Helping Children Succeed

Helping Children Succeed – a short review.

Reading Helping Children Succeed is a useful way of reflecting on the current enthusiasm for “No Excuses Discipline”. (see here, here, here and here. See some critical reactions here, here and here.)  Paul Tough examines a wide range of evidence that questions its effectiveness. I work in school that has its fair share of challenging students and as such needs to be clear about what works in education and why.

Does Michaela offer an alternative, maybe even more effective approach to teaching disadvantaged students? What might explain is success and its attractiveness? What can we learn from its advocates?

How might it’s “no excuses” approach help its cause? What might be the limitations of this approach – why does it provoke discomfort in many teachers? Under what circumstances does it work?\

What is it about growing in poverty that leads to so many troubling outcomes?

Paul Tough’s book is an easy read – a short overview of studies into working with disadvantaged children and some reflection on why they have worked.  He argues that schools need to build an effective environment of care, an atmosphere of relatedness and offer academic work that provides challenge and its own intrinsic rewards. The importance of building a sense of relatedness leads him away from a “No Excuses” approach its foundation in behaviourism.

He opens his book with two questions:

  • What is it about growing in poverty that leads to so many troubling outcomes?
  •  What is it about affluence that provides to children that growing up in poverty does not?

He starts out by looking into research that shows that growing up in harsh and unstable environments can create biological changes in the growing brains of young children:

“Those changes impair the development of an important set of mental capacities that help young people regulate their thoughts and feelings, and that impairment makes it difficult for them to process information and manage emotions in ways that allow them to succeed at school.”   page 4.


He discusses research that has started to put the importance of character on the map for schools – particularly as certain character traits go along with being a successful and healthy adult.

When discussing research, he is wary of taking small scale successful ventures as if they can be straightforwardly scaled up. Whilst small scale stories can work at a narrative level to inspire we also need to know why these things work – what are the principals behind the success.

He is clear that character is impossible to teach. He describes a few case studies of adults working with disadvantaged young people and successful engendering non-cognitive capabilities (grit, curiosity, self-control, optimism and conscientiousness.)

For example, he describes a chess instructor who conveyed a sense of belonging and purpose in her students. She displayed careful and close attention to improvement at chess – and did not discuss things such as resilience or grit. However, it was in developing their ability as chess players they became more resilient as young people.

This sort of insight leads Paul Tough to suggest:

“It was also clear that certain pedagogical techniques that work well in math or history are ineffective when it comes to character strengths.”  Page 12

Toxic stress – changing the environment not the child. 

He suggests that in order to develop non-cognitive skills in young people “that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first, it seems, is his environment.”  I think this seems persuasive – programs that try to teach explicitly skills like grit or resilience don’t always seem successful.

He recognises that stress is a central influence on the way environment is experienced and understood.

 “On an emotional level, chronic early stress – what many researchers now call toxic stress – can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. Small setbacks feel like crushing defeats; tiny slights turn onto serious confrontations. In school, a highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behaviour that are self-defeating: fighting, talking back, acting up in class, and also more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers and resistant to outreach from teachers and adults. “ Pge 15:

These words have a strong resonance with the school I work in. Again and again I meet students who react with such disproportionate anger and confrontation at sometimes the slightest of correction or challenge. It’s tempting to believe that appropriate and strong discipline would correct these responses and box students into a more compliant frame of mind but if there is anything in the theory of toxic stress then this would be highly unlikely outcome.

We learn from research that has tried to improve the outcomes for disadvantaged students that early intervention (before the age of three) is key and that the most effective interventions are the ones that encourage creating a nurturing environment for the child.

“The St. Petersburg experiment worked because it changed the environment of the babies in and children in the orphanage. The children didn’t get nicer beds or food or more stimulating toys. What changed was the way the adults around them behaved towards them. If we want to try to improve the early lives of disadvantaged today, there is considerable evidence that the best leveller we can use is that same powerful environmental element: the behaviours and attitudes of the adults those children encounter every day.”  


Paul Tough discusses one large project (based in the poorest neighbourhoods of Kingston Jamaica) that looked at home visits for disadvantaged children. He found that the most powerful interventions were the ones that encouraged parents to play – these had greater impact than for example  providing better nutrition. He shows that successful intervention gave parents psychological and emotional support – they weren’t design around just tips around parenting.

According to the Turnaround paper, written by consultant Brooke Stafford-Brizard, “high level non-cognitive skills like resilience, curiosity and academic tenacity are very difficult for a child to obtain without first developing a foundation of executive functions, a capacity for self-awareness, and relationship skills. And these skills, in turn, stand atop an infrastructure of qualities built in the first years of life, qualities like secure attachment, the ability to manage stress, and self-regulation.”   Page 51. (from Turnaround for Children 2016)

“When educators neither prioritize these skills and mindsets nor integrate them with academic development, students are left without tools for engagement or a language for learning.”

 “Without those skills they can’t process the vast amounts of instruction that comes their way each day, and it becomes daunting if not impossible to stay on track. This is the achievement gap.” Pge 52.


What might this suggest to school leaders creating climates and school cultures? This is something that Paul Tough looks at in the second half of his book.

Successful School Climates

His chapter on discipline notes that students who have been exposed to significant adversity most need are the opportunities to develop skills to self-regulate and modulate stress. However, schools often look at how best to discipline and correct students who struggle in these areas. He suggests that schools can see students who misbehave as simply having behavioural problems to solve – rather than as students struggling to develop a healthier set of self-regulation mechanisms.

Behaviour is not based on some sort of weighing up of benefits and costs but is often under the sway of psychological and hormonal factors that are extremely powerful. To improve behaviour we should create an environment in which students can develop the self regulatory capacities they lack. Paul Tough notes how talking back and acting up are shaped by an inability to control impulses and de-escalate confrontation.

He outlines research that shows that behaviourism as an approach has not been successful. The growing trend in no excuses discipline leads teachers to exert greater control and less connection.  He discusses the data from Chicago that shows an astonishing 27% of students who live in the poorest neighbourhoods received a suspension often for fairly minor infringes such as defiance of school staff or school rule behaviour. The students that are suspended are those more likely to achieve lower grades.


He also considers those who suggests that high suspensions benefit those that are left behind.


“But a 2014 study of nearly 17,000 students in a large urban district in Kentucky found the opposite. In those schools, a greater number of suspensions corresponded to lower end-of semester math and reading scores for the students who were never  suspended….Whatever the cause, being in a classroom where your peers were likely to be suspended, even if you never got in trouble yourself, created an atmosphere that was less conductive to your academic success.”   (page 56)


Deci and Ryan were two researchers looking at behaviourist approaches in schools. They argued that intrinsic motivation was much more important that extrinsic rewards. They identified three needs – relatedness, competence and autonomy – that need to be satisfied before we gain intrinsic motivation: 

“Students experience autonomy in the classroom, when their teachers ‘maximize a sense of choice and volitional engagement’ whilst minimizing students’ feeling of coercion and control. Students feel competent, they say, when their teachers give them tasks they can succeed at but that aren’t too easy – challenge just a bit beyond their current abilities. And feel a sense of relatedness when they perceive that their teachers like and value and respect them.” (page 63)

Relatedness autonomy and competence

This leads Tough to argue that schools need to consider how we can make relatedness, competence and autonomy stronger in schools. Of course here this leads us to wonder how “no excuses” school manage their students feeling of coercion and control.

Tough outlines the research of Kirabo Jackson who looked at what made teachers effective (using a database of 465,502 students). He used student attendance, suspensions, punctuality and overall GPA (an average test score) as a proxy for non-cognitive ability. These he found a much better predictor of adult wages and attendance at college than test scores.  What’s interesting is the conclusion that “classroom contexts where students experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness tend not only to foster more intrinsic motivation but also more wiling engagement in less interesting academic activities.”

All interesting and suggestive thoughts in the context of the what we mean by engagement debate. In stark contrast to no excuses ethos is that the further schools ignore the importance of relatedness the more likely students reach a point at which no punishments or incentives reach them.

Kirabo Jackson’s analysis of the data found two groups of teachers with abilities that often didn’t overlap. One group of teachers seemed effective at improving cognitive abilities of students and another seemed more effective at improving non-cognitive abilities. The second group he found had more impact on a student’s later success than the ones raising test scores. In other words, those teachers that appeared not to be successful in improving exam results but in improving non-cognitive skills did more for their pupils in terms of their future success.


Such claims put a question to those teachers who argue that schools should be to make students “cleverer” and also challenge any simplistic measure of accountability by test scores. There are probably many teachers contributing to the success of our students – some of whom may not be getting the best exam results.

What is at stake here is that a strong focus on cognitive skills and viewing a school’s success in terms of cognitive abilities only is paradoxically most likely contributing to our disadvantaged students finding fulfilment after school has finished more challenging.

This doesn’t mean we need to measure non-cognitive abilities but it requires an acknowledgement and consideration of the need to create the right kind of environment in the classroom so that students behave differently.

This belief in the important role of non-cognitive abilities was outlined by some research into education by Farrington called “Teaching Adolescents to become learners.” (2012)


She argued that “noncognitive factors (as the report called them – not skills) should be understood “not as a set discrete abilities that individual children might somehow master (or fail to master) but as a collection of mindsets and habits and attitudes that are highly dependent on the context in which the children are learning.

“There is little evidence that working directly on changing a students’ grit or perseverance would be an effective lever for improving their academic performance.”  (Page 76)

She suggested that these attitudes were context dependent and rather than try to make students be gritty they needed to act gritty.

 “the key factor behind academic perseverance was students’ academic mindset – the attitudes and self-perceptions that each child and adolescent possessed. “

 She found four key beliefs that contribute most significantly to any student’s tendency to persevere in the classroom.

  1. I belong in this academic community
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.
  3. I can succeed at this: and
  4. This work has value for me.

Students in adversity are primed not to believe any of the four statements. These beliefs   echo the 3 aspects of intrinsic motivation – competence, autonomy and relatedness which the author boils down to 2 statements:

One about people

First is belonging – she is welcomed and feels a part of the learning environment.

The second is about work

 Is it challenging and is it meaningful? Is it within their grasp if they push themselves a little?

The implications is that there are two toolboxes:

  1. relationships – how you treat and discipline students.
  2. pedagogy – what you teach and how you teach and assess.

He highlights research that shows even simple things like post-it notes with comments like “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” had an impact on those students that saw themselves as stereotyped.

What Yeager, the researcher, concluded from this was


“teachers have a critical and potentially transformative opportunity, when dealing with students who perceive school as a threatening place, to disarm those threats by changing the way they communicate. For some students, it may only take a relatively minor shift in tone to build that trust. That’s what the Post-it study seems to suggest, at least. But for other students, those whose backgrounds have led them to experience that fight or flight reaction not just in occasional high-stress moments but all the time, developing a sense of belonging and connection in school may require a more immersive intervention.” P86

This takes Paul Tough to consider schools that coached teachers in building a positive emotional climate and showing sensitivity to needs for student autonomy. He notes how schools need to set aside time to give extensive counselling to key vulnerable students as well as trying to equip all staff with suitable skills to deal with volatile students.

Paul Tough also discusses schools that are seeking to also makes forward strides in pedagogy. His investigations take him to schools that are moving away from worksheets and lectures to more time spent working in small groups and “collaborating on longer-term creative projects.” He showcases schools such as the Expeditionary Learning schools which have small pastoral groups (called crews of around 10-15) and show how students build character through experience of preserving through challenging academic work.

Whilst many are critical of project based learning Paul Tough quotes a 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research which showed:

“that students at five urban EL middle schools advanced ahead of matched peers at comparison schools by an average of ten months in math and seven month in reading over the course of three years. The research also shows that an EL education has a greater positive impact on low –income students than on other students.

He recognises that there is a need for student to belong and also work that is challenging, rigorous and deep.


No excuses in context

Paul Tough outlines research that no excuses has not worked. The simplistic behaviourist model unsurprisingly just does not help in understanding the complex needs and emotional lives of disadvantaged students. The no excuses model acts as a powerful inspiring narrative. However, whilst providing a sense of certainty and hope it reduces complexity and the emotional and psychological of lives of students seem almost one-dimensional.

Behaviourism does not seem a convincing theory for building school discipline systems. So why is Michaela so successful?  I feel a great deal of what I read suggests they are able to provide to students a feeling that:

  1. I belong in this academic community
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.
  3. I can succeed at this: and
  4. This work has value for me.

I think the success of Michaela holds a lot to how they foster the above. No excuses discipline is for me a distraction.




Faculty reviews and knowledge

A friend of mine sent me the following draft of a faculty review report. He recently graduated from Teach to Lead and is now an Associate Assistant Head with responsibility for Tradition and Knowledge. He is very much enjoying his NQT year and is currently writing a book entitled: “A broken nation: the progressive legacy.” It is hotly anticipated in certain circles.

Faculty Review.

Expressive Arts Faculty



Progressive ideologies have taken a grip of this faculty – this has led to poor outcomes.  The Expressive Arts and PE Faculty have a number of experienced teachers who need to reimagine what is possible with poor students. Poor students deserve a tough love which embraces the challenges of studying theory and introduces young people to the fundamental aspects of musical knowledge found in the classical canon. Afro-American traditions such as hip-hop and funk are unlikely to contain examples of the best that has been thought and said – although they do come a very close second.  Just imagine how good Grime would be if it had a few melodies.

Learning is characterised by low expectations, group work and attempting to engage students with fun activities. There is little attempt to embed knowledge and understanding through appropriate drills and memorisation techniques. Most students are allowed to work in an atmosphere of exploration and creativity.

Teachers need to realise that they have got things about creativity in students very, very wrong having been hoodwinked by the doctrine of progressive constructivist education.  Traditional thinking, knowledge rich loving art teachers are thin on the ground. Thankfully this much maligned minority are finally beginning to find a voice through social medial and are making a stand for all the white middle class males that are under-represented in music education. (Find out more in my blog: “Why study Missy Elliot when we have Beethoven?”)

We are also beginning to see that students need years and years of patient study before they can be allowed to compose. Quite simply, pupils need more rigour, more focus and more practice before being allowed loose to compose their own music. Such activities are futile and do nothing to improve standards.

Many arts teachers still cling to the idea that all students are creative. They often hold the oppressive view that students are already able to express themselves and form opinions and ideas. They forgot the importance of the role of the apprentice and the role of an apprentice in being subservient to his betters. It’s time that the silent majority reclaimed its position in society and made a stand for truth and justice.

 Summary of Findings

Evidence was taken from learning walks, book looks, staff and student voice and analysis of data. Particularly instructive of the issues was this comment from a year 8 student:” I like music – lessons are fun, we get to work in groups.”

Data showed some poor outcomes particularly for disadvantaged students who had been allowed to play the wrong kind of instruments. Orchestral players were nearly all better readers of music. Unsurprisingly they also seemed better adjusted young people.

Music department report

 Music lessons were characterised by group work in composition and performance.  We heard some very unmusical parallel fifths – we gave them an instant demerit. Too many students were allowed to work collaboratively and learn from other students.  In one lesson we saw year 8s attempting to play Salsa in a group. It was clearly an example of untrammelled progressive ideology. The majority of the group were unable to cope with the complex syncopations and challenging part writing. The occasional daydream or floundering music making in a practice room may seem innocuous, but these seconds gradually amount to minutes and hours of learning time lost. Instead we felt drills in keeping time to a 4/4 beat would have developed much better internalization of tempo and rhythm.

In another lesson many students were learning repertoire that they had chosen. This shows low expectation and colludes in lowering standards. For example one student was using an  iPad to watch a you tube video on how to play the riff from rabbit run – dismayed with such low expectations we gave her a copy of sheet music for Schumann’s Kinderszenen satisfied that she would learn some valuable truths about the nature of creativity and endeavour.

Traditional teachers have high expectations for students and don’t rely on modern technology and its engagement traps. Very few intelligent people actually like Grime and its known that students who are allowed to play too much rap end in a life of crime.  No wonder so few students carry on to be world renowned orchestral players.

Very few lessons were characterised by individual study of theory. This led to the low standards in performance and shocking misconceptions in compositions. Students should not be allowed to express creativity through composition work if they do not the difference between crochets and quavers. Many music teachers do not sweat the small stuff. Students who incorrectly resolve a leading note need immediate remedial attention in order to prevent the rot from spreading.

Too much talk of embodied knowledge skirts the issues that students need more knowledge – the right sort of knowledge. Philosophers like Lakoff and Johnson just need to read more widely. Knowledge is knowledge is rich knowledge.

People are too attracted to silly and outdated notions that we are living in post-modern, post truth society in which the powerful shape truth for their own advantage. Let’s reclaim our traditions, the power of truth and bring back common sense ideas and optimal pedagogy to our classrooms.



  • Introduce all teachers to the greats of music – We suspect many music teachers are not able to rank appropriately the ten best symphonies of the 19th century and are seriously lacking in rich knowledge.
  • Remove group work until students are 14 or at least grade 3 standard.
  • Theory and harmony to focus on the rules created by Bach. Studying harmony in the context of modern popular music gives students the wrong idea.
  • All students to learn violin and introduced to a better appreciation of classical music.
  • promote knowledge before creativity.
  • Music teachers to focus on developing a knowldgerichcurrriulcumtradionalandnoexcusesculturewithoptimalpedagogy.



This was an exceptionally dark place.


Remove from the curriculum


In conclusion 

“to recognise that ‘being creative’ is, at least potentially, the natural and normal state of anyone healthy in a sane and stimulating community, and that realising that potential is as much a matter of collaboration and ‘co-creation’ as of splen- did or miserable isolation;”

“to insist upon a vision of creativity that embraces radical forms of re-creation and includes actively engaged kinds of re-vision, re-membering and re-familiarisation (as distinct from the relatively passive notion of ‘recreation’), and thus resists casual notions of divine creation ‘from nothing’ or of purely spontaneous expres-sion welling up from nowhere;”

page 17 Creativity Theory History Practice

The great strength of the concept re . . . creation (which is therefore its greatest potential weakness) is that it draws attention to the possibility of missing or excluded terms. It invites us to see through the existing possibilities to words and worlds beyond as well as between; and it encourages a view of ‘difference’ that is genuinely other- wise. Put another way, it is an invitation to keep on jumping or bridging the gap; for it cannot be permanently filled in, and simply ignoring and then falling into it gets us nowhere.

Finally, I would argue that a concept such as re . . . creation offers a more responsive and responsible vision of ‘creativity’ than that provided by the standard definitions in the specialist literature. There the emphasis tends to be upon the ‘new’, the ‘novel’ and the ‘original’ in their narrowly ‘modern’ senses (see above p. 57). Re . . . creation leaves more room for conserving and sustaining as well as recasting and refreshing, while resisting conservative, reactionary impulses of an unthinking and merely reflex- ive kind.

Page 88 Creativity Theory Practice

Musical Assessment Without Levels

Here’s a short overview of assessment in George Green’s Arts.

Why Badges?

After some discussion with my line manager back in the summer term of 2015 I proposed a system of assessment based on London Nautical School’s Badges system.  Please see here for how this has worked out for this amazing department.

This approach to  assessment is taken directly from this school. So if you want the see it working well take  a visit to their website!


From tracking to formative assessment. 

When working on this new approach with my collegues I felt the main misconception tended to be around the idea that awarding the badge was somehow the assessment. For me the crucial importance was on how it opened up better discussions of quality both for teacher and student and teacher to teacher. This is nicely summed up by the famous quote from Ron Berger:

Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.”

Ron Berger, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’

The badges helped to refocus everyone on how we create space in the classroom to have these kinds of dialogue in the classroom.

It isn’t perfect and we still haven’t finished our catalogue of models and criteria. Still I think the process has been useful.

Here’s the Art’s Assessment policy in its final incarnation. The badge system is also described. There’s an example at the end of this blog too.

Assessment Policy JUly 2016 final

Here’s an example of the tracking sheet in action.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 16.57.20

I really liked the simplicity of recording whether a student has achieved the badge or not. As you can see some badges remained unlocked whilst some badges the majority of the class can achieve. (This spreadsheet has recently been updated and improved by our IT and spreadsheet guru. It now automatically can produce a report summarising all the badges achieved for each student int a class – for reporting purposes)

I’ll return to the Salsa badges in a moment but here’s our basic assessment principles.


Our ten principles for assessment:  

1. Curriculum comes first.

2. Relate assessment to the specifics of the curriculum.

3. Avoid high stakes assessment

4. Use models over criteria, Comparison over absolute judgements.

5. Use critique and descriptive feedback – work together to define the qualities of good work.

6. Oral feedback is an essential, ephemeral process – integral to successful teaching in the Expressive Arts.

7. To capture the workshop nature of the Expressive Arts will require videoing and archiving of work.

8. We need rich formative dialogue based on trusting relationships – feedback that causes thinking rather than emotional reactions.

9: Focus on ensuring that your feedback gets acted upon so that students are given a chance to improve their performance.

10: Start from where the learner is, not where we would like the learner to be – and give feedback that will move the student’s learning forward.



Implementation – support from SLT was crucial. 

I sent a document to SLT outlining the rational behind badges and why I thought it a useful system. As luck would have it 2016 was to be a year of experimentation with assessment systems at KS3 and it was agreed for the Arts to trail this out. In fact PE, DT and Computing also joined us.

Agreement from SLT is crucial and without it the new assessment system would have been impossible to introduce.

Introduction to the Faculty 

I did this quite late in the summer term of 2015. It’s fair to say reception to the idea was received with a mixture of hostility and disbelief. I think we were all exhausted after a long year of change and new developments and the thought of a new approach to assessment was just too much. It was the wrong time to introduce another new idea.

I had some convincing to do.

Summer Holidays

Towards the end of the summer holidays I decided to develop a website to promote the Arts and keep the models and badges together in one place. You can find it here.

Fortunately my music colleague agreed (thank you Travis) to help with designing the spreadsheet and put it together shortly after we got back from the holidays.

Autumn Term to Spring Term 

We trialled a few ideas and added examples to the website. Eventually everyone began to come round to my way of thinking….

Except there did seem many misconceptions with one department even trying to reinvent levels within the badge system. A few more meetings and discussion later and by the Spring term we were mostly aligned…

We have as a faculty a two and half hour session every two weeks as part of our CPL – a great deal of our meetings were given over to giving everyone the time to agree on the main achievements and badges for each SOL. 

A few issues remain unresolved.

Issue 1: Just how do you pitch the difficulty of the Badges to be achieved.

Issue 2: Are we assessing the skill or just the particular outcome from the SOL currently being studied. Can they be the same badge or should they be renamed?

Issue 3: Do students really know what it is they have achieved?

Issue 4: in creative work do models of expectations tend to limit the kind of responses we receive from students? Do students try to copy the model rather than find their own unique voice?

Issue 5: How do we report this back to parents and can the SLT be sure that what the students achieve is really stretching them?

An example from our Salsa unit- Toca Bonito 

Those familiar with Musical Futures will know this as an example SOL from their booklet mark 2.  We choose this SOL as it is challenging and offers ensemble opportunities and some room for improvising.  (AP 1 ) It’s important to maintain the groove which uses some syncopation and interlocking rhythms.

We agreed on three badges  for this SOL (AP 2 – originally 4 but the 4th no-one achieved.)  Three is the maximum we wanted but other departments varied.  At times I argued we should have just one badge with everything else being about how we achieved the main badge. This would result in some students possibly never receiving a formal tracking on their achievements and this was seen as demotivating. So in the end we tended to have a straightforward badge ( 1 point) a more challenging “half way point” and then what we discussed as the main achievement (3 points.)  For our Salsa unit the three badges are basically:

Groove is in the Heart (1 point) playing in time.

Master Blaster (2 points) Knowing your own part really well.

Toca Bonito (3 points) Playing your own part within an extended structure and playing with a sense of style and confidence.

The final badge becomes the example we share and discuss the most. Then as students put together the work we talk about the progress and how they are coming along. We do lots of live modelling as the students work in groups and share what we are after. Students also share and model their own work. Sometimes we might reference the badges – often we just discuss what needs to be done next. In other words lots of  AP 4,  5 and 8,9,10 combined. See below for how this looks:

3 Points

All performers should be in time and play their own part accurately. There should be a clear structure with an introduction, main section, use of the tag.  It should be played confidently and with a sense of style.

If you watch this video you hear the group start with the tag. They play this in unison. Then the drummer plays the main groove and the rest of the instrumentalists join in and play the main tune 4 times. Notice how the players are in time and show a sense of confidence. They are aware of each others parts and follow the structure well.

You can watch it here: (it’s also at GG’s website music badges level 2)

The video is the main reference point for the standards (AP 4) though over time other students are able to share their work as exemplars.

From tracking to formative assessment.

Whilst we continually share the tracking sheet with our students and students do ask what they need to do to achieve the badges the main aim is for the badges to work in the background:

“We are sharing a common goal of excellence. Good assessment is a fundamental part of good pedagogy that is aware of the dangers of reducing complex real life, artistic production and creativity to numbers or abstract criteria.

This is what we are trying to do as a faculty in our approach to assessment – build up our capacity to promote useful conversations with students that move them forward and energise their commitment to, and understanding of the Arts.”


In many ways we don’t need the badges system – for example I never once recorded a level or tracked  assessment formally  in all the time I was HOD in my previous school. (I did enter data but I made it up to show progress) I don’t think it mattered – students knew they were progressing because their music making got better.

However the badges are a way of recording major milestones and achievements and do reveal which parts of the curriculum we feel they have achieved successfully. In this way it is useful to the SLT as long as they don’t need it to show “progress” which it can’t in a straightforward way. For students it’s useful as they know (but see issue 3 above) what they have achieved and what if anything they need to do next. Its flexible – for example we have discussed introducing Onyx specials for a range of more challenging badges and to cater for our complex needs students. Its been good for the department as we can discuss each others work in comparison to our models and this approach has improved moderation. It has opened up dialogue about issues of quality and just how to motivate and encourage all our students to aim high whilst remaining inclusive and responsive to our students.



Towards quality and equity in music education.

Towards quality and equity in music education.

     “For me, the Classical 100 encapsulates 2 vital principles for music education in our schools. Firstly, ensuring that it is of a high quality. And secondly, ensuring that it is made available to all children, irrespective of birth or background.”

Nick Gibb in his speech at the London Mayor music Summit explains why both equity and quality need to be at the heart of music education.

Nick Gibb is right of course. Everyone deserves a quality music education. However his speech indicates his view of equity is narrow and simplistic whilst his view of quality promotes a belief in a Eurocentric, male, white hierarchy.

The government wish to believe that getting more poor people or ethnic minorities to play classical music will solve problems of equity in music education. I am concerned that we neglect how history and power (inequalities of gender, race and class) have worked to exclude many diverse ways of musicking and as a result positioned many millions of musical people as unmusical.

So what are the issues around quality and equity in music education – what can be done?

Recently Musical Futures tweeted:

“Tone Deaf: Reflections on the National Association for Music Education | Fresh Ed”

The article outlines a recent controversy in the states over issues of diversity in music education organisations.

In Keryl McCord’s original blog She writes:


“Representing my organization – Alternate ROOTS, where I am Operations Director – I was seated at the table with Mr. Michael Butera, Executive Director and CEO of the National Association for Music Education. Each of the organizations at the table articulated how we were attempting to deal with issues of equity, inclusion, and diversity within our boards, staff, membership, and our fields.”


Mr. Butera told us that his board was all white and that he couldn’t diversify his board because they aren’t appointed but, rather, they are elected by the membership. Further, his membership isn’t diverse because, “Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field.” He also intimated that music theory is too difficult for them as an area of study

Its shocking to read such a statement and hard to believe that this was made only a month ago. Its good to read that many organisations are recognising the need to open up discussion. So for example here:


“This is a process that calls for national arts leaders to step up and engage with one another and not give in to the forces that would divide us. “

Over in England it seems to me similar issues of diversity are even more entrenched and rarely discussed – although I find it hard to imagine anyone coming out with a statement like the one above.

For example consider Music Mark: “Music Mark is a subject association for music education, representing and supporting Music Services and over 12,000 instrumental and classroom music teachers, tutors, consultants, advisers, inspectors and lecturers in Initial Teacher Education.”


You would imagine that the association would contain a range of musical interests with a diverse board then?


Its team consist of:

Patron – Charles Hazlewood: “His primary and tireless mission is to bring orchestral music alive for a new audience. “

Graeme Smith

Graham Bland

James Dickinson

Professor Martin Fautley

David Little

Richard Morris

Diane Rivaud

Tim Sharp

John Thomson


It’s a male dominated board and very white. It’s hard to see this as a diverse mix of people. Nor are they, if the admittedly brief biographies are anything to go by, a diverse group musically. Over at Musical Futures (the team and board consist of 17 people) there is more of a gender balance – however it’s still a very white organisation.

Or consider the Hub leaders for Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Lambeth – all multiculturally diverse boroughs, served by a white leadership.

Or consider: “The South Riverside Music Partnership (SRMP) comprises six partners Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the music hubs of the four boroughs of Lambeth, Lewisham, Royal Greenwich and Southwark. “

Actually I don’t know the make up of this board as I couldn’t find it on their website.


Or consider the Music Excellence group, which I am about to start working with – a group of mainly white music educators and leaders. Again, whilst a very talented group of dedicated teachers are we in danger of become quite narrowly focused in our concerns?


Or check out the recent list of speakers at the Music Education Expo – out of nearly 100 it was difficult to count more than a few non-white speakers.


I’m probably stating the obvious – I’m sure the above organisations are very aware of the lack of diversity – but I think it would be good to hear more of how they are combatting this at the very top as well as how they are aiming to bring diversity of musical experiences to our students.


In a previous blog after the Westminster Education Forum I noted the narrow social circle that attended the event: “there seems ideological differences that need more exploration and issues of who gets to speak on behalf of others.”

A theme of this event was the importance of bringing classical music to our young. (Stop me if think you have heard this one before.)

Considering the Mayor of London’s Summit on School Music (22nd March 2016) Dr Elizabeth Stafford wrote:

“Other cultures have equally long-standing and artistically significant musical traditions. Why are we not making room on the pedestal for these? Why are we not encouraging white performers to get involved in ‘minority’ music? Why are we focusing on raising the participation of minority musicians in (white) classical music? I have to confess that I find this uncomfortable.

 YES classical music needs more ethnic diversity. But music education also needs musical diversity.”



In The Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education authors Roberta Lamb and Niyati Dhokai talk about the role of feminism in developing our understanding of Social Justice in Music. They write:

“The music education profession tends to take an image of the moment, erase the historical traces and social relations that brought the image into focus, and present the moment as if it had always, and already, existed.”


In the article Musical Futures tweeted Jamie Erenfeld argues:

“I question the integrity of a paradigm that feeds the creative modalities of an oppressing group to their oppressed, and I question the social consciousness of those constituents genuinely wondering why they’re not here for it.”

But with limiting and alienating notions of what music is valid, or worth making or honoring, we squander any potential for music to serve as the powerful healer it can be in our most marginalized communities. We’ve told them we’re not listening before we even ask them their names, with the centering of white musical traditions and ignorance of cultural context that brought about some of our most celebrated music, created by people of color about their experiences of violence* in the United States.”



It seems to me that when organisations and pressure groups once again make a claim for more classical music in the classroom they do so without considering the students on whose behalf they speak. They would be better served I think looking at their own organisational structures and starting with some diversity there. It seems to me that it is difficult to know what inclusion might mean and how we can improve Social Justice in Music Education if we are unable to recognise the way our music organisation privilege certain voices. We might be better off considering history and how narratives of superiority and complexity have worked to exclude as a necessary counter balance to the ahistorical claims of classical music’s transformative powers.

It’s great to hear Nick Gibb championing initiatives like Music Excellence London. I hope Music Excellence London is able to articulate why a commitment to a version of equity as understood by this government does more to undermine equity than improve it. I hope that Music Excellence London is able to champion a vision of equity that moves beyond correcting a perceived lack in the culture and values of young people who no longer embrace classical music. I hope Music Excellence London is able to listen to young people and their music making not in terms of what it lacks but for what it is. I hope Music Excellence London is able to ask difficult and challenging questions of the many music organisations that still have an incredible lack of diversity on their own leadership and governing bodies. I hope we can shed more light on what is meant by equity and quality in music education by asking difficult questions rather than seeking easy answers.




When Bach met Dizzee Rascal


“Far from appearing universal, Bach’s audacious synthesis of all available culture- with Germany at its center – was not likely to have pleased many of his contemporaries, not even most Germans. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was canonised as representing pure order only after the semiotic codes on which his semiotic strategies had relied and their accompanying social contracts had become inactive. Universality was achieved only at the expense of specific, concretely articulated meaning. “

Talking Politics During Bach Year p55 Music and Society.


What does it means to be rigorous when studying music at A-level? To what extent is an understanding of Bach’s harmonic approach needed for a rigorous music education? What is lost in neglecting Bach and what might be lost in keeping Bach in the curriculum?

In considering this I look to Dizzee Rascal, Rober Walser, Susan McClary, Christopher Small and the recent discussion of Bach and harmony in teachtalkmusic.

Recently I read about Dizzee Rascal’s music teacher and how Dizzee developed musically. His teacher notes:

Dylan could string a complex rhythmic pattern together in 20-30 minutes, and then be quite happy to spend a week refining and editing.


He talks about how:


He could get information down very quickly, but what was most unusual was he would then spend a lot of time refining it. A lot of youngsters wanted to create music, but weren’t as interested in that total refinement of a sound.


Dizzee Rascal shows that the creation of a loop and beat is a process that takes time, knowledge and skill. He could improvise and get things down in minutes but at the same time he would need to spend weeks refining his work.

Dizzee himself talks about how:

As soon as I heard that riff I gravitated to it, because I liked rock, I liked heavy metal [like] Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana and Iron Maiden even before I liked hip-hop. I loved to see the mosh pits, I think MTV 1994 through 96, and the grunge era. That was my thing.


It might be that Dizzee Rascal is a genius in his ability to put down intricate beats in minutes and then have the skill and creativity to develop and refine these ideas. He is also able to take disparate styles and forms and blend them into his own unique style. It might be that his approach is not a million miles away from Bach’s. In Music and Society Susan McClary argues that Bach was not a composer who represented universal truths of harmony but in fact someone who was able to blend the various semiotic codes of French and Italian approaches to composition into his own unique style. Bach’s specific and creative appropriation of the music around him has become sacrificed at the altar of universality.


Dizzee Rascal is not considered a universal voice of music. It seems obvious that his music making is a specific and concrete response to the many and various styles around him. It seems obvious that his music is born from the culture and society that surrounds him. Maybe in decades to come his specific and particular adoption of styles and his musical response to our world will seem less obvious, controversial and challenging and all we will see is the voice of a musical genius. It might be that we see in him an Artist that made the rules for creating great grooves from which we all can learn.


As we listen to many contemporary forms of music – such as Grime – we begin to realise that harmony isn’t the centre of music as sometimes we can assume. Harmony isn’t the essence, core or underpinning of great music – it can be and indeed often is marginal. It could be that harmony is less important than we think. We might wonder if classical music any longer lays claim to authority in explaining and making sense of our lives in n these times when there is such diversity of musics.

Indeed writers such as Christopher Small argue:” by any reasonable reckoning of the functioning of music in human life, the Afro-American tradition is the major music of the West in the twentieth century.” He argues, “ Rhythm is to the African musician what harmony is to the European.”  His view is that the significance of music lies not in the music itself. The questions are not – what does this work mean – but what does this performance mean in this particular place and time and by this particular people.

He argues that harmony is not a central aspect of Afro –American music making: ”harmony is only a kind of underpinning for what really interest him, which is the melodic and rhythmic invention, as well as the inflection of vocal and instrumental sound.”


If this is true what implications might it have for the study of music at A level? Is it enough to consider that a rigorous education means the study of harmony? And what do we make of Small’s idea that actually it is the groove that represents the importance of music and not harmony? If we consider music as a cultural practice – the value of music lies not in the notes but in its value to us and in our relationship with we make with music when creating it.

Robert Walser discusses Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” He shows through a close analysis of the rhythms and rhymes a complexity comparable to the complexity of the harmony of Bach chorales.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 22.16.40



In discussing this groove he notes:

  • How the quaver kick drum from the first beat is used in the groove to push against the metre by being placed a semiquaver ahead of the pulse in its repetition.
  • And how the snare drum whilst appearing to be a simple reinforcement of beat 2 and 4 actually contains different sounds, layers of pitches and variations of the stereo field.
  • How cymbal and percussion strengthen the groove at the 8th note level whist providing their own accents and timbres.
  • How the bass is both reinforcing the groove and playing with the central rhythm and how it indicates the main tonal centre but is heard in counterpoint to other synth sounds that create a certain tension with the bass and an alternative tonal centre.
  • How the rhythm guitar adds a rhythmic counterpoint at the 16th level of 3 3 3 3 4
  • How other vocal sounds and inflections to pitches add further complexities to the groove

In short we see how rhythm and timbre supplant harmonic interest with a complexity of their own. A complexity that is not obvious until you start to analyse and pull it apart. Of course what music is deemed complex enough to study is already fixed by rules that privilege certain styles.

Walser shows that rap offers a complexity that needs careful studying to appreciate – just as those who would study Bach Chorales find incredible intricacies each time they look. Walser seems to validate the comments made about Dizzee Rascal; rhythm and timbre provide the same sort of complexity that harmony does.

The right of harmony to be studied and analysed is often argued for persuasively – however it is rare to find the same demand for studying rhythm and timbre. Indeed do we know the rules for creating a good groove in the way we know the rules for harmonising a Bach Chorale? Why is this? Is this right?

At the same time does this pretence that Bach unlocks untold secrets really deny the importance of seeing music as part of our cultural practices? Do we diminish diversity and difference in our efforts to locate the beginning of harmony in Bach?


This is relevant as the A level syllabus may well be dumbing down its requirements in no longer requiring the analysis of Bach chorales. Jane Werry introduces a number of questions about the loss of harmony.


However I wonder if it is true to say:

  • In fact I would go a bit further and say that any student of music needs to get to know the beast that is Music – ignorance may be bliss for a while but it starts to smart eventually! It doesn’t matter whether you intend to be a radical avant-garde composer or a peripatetic instrumental teacher (no idea why they should be poles apart – just two different jobs!!) you need to understand how music works. Inside harmony and musical tone there is a world of scientific fact 
  • And the mention of jazz leads me on to the obvious element of the importance of bass line, so crucial in most popular music and found throughout Bach’s chorales.
  • I believe that in order to understand the ‘art’ of serial or minimal musical art forms or other types of musical genres, then individuals must have a secure grasp of the harmonic language that defines and structures most music
  • The Beatles had no idea what they were doing technically, but they did by having good ears. When you then analyse it, the basics are there. 
  • At KS5 I find nothing more thrilling than opening the students’ ears to inversions, chord progressions, voice leading and everything which comes with Bach chorale/Western classical language.
  • if their aim was to make the qualification more ‘rigorous’. I believe from my own experience that learning the ‘rules’ of Western tonal harmony is an essential part of becoming a good musician
  • Without understanding harmony how can you understand music – you simply become an appreciative observer – there is nothing wrong with this but to produce further outstanding performers, composers and musicologists then the basic foundation must surely be in place.

The implication is that harmony is central to music and other qualities – melody, timbre, texture, and rhythm are marginal.


Unlock harmony and you unlock music. I’m not sure about this.


And I’m not sure about reducing harmony to functional tonality – a very specific subset of harmony. If anything functional tonality is a marginal compositional technique. I’m not sure what William Earl “Bootsy” Collins might say about great bass lines and whether much is gained by arguing Bach got there first.


The valorising of Bach’s harmony runs the risk of neutralising an important figure – a great improviser, melody writer, and composer of complex textures. Bach’s use of pop tunes and hymns marks him out as a remixer that kicks ass.

Some would argue we neutralise Bach as some kind of bearer of great universal harmony when in fact he was heavily influenced by French and Italian approaches to composition. Is Dizzee Rascal really a lesser musician because he didn’t study the functional tonality of Bach? If Bach’s music is part of one cultural practice amongst many others what other cultural practices could we study?

I’m not sure about the way Bach’s approach to harmony is seen as the starting point and foundation for all other approaches. There’s a certain “whitewashing ‘” here. It may be that explaining Jazz harmony in terms of Bach chorale harmonisation is simplifying and ignoring many aspects of difference. By difference I am suggesting that jazz with its roots in Afro – American culture and tradition may follow different principles and rules that cannot only be explained as a deviation from our white harmonic perspective. Bach is not the centre from which other music’s are explained and defined.

Maybe this is a part of our loss. These days the plurality of voices laying claim to authenticity and truth is dazzling – it is hard to find an anchor for meaning. It might be that claims of Bach’s musical greatness are used partly as a symbolic confirmation of the superiority of whiteness. Decentring Bach decentres whiteness and our own sense of self.


Music interviews – some thoughts

Music interviews

Over the years I have interviewed lots of people for music jobs. Sometimes the decision has been difficult – so don’t loose heart if you are not selected. I can think of a couple of times when we would have appointed two people if we could.

By the way when filling in an application form address the job spec.

Here are a few thoughts on the process.

Not that I’m an expert at interviews – I’m pretty poor at them – so this isn’t advice or top tips – just my own point of view.

In my present school we observe a lesson, hold a student voice interview and then hold an interview.

Observation lesson:

  • It is difficult to teach an observation lesson. However we are looking for how you build relationships in the classroom. We want to see some practical music making.
  • If things go wrong – don’t worry – be willing to adjust your lesson and try something else.
  • Observation lessons are tough – but generally we appreciate this. Feel free to contact and ask for clarification of task and be explicit about what you might need.


Student voice

They want to see that you are a warm, friendly, strong person who can do the business in the classroom. Show you are interested in them.

The interview

I’m surprised by how often people don’t answer the questions or don’t really take the opportunity to tell us what they can do.

I’m sure nerves take a part – but it might be worth rehearsing answers so that you give a full account with out waffling.

Questions and Answers.

Describe a good music lesson. Discuss your own lesson.

Surprisingly very few people answer this well. I think you should be willing to show your understanding of pedagogy here and outline the things you feel are important. I would like to hear something like:

Challenge/high expectations

Good explanations

Clear modelling to illustrate how to do the task

Good questioning which develops understanding.

formative assessment to support students in moving forward.


Alternatively you might like to talk about an immersive high quality musical experience which engages all the class .


Or indeed a mix of both.

When discussing your own lesson show your awareness of its strengths and areas for development.


What are your thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of a Musical Futures approach to music teaching? What experience have you had of the approach?


A slightly unusual question. But I want to know if you are open to the idea of student ownership of work and willing to take on board/explore student prior interests. I don’t think it would work for me if you just said I would never use Musical Futures. However that said you might have blown me away in your observation lesson in which case ultimately I want to hear some thoughts around pedagogy again and what you feel are the best ways to excite and enthuse students in music making.

What assessment strategies do you think are most effective in promoting progress and describe some examples of how you have used assessment?

I’m hoping for discussing of formative assessment – both verbally and also musically. I want to hear how you get stuck in when kids are playing and join in – offering suggestions and engaging in dialogue with students. I probably should be interested in summative assessment expertise but I’m not.

Many students at this school bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to their studies, some students lack a great deal of confidence in their abilities – what qualities and skills do you think you would need to work successfully with our students?


resilience, patience, sense of humour, tenacity, love, drive, energy, passion, empathy, support, understanding, high expectations, an ability to draw people in, compassion, firm boundaries, a belief they can do it, a willing to be inclusive and see potential in all, desire to see how students might be not how they are, good teaching, clear building up of skills, opportunities to be creative, warmth, a sense of fun, openness, unswerving belief that they can improve, creativity, innovative approach, willingness to make mistakes, consistency, a lot of self belief and confidence.   etc etc. etc

What excites you most about the Arts? What passions, interest and skills would you offer the Expressive Arts department?

 Let us know what musical skills you can offer. What would you want to do in the music department as an extra curricular – what excites you musically. Tell us a bit about your musical history and how this might be used to improve the musical lives of our students. What can you offer us – go on let us know!

 What are your strengths as a teacher and what are your areas for professional development?

Guaranteed to throw up weak answers – so give this sort of thing some thought.

Safeguarding question

Don’t promise confidentiality, don’t befriend students on Facebook….

So an example of some typical questions – here’s some more this time for dance and for a HOD post:

  • What skills and qualities would you bring to the post of Curriculum Leader?
  • What is the role of curriculum Leader in ensuring the quality and consistency of teaching and learning?
  • What does effective assessment look like in dance?
  • Describe what an outstanding dance looks like?
  • How would you develop and extend the extra curricular offer. What are your priorities and why?
  • Dance recruits relatively small numbers. What strategies would you use to increase take up?
  • Can you tell me about a time a student seriously challenged your authority, and put you under stress, how did you react, how did this make you feel?
  • Are there any questions you would like to ask us?.


Hope this helps. Of course this is just my point of view. Good luck.



When Lucy Green Met a Music Traditionalist and came to know deep values.

When Lucy Green met a Music Traditionalist and came to know deep values.*


TMT (traditional music teacher): I want to get straight to the point – all students deserve great music and great music teaching.

LG (Lucy Green): Who decides what counts as great music?

TMT: The teacher should decide. I have played in orchestras and I’m keen that all students are able to access the sort of amazing life changing experiences I have. Too many students are being fobbed off with second-rate music just because it is accessible and relevant. Too many people who know nothing about music think that young people don’t like classical music and only want to hear pop. That’s why its important to teach classical music and make sure students are equipped with the skills to read staff notation. We should not limit our students’ experiences of great music through low expectations.

I’m the diligent and resilient person I am due to classical music. I am worried poor people will miss out on the right sort of experiences and might not be able to develop the right kind of values. This is why everyone should be given the opportunity to read notation. If students are able to play music to a high standard and read notation this will release a much higher level of creativity than if they just played around with sounds or played pop music.


LG: Sounds like you are trying to maintain a strict hierarchical difference in values between classical music and popular music. No music is great on its own out of the context of the people who made it. The values you find important in music don’t reside in the music itself. The values you describe are found in our relationship with music and not everyone may see themselves and their values reflected in classical music.

TMT: I’m sorry but you sound like a Marxist. If we are not able to judge great music by its internal qualities then we just descend into the black hole and barbarism of relativism. There’s great music – which is obvious – and then there’s pop music. Most students are forced fed pop at home in council estates but don’t get the opportunity to play classical music – that’s why we must teach classical in the class room. It’s a well known fact that middle class parents will be ensuring their children have classical piano lessons from the time they are old enough to talk. I need to counteract the myopic inverted snobbery of lefties who teach relevance rather than great music because they are scared of being called elitist.

LG: Maybe Marx had a point? Maybe judging music by its internal qualities ignores a vital aspect of its importance. I argue that it is impossible to judge music by its internal qualities – to do so is a misunderstanding of musical meaning. People create music in particular historical circumstances. Music’s importance is contingent and social – not abstract and universal. To divorce music history and from how it is used by people is to deny a vital part of its importance; we limit our joy and love of classical of music by trying to pretend that its greatness last for all time – it reduces and contains music’s meaning. This is why classical music needs defending from its devotees.


TMT: I’m sorry but who can deny that Bach has created music that is universally loved and admired? Bach transcends time and history. All children should be given the opportunity to learn about the best that has been composed, arranged and performed. All children should be allowed to experience music of all musical genres. People’s preconceptions and ideas about music limit what our students are taught.

LG: In my book Music on Deaf Ears I have a lot to say about music and value. I talk about reification, fetishisation and ideology and how these limit the music education of students.


TMT: Oh dear – are you one of those academics who likes to impress people by using long words? I don’t need academics getting their theories in the way of truth and the practical considerations of the classroom. I like straight talking people who don’t hide behind words.


LG: Well it is true that some people found my first book a bit heavy as I discuss Hegel and Adorno.


TMT: I knew it! Another academic about to talk unnecessary theory. Some academics need to go back to the classroom – we’ll see how far their theory takes them.


LG: It seems some academics shed light on teaching. Many traditionalists enjoy the insights of cognitive psychology for example.


TMT: Yes but this is the right kind of theory and not one bogged down by ideology and reification. Cognitive Psychologists are specially trained Scientists unlike many educationalists and academics who take post-modernism’s claims as truth rather than the whacky, thought experiments of a privileged elite.


LG: I don’t agree with your separation of science and non – science but I actually agree with some of your points about notation and how the teaching of classical music is hindered by people who oppose the alienated condition of notation with a more natural immediate connection with the music itself.


TMT: Oh – okay, this sounds more promising. But I’m keeping an eye on too much non-scientific language and vague generalisation.


LG: In my book I argue that music meaning can be broken down into two parts: inherent music meaning (later inter-sonic as too many people got the wrong end of the stick with the word inherent) and delineated music meaning.


Inherent/Inter-sonic music meaning I take to be come about as a result of the way our consciousness is structured by music – how we perceive sounds and their relationship with each other through time. This is a logical step as we cannot have an “immediate” experience of music as just sound but we also perceive music as a social, historical object. This way music communicates social meanings and social relationships I call delineated musical meaning.


TMT: Okay – pretty obvious stuff really – there’s the notes and then there is what it means.


LG: Well – I argue that you cannot separate the two meanings out. When you experience music you experience both simultaneously – they are in a dialectical relationship if you like. Many common ideologies around music are to do with the way we prioritise one aspect of musical meaning over the over without realising.


TMT: So what has this got to do with teaching great music?


LG: Everything. In my understanding of dialectics….


TMT: Is this really necessary? Do teachers need a lecture on dialectics? Teachers are not stupid – well at least traditional teachers are very well read. I can’t speak for progressives – they seem to have read one book by Freire and nothing much else.


LG: Hopefully by explaining my philosophical approach you might understand some of the reasons that I am concerned with your view on teaching music. I see dialectical thinking as as one that recognises that there is a tendency to view the surface appearance of things as an explanation of them. It isn’t enough to try and explain things in their isolation – as they look on the surface. Instead we need to see how things relate to each other and how they relate to history.

We experience our world in a fragmented and immediate way and so tend to mistake this partial fragmented view as the whole explanation of things. Dialectics recognises the historical nature of our experience and thinking.

So for example musical ideologies often position music as the spontaneous output of individuals – a unique fragment of music. However it becomes great music because it transcends this individual creation to become ahistorical, universal and timeless.

In my book I show how supporters of classical music tend to value what they see as classical music’s ability to express the natural and eternal qualities of the human condition. Pop music supporters tend to point out its immediate and universal expression of feeling and emotions.

I see this as ideology reifying music. We no longer understand how music is a social and historical object but instead wish to see it as either universal or timeless or immediate.

Both views of music are actually based on the same belief that great music “leaps from the heart.”

The issue is that both supporters of great classical music or popular music continue to reaffirm the divide between the two styles of music. This dominant ideology actually works to strengthen classical music’s apparent separateness from popular music. So as I see it the good work done by students learning to play music in the classroom can be undone by supporting ideological beliefs that suggest music’s values resides in the inherent meanings themselves.


TMT: As I see it the dominant ideology in education is that classical music is far too hard for inner city students.


LG: That idea is an issue as I discuss in my book – however the underlying ideological belief in music education and wider society is that great music is autonomous and expresses the natural and eternal qualities of the human soul. Classical music is then always positioned within this ideology as superior to popular music – which is seen as having more obvious social roots. (You can see this idea in books about music, GCSE syllabus and many aesthetic theories of music) This does both a disservice. In my book I show that actually all but a very few teachers teach classical music – as they feel it is necessary and important – popular music is included for less musical reasons. As I show in my research Classical music’s place in the curriculum is really not in doubt by far the majority of teachers. However I believe that more important are the ideologies that put classical music in pole position – these are still held by most teachers.


Most people understand music as existing by its own natural and ahistorical laws. This leads to people seeing styles as a natural expression of music rather than a learnt and historical construction.


TMT: What if classical music just is better? Maybe people see it as better not because of ideology but because they can hear that its obviously better music.


LG: Well I see this as problematic as there is nothing “obvious” about classical music superiority. You are no doubt affirmed by its inter-sonic meanings and celebrated by its delineations however this view is one that rests on viewing musics importance as outside of history and relationships. You are assuming classical music superiority and that it has naturally arisen to its valued position. A more productive view is one that recognises quality in both classical and popular music and so teaches about both sensitively.

TMT: I’m thinking that students are already saturated by pop but are unfamiliar with popular music – why not teach them the stuff they don’t know and leave pop for now?

LG: This would continue the ideological rift between what counts as music for the classroom and what doesn’t. You would be communicating to pupils that classical music is better and hence undermining what you are setting out to do.

TMT: I could tell them it isn’t better and explain that it is just different but that for now it is important to study classical music in the classroom as it gives them access to knowledge they would not normally have. This knowledge will allow them to compete with other students who gain this knowledge from home.

LG: I’m feeling I have heard this argument before. It sounds like an argument Hirsch has advanced. It is argument that has its own ideological issues.


You are still preventing students from important musical experiences and understanding in service of an ideological view of education. It would be wrong in a multicultural society to ignore the many musics and traditions that young people are aware of and listen to and live with. Students come from diverse backgrounds and traditions – not to access them is to devalue these traditions. Whilst some students may well find themselves affirmed by classical music, some may not – what appears to be a lack of musicality may well be their inability to respond to the delineations of the music. In short a teacher that teaches classical music in preference to popular music for the musical good of the students undermines their own aim.


People often wish to teach classical music and encourage a kind of aesthetic affirmation. Teaching classical music can often be based on our belief it is transcendent in quality and contains something that is universally appealing. It is what I call attributing “universal subjective validity” to music. However the other side of this music ideology is the way as individuals we come to respond to the message of the music. The individualised response assumes listeners who will want to raise themselves above reality. There is no space for alternative views or political beliefs. The ideology removes society from music and the listener.    We erase society difference. It is my view that this is problematic.



TMT: Really? I think that students will appreciate being empowered by learning about notation and great music. Sorry music. I think once they realise I am teaching them classical music for their own good then they might not worry too much about needing to include their musical traditions into the classroom. Anyway isn’t all this a bit patronising? Can’t everyone no matter who they are learn to enjoy classical music with a bit of effort? Surely people are put off by the delineations – that it appears difficult and serious – once students start playing in my lessons they realise just how good classical music is!


LG: To me this is a big issue. To teach as if everyone should share my own values and in fact turn their back on their own value system is totally wrong. This is education as indoctrination. Which is the furthest away from our starting point of education for all.

However, I like the idea of teaching about and through music. It strikes me that you are mainly teaching through music in the belief that everyone will in the end appreciate the inter-sonic meaning of music. This is a kind of musical fetishism.


I argue Musical Fetishism is the way we talk about music so that the delineations about music take the place of the inter-sonic meanings. If we talk about music as if it’s greatness is an inherent quality and we do not talk about the sounds and notes but only about the delineations then we fetishise music. We also fetishise music when inherent musical meanings are reified and delineations are excluded from discussion due to the delineations being considered undesirable additions. The only appropriate musical response it would seem is a pure unmediated experience of music.


The ideology of autonomy makes it appear that music gains its existence by virtue of its own internal ahistorical laws. Great music needs to appear eternal and natural and universal. Poor music is rooted in society. This dichotomy is unhelpful and needs challenging in education. I would argue that part of your role is to challenge this kind of unfounded ideological belief in the natural superiority of classical music. I believe you should recognise that different people value different musics and so try and value this in the classroom. The issue of cultural capital is really one that is misused. I don’t think people really have understood Bourdieu.


I would say that the problem is with judging music as an eternal, universal and absolute expression of the human condition and in purely musical terms rather than in viewing musical meaning as being historically based. I argue that the attribution of universal subjective validity to art has now become common sense. This common sense means that time and time again people expect everyone to enjoy the inter-sonic meanings of classical music no matter who they are. It might be that some students even when they are familiar with the style still do not change in their appreciation of the value of the music. It might appear because of this difficultly they are unmusical.


TMT: I disagree. No-one thinks they are unmusical in my class. They walk out with smiles on their faces and joy in their hearts. I don’t think it really matters as long as you teach them well.


LG: Well I also suggest in my later books that the pedagogical style of teaching reinforces many musical divisions. I encourage teachers to try out different pedagogical approaches that give more ownership and choice to the student.


TMT: Let me stop you there. You are not going to convince me on this one. I have heard about Musical Futures – its just about letting kids mess around on their own and playing pop music.


LG: it’s a little more complex than that.


TMT: Of course you would think so. No I’ve no time for this. I think its time up for this discussion. Besides your book is really old and probably out-dated now.


LG: It’s no older than the ED Hirsch classic people seem to find so attractive. In fact my book was published around the same sort of time. I agree that some more qualitative research around people’s ideological beliefs on music would be useful.



TMT: I’m not so sure – we need more proper scientific understanding of music – something like the research of cognitive psychologists. Anyway I need to make an arrangement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony for my class for next week. I’m just getting to the good bit. I’ve arranged some parts for the staff choir so we all learn together – We’re really getting to grips with inter-sonic meanings. I’m hoping to have taught all nine symphonies by end of next year and be the first primary school to release their own Cycle of Mahler’s Symphonies. Simon Rattle has even expressed an interest in conducting the music for a CD release and thus raising the self esteem of all students and staff through the universal voice of classical music. You won’t find any progressives doing that.


*With apologies to Lucy Green and all traditional music teachers.

My next blog will report back what happened when Christopher Small met a traditional music teacher. Fortunately he was a ghost and came to no harm.