(written on 31st January)
Preparation and Context
If I was asked to think of a top list of ‘things that have a profound impact on the learning potential of my students’, the opportunity to use technology would come very close to the top. However, it’s difficult to describe this positive effect and only really possible to demonstrate in person. As such, quite a few heads of music, school leaders and education professionals have visited Manor to observe this in the last few years. The music department leads have all gone away encouraged and have now launched similar work in their schools.
At the end of 2019, I was approached by BBC Inside Out to take part in a challenge, which would be filmed and shown on BBC1. They were interested in seeing “how much smart screen technology has got into our lives.”
I gave up my @DaveLoweMusic twitter after Christmas and during the week of filming didn’t check, send or reply to emails, didn’t use our @ManorPerfArts twitter (which we use to share information with parents of our 762 Performing Arts students), and didn’t use projectors, Apple Macs, PCs, iPads or phones.
The aims of the BBC project were limited to the quote above and I wasn’t sure of the intended narrative for their programme, but I was initially sceptical as I felt it likely that it was a way to challenge us to use less technology or to even suggest that we shouldn’t use it at all.
In AQA’s GCSE Music course, students must submit two performances, totalling a minimum of 4 minutes. For students who are passionate about music, but who have chosen not to learn to play an instrument or prefer not to sing, the course would not be accessible for them. However, the course includes a ‘Production Via Technology’ option for performance, which essentially involves producing a recording of a song from creation of tracks to final mix.
In the 10 years I’ve been head of music at Manor, we’ve consistently had 250-300 students choosing to take additional studies or ensemble opportunities to develop their technique in their voice or instrument. Now a school community of 1,124 students, that 25%ish is nationally quite high, but I’ve always been challenged that the other 75% are not given an opportunity to continue their musical learning at GCSE-level and have access to the full range of marks.
In the last few years I’ve developed our key stage 3 course to incorporate some of the ‘Production Via Technology’ type projects as a method for non-musician students to demonstrate their ability. This has also then set the groundwork for them to continue into our GCSE Music Production Via Technology Pathway.
Music, whether it be singing, listening to, watching, writing or playing has always had a significant and positive impact on the lives of the young people I’ve taught. It enriches them in so many ways. In a recent analysis of highest achieving students, 9 of the top 10 are members of our most advanced choir, not all of them ‘music students’, but all frequently investing in music.
On the first morning of this week’s project, my Year 9 GCSE Music lesson was filmed for the hour. Preparing for the lesson was a huge challenge. Knowing the impact technology has had on learning in my classroom, I always look forward to any opportunity to share with others. In my own teaching practice, I frequently reflect on my lessons and have many visitors coming to observe me teach. Performance management or subject review observations are the most complex to deliver, as you are trying to demonstrate a range of factors including the progress of the students over time, rather than just what happens during the hour. This is made more complex by the knowledge that if the observer disagrees with your practice or perceives it as sub-standard, it could have a negative operational impact on your department or even the wider school.
I’ve had lessons filmed before as part of coaching programmes encouraging me to reflect on my own practice. I’ve found that method to be very helpful in my own development, but the BBC filming was different, mainly as it was unclear of what they were hoping to prove by observing my lessons, so therefore I wasn’t certain what I was preparing for.
The year 9 class are studying popular song this term and by the end of term I’ve challenged them to produce their own recording of a song, using only a lead sheet (containing lyrics and chords) and a link to YouTube to be able to understand how the melody sounds. They’re expected to record all the tracks for piano, bass guitar, drum kit, acoustic guitar and voice accurately in pitch, rhythm and with a consistent sense of style. They have to perform all of the instrumental parts, which most do by using the instruments on their iPad GarageBand. All attempt their own voice recording, but may then choose to record another student’s voice to become part of their production.
My expectations of them are astronomical, especially for 13-14 year old students. However, the outcome of the project is significant, allowing them to apply their understanding of the popular song components and have a true sense of achievement that they’ve been able to create something that is industry-comparable. I find the earlier they can achieve a high standard in production values in their work, the better, as this contributes to future development of their own expectations in producing high quality work.
There are some relatively simple concepts in a popular song. The structure of the song consists of 3 or 4 different short sections, some of which are repeated (like the chorus), and the pattern of chords in a verse for example, is often made up of only 2 or 3 chords. A concept that my students are often surprised about is when they discover each instrument plays the same chord (or a note from that chord) at the same time. As a practicing musician of many years this seems so simple, but I can’t remember when I first realised this to be the case. It is a critical factor in their learning to hear this before students can confidently listen to how the harmony works in a piece of music.
In fact, popular songs are often not complex. They consist of several simple ideas put together, but the control of each musical element, of audio content, and of overall mix is vital for a successful outcome. This control is key in both product creation and understanding.
The BBC had asked me to teach my Monday year 9 lesson using no technology whatsoever. I chose the objective for the lesson “To understand the use and purpose of a drum kit part when composing a popular song.”
The lesson began by asking students to identify 8 components of a drum kit. Most struggled with this, but once they’d labelled the worksheet (I’d created using my iPad) they were able to use the language confidently in the lesson. We then continued to learn a simple pop groove all together, using body percussion so everyone could take part. Focus was excellent, and most could master the co-ordination quickly. As a few students came up to the drum kit at the front, all watched to see what happened and all participants were able to find some success in playing the real drum kit. I was particularly impressed by the amount of progress made by non-musician students in the group and how much the experience clearly meant to them. We continued in the lesson to discuss how the drummer should think about tempo and dynamics during a performance, and all students moved on to compose a variation of the original groove, following their thought that simple repetition could become monotonous. To challenge the two drum students in the room, I invited them to demonstrate advanced considerations in song writing, such as using cymbal crashes to emphasise chord changes, matching rhythms played by other instruments in the band, using regular quaver rhythms to build energy and performing fill-ins to announce a new phrase or section. I was pleased that this part of the lesson remained relevant to the whole class, while pushing the more experienced drum students to advance further. Some of the lower-ability or non-musicians within the group appeared to zone-out by this time, however, when I asked them about this later, they suggested their focus was kept throughout. It made me wonder whether I really can tell if a student is concentrating by their facial expressions.
A very successful lesson, but I wasn’t prepared for what followed next. BBC news presenter Amy Garcia asked to address the group. She asked the students if they’d enjoyed the lesson, which was greeted with a resounding ‘yes’ from all. Amy continued to ask how many of them would like to do this more often, instead of lessons using their iPads. Of the 18 students present, 16 said they preferred ‘without iPads’. I was completely shocked by this response and felt gutted. I’d spent so much time developing this type of work for them and have seen so many successes, I’d never thought this outcome could be a possibility. I didn’t understand and found it difficult to believe, a shock also shared by other teachers in the academy who I went to share this with immediately after the lesson.
The students’ feedback from the Monday lesson triggered many deep conversations with students and staff. Unable to ask advice of other music education specialists, due to my detox from email, twitter and the like, I spent much of Tuesday trying to understand the response through internal discussions. On Tuesday morning, my year 11s and I were analysing the music of Aaron Copland, which required the brief use of Spotify as I didn’t have the music on CD or cassette tape. (It had been agreed prior to the project that technology could be used if needed with Y11s as it was their final term before examination). I asked these older students if I was just way off-beam, and just wrong in my perception that students enjoyed using tech in their learning. To my great relief, they confirmed that I wasn’t wrong. They responded with great passion, asking how it would be possible to complete coursework as they wanted, or to revise using the audio app we use. One student was so passionate that he leapt from his chair, and proceeded to stamp his feet as he shouted his thoughts about how some people were making suggestions that would ruin his chances.
As much as this made me feel better, I was still considering the year 9s, whom I am so fortunate to have a brilliant working relationship with. I didn’t believe those students voted as they did to impress the presenter, as was suggested by one colleague.
Then followed another profound learning point in my week, a conversation in passing with a support colleague I’ve now worked closely with for quite a few years. He challenged me to remember what it felt like when I was at school. My schooling, being in the 1980s and 90s, involved early use of computer-based technology, but that use was rare and a novelty. He challenged me to consider that young people are completely surrounded by screen-based technology and (for year 9s born in 2005/06) they have never experienced life without it. For this reason alone, their experience of life is significantly different to mine. The novelty that I’d felt of using the technology could be more comparable to the currently younger generation of having situations that don’t use the technology.
The cameras returned on Wednesday morning to film a repeat of Monday’s lesson, this time with my year 9 Production Via Technology class. The lesson was enjoyed again, although students appeared not quite so focused as I’d seen on Monday. At the end of the lesson, two boys were interviewed about their experience and both said how positive it was to play the real instrument, although only one had actually played it during the lesson. I was less surprised this time and reassured by the idea of it being a ‘novelty lesson’ as suggested on Tuesday.
On Wednesday however, I was floored for a second time, this situation causing me so much deep thought that I was unable to sleep on Wednesday night. Year 10 GCSE music students are just beginning their work on a major composition project. They’re focusing on the development of melody this week and as such, the task was to compose an 8-bar melody. This class began the task on Tuesday, with the challenge to compose a melody initially with just manuscript paper and a pencil and rubber and no device or instrument to create sound other than their voice. In the Wednesday lesson, they could use one of 3 pianos in the department or 2 guitars, but couldn’t use computers or iPads. One student became very upset. They described not being confident enough with finding notes on a piano quickly in order to compose, not having access to their instrument (guitar) as they were being used by others and so much wanting to hear to know if it was the melody hoped for. This deeply challenged me as that student was fully aware of their learning and the help they needed. They were working independently, but had become deeply discouraged by the restriction of this week’s detox project. After a night of deep thinking, and feeling a sense of sadness for the student, I decided that, despite the clear benefits of me being involved in the experiment, that this negative-impact in the student’s well-being and hinderance of their development was significant and needed to be avoided in the future.
A further negative moment on Wednesday was a second complaint of the week from one of the administration team. Communication is everything in how schools function, and due to me not using email and another internal app, I’d created extra work for another member of staff.
On Thursday morning I taught the year 10 Production Via Technology class, who are also studying melody writing. In response to some earlier student feedback, I’d developed a new tool to help students to find a starting point in composition (an aspect that many students find challenging). Following the events of Wednesday, I allowed all students to use their technology except for one, who had signed up to the digital detox himself. I felt I needed to do this, to ensure he could be allowed to complete his BBC challenge. He was visibly very annoyed, especially as other students had a different opportunity. As the lesson got started, the detox student was able to use paper to take notes of his musical choices (tempo, key, scale notes, range etc.) As a guitar student, he was then able to develop ideas and represent them on paper, though not in notation or TAB. The second task was to create a drum kit groove to complement the melody. He did this by drawing a grid similar to the one he’d used previously on GarageBand. He attempted to play the pattern on the real drum kit, but found it difficult and also couldn’t play his guitar and drum parts together. By this time all other students in the room had developed ideas and he found this frustrating too, especially as by now, some had added a harmony part. This was a vital learning point of the week. It proved that (of course) it is possible to create original music without technology, but that there is a limit, that otherwise technology can enhance.
Also on Thursday, I taught a simplified version of the drum kit lesson with year 7. Partway through, a group of boys switched-off and moved to sit together and talk. On this occasion I chose to allow this, then reassuring them that they weren’t ‘in trouble’ asked what made them make this choice, rather than to take part with everyone else. They were so surprised that I’d shown this interest in them, rather than sanctioning it as poor behaviour and it triggered a further fascinating discussion. They shared of how interesting they found the drum kit work, but that after the first one or two individuals had been to the front to ‘have a go’, there wasn’t anything additional for them to learn as the same information was just being repeated for each participant. They made the choice to interact with each other, rather than sitting and appearing bored. They chose to move themselves away from the group so as not to interrupt the lesson. I wonder how many teachers have this type of conversation with their young people.
A key benefit I’ve found in delivering music lessons with every student having a device is the opportunity for every student to remain engaged and able to apply their musical learning instantly, without having to wait for others. If I had a class of 5 students, it would be more straightforward for students to be involved together throughout the lesson, but this is far more challenging with a class of 30+ students and therefore the use of technology makes it possible to offer the same level of opportunity to all students at the same time. I’ve found this method promotes independent learning as well as collaboration and discussion between students as they discover new ideas individually and want to share them together. Until this year 7 lesson, I’ve not had evidence of the opposite of this, so this was greatly encouraging. It also highlighted the differences in the required levels of engagement between different key stages.
With the final day of the experiment approaching, I felt it important to share that I’d chosen to not complete the full 5-day detox and resumed my use of email and twitter.
Friday & Final Comments
As I approached the filming of final comments with Amy Garcia today, I started to draw together my thoughts from the week. It has been a week of profound challenge and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned as I continue to develop things into the future.
In response to the original BBC question, it is clear that smart screen technology is significantly embedded into our lives. There is a risk that it can be over-used, and this is something I’ll certainly be more aware of moving forwards. I’ve known of positive opportunities technology can create for a long time, but this week has helped me to understand why. For some students, access to music education would be more difficult or impossible without it, especially in composition. For all students, it’s possible to learn about music with or without technology, but technology enhances the possibilities of music creation, for example allowing us to create and listen to many new ideas at the same time. So the technology for us is an extension for learning.
Following further discussion with students about why many students preferred lessons without iPads, it was completely legitimate that they’d enjoyed exploring the use of a new real instrument, and I must now look to find ways to create that type of experience within each project. However, we’ve also discovered that a key consideration for our young people is accountability. In a lesson using iPads, all are expected to partake immediately, and there has to be an outcome. They can’t simply sit at the back and relax. Students are forced to be responsible for their learning and to prove their understanding. Whereas this is positive from an ‘always proving progress’ standpoint, it does highlight the desire our young people have to just experience new ideas and have the space to allow knowledge to develop (without having the pressure to prove anything). Often as a teaching professional, I can relate to that pressure of a sense of always needing to meet accountability targets. I wonder if education policy makers consider this. I will certainly be more aware of this going forwards as I think about how I do more to support students as they develop their individual musical understanding. My lessons are enhanced by the best and timely use of the technology available. That ‘best use’ must have a defined purpose and come with additional support for students for its use, together with real-world musical experiences to ensure they can each have every opportunity to flourish. A balance of real-world and technology-based work is important.
It was a shame the BBC didn’t film any of the lessons involving the technology to be able to compare, although maybe that will be another opportunity for the future. I am deeply grateful to Amy Garcia and Mat Heywood for the opportunity to work together this week and for the time they’ve invested in music education. Many thanks to you both.