My appraisal lesson 

In my school you are no longer graded when observed.  I am observed for a full lesson once a year as part of the appraisal process. (Learning walks of 20 minutes are a regular occurrence.) If things go wrong you can be placed on the first steps to capability. It is likely that concerns would have been noted before and concerns can be raised from a number of sources. Still, it shows the potential for misusing even seemingly sound ideas.

My appraisal lesson is a year 9 class – 50 minutes long. We are around 2/3 of the way through the project.

We are required to give students a Do Now activity so they start learning from the moment the bell goes. During break I laid out sheets on the tables. I have produced a simple sheet so that student’s can self assess which badges they have so far achieved in the project and write a target for the lesson. (We are using a tracking/assessment system that is loosely based on video gaming culture. Students work toward certain achievements as defined by musical models. My own model here is the London Nautical School – more on this in a different blog.)

Amazingly the students all sit down as they come in and start to write – ticking boxes – yes I’ve unlocked the “ch-ch-changes” badge. The pips go and by some fluke all my students are already sitting down “learning”. Bell to bell teaching I’m told.

 

A minute later the member of SLT arrives. It all looks good. I’m keen to move on from this moment – having taught music for a few years I know that what students write about their musical understanding seems to have little correspondence to the sophistication of their (practical or should this be intuitive) musical understanding. Still many observers don’t know this. However, the evidence that is the most unreliable seems to be the most desired.

 

There is of course a large part of me that wants students to be able to write about and formalise their own knowledge – its as if I feel the learning will be better my teaching more complete if they are discussing primary and secondary triads. However at the same time I know that a significant challenge is creating a climate in my classroom where all students are feeling valued musically and can express themselves confidently in musical ways.

(It may be argued that a more desirable, productive approach might be  using whole class work shopping. Here’s a discussion of this and the drawbacks of using computers:

https://musicalfuturesblog.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/600/ )

A count down – with a few reminders to students that this means to look at me, stop talking, look vaguely interested.

I have loaded up on the whiteboard a song on Garageband. I ask the students to think about which badges this song would unlock. Its an example drawn from the class.

We listen to 30 seconds of music . Chords bass and a beat all in place – even a melody of sorts.

Great – Think. Pair Share!

Every SLT report has mentioned this technique.

No hands up!

I ask a student to share their thoughts – I pass this comment round “can you extend of what has been said…” we come to an agreement 2 badges unlocked! I wonder how much do I change my teaching to conform to what others might expect to see? Is it possible to find your own voice as a teacher in these days of constant monitoring and supervision? Do I teach now as if I might be observed? Do I try and include the things I know will look good for others? Do I teach to standards that remain distinctly standards imposed no matter how much I try and claim them for my own? Just what is desirable for these students? 

 

Next step. Listen to the same piece. I explain that I have extended and added some parts to the song – they are asked to try identifying what has been changed and why it now meets the criteria for the final badge.

This is discussed and a few things brought to attention – the structure, change of sounds, and the addition of a new melody.

I know at this point extending the discussion can quickly lead to a dead end of misconceptions and increasing random thoughts – or it might lead to a productive exchange of ideas – still its an observation lesson better not risk it.

I tell everyone I have recorded for each student a video detailing what next steps they can take. It’s not something I hold up as model practice but I wanted all students to have something immediate they could watch which discussed their own work.

As if under a spell the class move to the computers and start to load their work and the watch my video. The videos are a few minutes long.

I’m feeling positive about the lesson I look at the observer she is looking worried. What could be wrong? I scan the room and see two students sitting by their computer chatting, they haven’t even loaded their home page.

 

I remember Ofsted inspector telling me my lesson was inadequate because two students had not worked in the first 5 minutes. How do I minimize this risk of off task behaviour and achieve optimum learning? Is rapid progress desirable? 

I walk over and encourage them to make some efforts towards logging in and wonder how I forgot to check in with the students most likely to do nothing.

The feedback seems to have worked. The students who spent most of their pervious lessons telling me “they don’t know what to do” are working – or at least they are not out of their seat yet. This obsession to pin all students down to name their progress – does it help me be a better teacher? What tells me if they have thought about the advice and started to own it as their own? Or are they too stuck with internalising standards which aren’t their own?

 

I spend a few minutes with each student. I listen, ask some questions –“what are you going to do next? How do you want this piece to sound?” We discuss ideas – often I am asked to show again what I said in the videos. Some students uses a formal language chords, melody, quantised, structure others don’t – as it happens I don’t tend to expect all my students to articulate and formalise their musical pieces. I do of course want them to work with the musical materials and be creative. (This being creative, composing and songwriting, making music and recreating songs needs a different blog – but I am concerned how the language of composition is used to exclude other, more informal ways of making and creating music.)

 

For the main part of the lesson I allow the students time to improve their work. And stop a few minutes before the end. I have only a minute or two and so against school recommendations I talk about what we might do next lesson (I should probably invite discussion and peer review)

It’s a safe lesson – including modelling, feedback, discussion, peer review, Assessment, plenty of practical work, a little talk and reflection. It is what I feel might be desired.

I feel relieved – sometimes students don’t always focus so well.

My school has 1150 students –of which around 50% are Bangladeshi in origin and 25% white British – 30% of our students speak English as their first language. Around 78% of our students are eligible for free school meals and Raise Online gives our school a school deprivation indicator of 0.61. Many students seem quite fragile learners. It often seems that they do not want to wait to be corrected and improved; they would rather not attempt the work than try and look like they can’t. Even space and a pedagogy of encouragement sometimes seems to be treated as a trap. Other students though work independently only seeking the occasional bits of advice.

 

Many like to have a great deal of autonomy and ownership but seem to lack the skills and knowledge to carry this through for the lesson. For example, students were originally given three examples of a 4 chord trick to work from – many student immediately asked if they could use a different set of chords from their own songs but then became immediately stuck.

 

Reading Anna Bull’s blog on teaching music she talks about a pedagogy of correction “in my experience so much classical music pedagogy is about correction rather than about exploration.”

I wondered if my approach encouraged enough exploration but also how much scaffolding/modeling was needed before students seemed happy that what they were doing sounded good.

In my observation a student (the student most likely to do the least work) had been asked why he didn’t just sit back and do no work – he responded that his music was starting to sound good and so he wanted to carry on. I know it sounded quite good because I have spent quite a bit of time each lesson sitting with him and showing various ways of playing chords and melody. Just what is the progress? And is it possible to evidence the progress that is the most meaningful? How do we manage to encourage students who have little belief in own musicality to become more confident with musical materials?

Is it possible to develop a pedagogy of encouragement rather than correction? In my view the accountability processes such as my own appraisal lesson are more closely aligned with a pedagogy of correction; problems are seen as flaws to be corrected rather than issues to be explored. There is a growing trend for being more prescriptive about techniques and teaching in the classroom that is sometimes at odds with the growing demands for autonomy in the classroom and the professionalism of teachers.

 

What’s missing from my account is how it feels to be in my classroom; a richer sense of student’s perspective that isn’t reduced to “student voice”. How might I have explored musical meaning more with my students?

 

Biesta notes a difference between “being taught” and the experience of “learning from.” He argues that we need to hold a different conception of teaching than the facilitation of learning:

“This is a story where teachers are not disposable and disposable resources for learning, but where they have something to give, where they do not shy away from difficult questions and inconvenient truths, and where they work actively and consistently on the distinction between what is desired and what is desirable, so as to explore what it is that should have authority in our lives.” p57

 

He argues we should see schools as a place where we are taught and not as a place where we learn. Are my videos showing students possible next steps examples of facilitation in the hope that “students will leave as satisfied customers”? In which case how might I offer a more disruptive lesson which challenges what it is to make music? Or are my videos, showing an alternative ways of completing and ending pieces, a sufficient disruption? At times the gap between what is desirable and desired is difficult to bridge in music education. So often it seems to me Key stage 3 music making is under some pressure to conform to what we might wish to see at GCSE and A level – exams which encourage analytical literacy at the expense of musical meaning. At the same time I am invited to see my professionalism as part of a process, which seeks to reduce risk in the classroom and produce students as happy customers.

 

I am fortunate to work with colleagues and Senior Leaders who are able to discuss and challenge ideas of teaching (and learning). I learn loads from the blogs I read and the online thoughts of the music education community ( See here for example: https://teachtalkmusic.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/classroom-music-a-release-from-the-rigours-of-the-academic-curriculum/ )

– but for me the issue of whose authority to accept – what is desired and desirable – is one that is constantly presented and increasingly difficult to grasp.

 

 

 

 

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