Progression is a tricky subject, and one that we have not yet got to grips with in the music education community. Some take it simply to mean the musical ‘stuff’ students do over a period of time – others talk of something deeper, to do with musical development and maturation. I subscribe more with this latter view, where we think of progression as how one’s engagement with music broadens and deepens over time.
I begin with a brief overview of some of the recent thinking on musical progression. We first realised that progression in not a simple, linear concept when Swanwick and Tillman introduced their spiral diagrams which considers how students continually revisit musical concepts at successively more sophisticated levels. Recent work by Ben Sandbrook et al shows that the picture is even more complex, because we have to also take account of all the student’s various musical encounters beyond the classroom. Martin Fautley also acknowledges the scale and complexity of this issue in his various writings and publications….
It is my contention that we concern ourselves with things to do with progression, that are not easily achievable or even that helpful. For example:
- Predicting it. Can we really say what a given child should be able to do musically at a given age?
- Controlling it. Can we really ensure that they learn just the things we want them to in a particular order?
- Measuring it. Can we really attach a number or grading to what we perceive to be an ability level at a point in time?
This is not to say, of course, that progression is not important. It is just that by trying to predict and measure it in real time is not the priority. We must not lose sight of the important priorities of doing musically rich and engaging activity in classrooms that will help students to continually get ‘better’ at music. And, just as important, that they will want to go on engaging positively with music – way beyond their school years. In short, make sure the teaching is compelling…and progression will look after itself. By the way, it is interesting to note that three of our most inspiring music educators, John Paynter, Christopher Small and Murray Schafer had very little, if anything, to say about progression.
I have already said that I consider trying to measure progression as it happens as being tricky. I was therefore drawn to the work of Stephanie Pitts and in particular, her report Roots and routes in adult musical participation. In this report, she asks older people to look back and reflect on the key factors in their music education that had the most lasting impact. Some of these stories can be found on the companion website http://chancesandchoices.group.shef.ac.uk/
Two important emerging conclusions from this research are that good teachers “are remembered fondly where their own passion for music was evident, spreading enthusiasm and offering a role model for aspiring musicians…..nurturing and apparently tireless” and that “teacher’s responsibility for musical development is a shared one, taking its place amongst a network of supportive parents, wider cultural opportunities, and the motivation and receptiveness of students themselves.”
These are the things that are important regarding progression – focussing on giving children quality musical experiences within and beyond the classroom.
However, despite everything I have said above, teachers are still required to try to measure progression. Senior leaders, parents and indeed students themselves all demand this information. So how can we do this in ways that are meaningful and accurate? Here is one approach that, as a sector, we should give serious consideration:
Surely we must have the courage and imagination to develop meaningful non-quantitative ways of assessing, discussing and reporting on acts of musical creation. And if we do so then perhaps music educators might actually be able to lead the way in developing helpful systems and language for assessing, discussing and reporting educational achievement…… rather than lamely tagging along behind the educational managerialists, trying in vain to match their inappropriate and empty vocabulary to the valuable and creative work we and our students do.
And how can we use technology to facilitate this process?
Firstly, there is much talk of the value of video recording student’s classroom musical activity as a way of recording progression. Using mobile technologies to capture student’s music making as it happens is indeed much easier these days. But is it that helpful or useful? If a typical secondary music teacher were to record each of their students just once a term for just two minutes each time, they would have 810 clips totalling 27 hours of video recording…. How would they store his, when would they find time to go through it all….and what would it tell them that they don’t already know? Videoing a student performing gives very little information about their overall musical development.
But I think there is a way in which technology can really help give us useful insights into the process. The only ones who really know what progression is being made are the students themselves. We can use well designed online questionnaires to help students articulate and share this information. Questions can be devised in a variety of forms – multiple choice, scale ratings, open answers etc. Students can do this in their own time and are often more forthcoming using this medium of communication, compared to face to face or classroom discussion. Collating and aggregating responses is also much easier. Here are some great questions to get you started on developing your own questionnaires. They were generously provided by delegates at my session. If you have any further questions, please let me know!