us in the right direction. But we should all be able to determine our own working level to become better musicians.’

Putting assessment back in its box

The Silent Disco project reported on in last week’s blog provides an example of what has been described as authentic learning connected to the real world. The school reaches out and meets cultural practice. [1]

There was the commitment that all year 9 pupils, yes all, would make ‘excellent work’ (well crafted, polished) and for this to be communally celebrated. [2]

While the process of making was heavily schooled and scaffolded, teacher-led and thoroughly formal in many respects, the commitment to communal achievement resonates with what is thought to be the informality of community music-making where the pedagogy serves the idea of forming a musical community.

The ethos of building a community of music-makers overrides interest in individual talent, differential achievement and the paraphernalia of assessment that marks out formal systems of schooling.

‘This would mean that instead of focusing on clearly defined goals, assessed with some measure of achievement, evaluation would be first and foremost interested in musical experience, valued in qualitative terms. If we accept that education is, at root, ‘a process of living and not a preparation for future living’ (Dewey [1897] 1996), it makes sense to pay attention to the richness of music-related meanings emerging from the active relationships of sonic events, music(k)ers and physical space.’ [3]

So instead of following a typically schooled pattern of assessment where each pupil is measured against norms derived from (in this case) Club Dance practice, the communal achievement of the year group would be evaluated in wider socio-musical terms.

For example, how well has our silent disco enabled us to live/experience/know music, think about what it means to live music together with others? Have we created a community of practice, explored new relationships, musically-socially? Where do we go from here?

But wait a minute, let’s rewind to the commonly understood alternative referred to above where, in the case of Club Dance, assessment would focus on the ways in which the sonic hallmarks of this particular musical practice have been worked with and mastered by these year 9 pupils. For example, how effectively has sonic material been phased, gradually layered, morphed?

In returning to assessment, and leaving aside evaluation, we are faced with the question of norms and standards.

Club Dance is a musical practice that has gatekeepers, that is, those who provide the exemplars and models of successful practice and standards to emulate.

I gave one example of year 9’s work anonymously to one such gatekeeper. It was thought the work represented a standard expected at Key Stage 3. And if all forty pieces had been examined then most likely we would have found some ‘working towards’ this standard and some ‘working beyond’.

Whether focusing on evaluation or assessment or both is there really a need for levels, numbers, grades?

Perhaps the place to start is to develop a music-making community that together produces ‘excellent work’ (music made well, polished). Only then should we consider letting assessment out of its box.


[1] I have been wondering whether a Silent Disco is a dynamic life enhancing form of contemporary sociality or as Roger Scruton might say a form of collective solitude. I have been talking to silent disco experts who are telling me about the new kinds of musical-social relations brought about by such an event.

[2] Is this the ultimate expression of ‘inclusion’?

[3] Odendaal, A., Kankkunen, O., Nickkannen, H. and Vakeva, L. (2014) ‘What’s with the K? Exploring the implications of Christopher Small’s ‘musicking’ for general music education.’ Music Education Research, (16) 2, 162-175.

Dewey, J. [1897] 1996. ‘’My Pedagogical Creed.’’ In The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953. The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898. Vol. 5, edited by L. Hickman, 84-95. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Teaching music without learning objectives

[A note for email followers. I have expanded my blog site to include a place for scholarly articles, twitter feeds, a category index and blogs of the week.]

‘Sometimes I like it all to be a magical mystery tour – with surprises round the corner. How boring always to know where you’re going/what you’re going to do!’ (Lis McCullough)

At last week’s music teacher symposium here in Cambridge I dropped into the conversation that Robin Hammerton HMI had recently announced that there was no expectation that teachers use learning objectives.

There was one of those group gasps.

These were teachers well socialized into the technical rationality of contemporary schooling.

Learning objectives – non-negotiable as their managers would say and until fairly recently no objectives on the board meant a lesson observation being rated ‘unsatisfactory’. [1]

Without learning objectives how can learning experiences be planned, outcomes stated, criteria for success determined or assessment brought under control? All those things percolating through National Strategies, reinforced by Ofsted of the time and that have become part of the woodwork. [2]

No learning objectives! But doesn’t that mean no Bloom’s Taxonomy? No purpose, no direction, no way of evaluating the success of the teaching, no way of measuring the effectiveness of the learning? [3]

Presumably Robin Hammerton had behavioural objectives in mind, those objectives that are sufficiently precise for their effect to be visible and measurable. [4]

For Robert Mager ‘an objective is an intent communicated by a statement describing a proposed change in a learner – a statement of what a learner is to be like when he has successfully completed a learning experience.’ [5]

I am drawing from chapter 6 of Elliot Eisner’s ‘The Educational Imagination’. The chapter is called ‘ Educational Aims, Objectives and Other Aspirations’ and must rank as one of the most thorough investigations of the topic. [6]

Eisner comes to the conclusion that a curriculum determined by behavioural objectives would seriously reduce the view of what might be possible. In fact ‘to expect all our educational aspirations to be either verbally describable or measurable is to expect too little’. [7]

Eisner proposes three possibilities in designing curricular.

  1. Behavioural Objective ———–Behavioural activity
  2. Problem-Solving Objective——Problem-Solving Activity
  3. Expressive Activity—————Expressive Outcome

In the arts there will be a place for 1, but it is 2 and 3 and 3 in particular that would mark out creative arts practice as being distinctive.

Eisner again:

‘I believe that it is perfectly appropriate for teachers and others involved in curriculum development to plan activities that have no explicit or precise objectives.’ [8]

This would mean that there could be no specific formulation of what behaviour will be exhibited by pupils at the conclusion of the project. Rather like going to the cinema, the zoo or a musical event, we can’t specify what will be gained from the experience. The experience will of course yield much thought, conversation, questions, the exercise of judgement and associated criteria that help to make sense of what has been experienced and to suggest what may have been learnt.

So, teaching without objectives opens up interesting possibilities and encourages me to think in terms of extended projects with enquiry questions bringing together Eisner’s 2 an 3 above. [9]

Enquiry questions or what some refer to as essential questions help to create structure and direction.

I like the questions that pupils provide like ‘Why does Reggae exist?’ ‘What makes one composition better than another?’ ‘How does beat-boxing turn your voice into an instrument?’ ‘How many times is it good to repeat a musical idea? What is a musical idea, don’t you mean a riff?’ ‘Why did Jay-Z slow down that 1970s riff?

So now we are teaching without behavioural objectives but through critical enquiry and expressive activity and with scope for a dialogic pedagogy. This seems to me to offer the possibility of some musical depth and rigour and to give these weasel words some meaning.

But wait a minute. I would like my pupils to know how to talk well about their music-making and this means that I will need to create a behavioural objective:

Pupils will know how to conduct a group conversation giving each other a voice.

No doubt the true behaviorist will point out that this is too vague, not precise enough.

Nevertheless my critical enquiry-expressive activity is willing to give way to a behavioural objective as the situation calls for.

Enough of all this. We need a living example. I can only stand so much theorising. So, next week I go inside a school in Stratford, East London.


[1] Stories of music teachers playing the objectives game abound. Rarely it seems is the quality of the stated objective or its potential to generate worthwhile experience examined.

[2] This cat and mouse game of Ofsted calling the tune, changing the tune while fermenting bi-tonal conversations is becoming close to farce.

[3] The discourse of ‘effectiveness’ is usually tongue-tied when asked ‘effective for what?’

[4] Behavioural objectives are sometimes referred to as instructional objectives.

[5] Mager, R. (1962) Preparing Instructional Objectives, Fearson Publishers, Palo Alto, Calif., p.31.

[6] Eisner, E. (2001) The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programmes. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.: New York. Third Edition.

[7] Ibid. p.98.

[8] Ibid p.104. For 13 0bjections to learning objectives see

[9] See for discussion of the idea of the project.