Part 1. Teaching Music in Isolation: A deeper, real-world reflection into lockdown

In this lockdown, I’ve experienced students of all levels of ability developing skills of independence in their learning. So I know the materials I’ve provided are helpful for all abilities, but maybe this is a great time to return to more study-skill type activities. There’s still nothing I can do if a student chooses to not ‘have a go’, but could some learners be better equipped for the restart?. At this point, are skills and resilience in how to learn within different situations more important that the subject learning itself?

Friday 20th March 2020 was my last day teaching music to classes at Manor CE Academy, York. It feels a long time ago, when in context it was 2 weeks before the Easter break, and we’re just at the end of the 3rd week back after the holidays. So in curriculum time it’s not really that long, although I expect not to be able to teach all my students in-person for a while yet.

It has been a time of of great re-adjustment, much new curriculum development, significant emailing, ‘zooming’ and creation of new types of online content, to try to ensure learning (and appropriate support) can continue for all students.

One thing is for certain. My teaching has changed during this time, as well as my appreciation of how key face-to-face education is. When I’m in front of the students, I can plan everything. I can make changes in real-time to find an optimal environment for each student as they progress. I can solve problems, share resources and encourage them, as I disseminate information and demonstrate music. This planning usually includes deciding where everyone sits. Students often complain about ‘seating plans’, but there are so many advantages that they benefit from, but are not aware of in advance. In ‘lockdown’, there isn’t the opportunity, for example, to seat them near other students with a mixture of abilities where I know they’ll feel encouraged as they work.

My most recent classroom experience was that about 80% of students engaged in the tasks I set without prompting. In general, year 8 were the most challenging year group to inspire to be ‘on task’ when we stopped. Whether there’s an age-related reason or a connection to students who haven’t selected the GCSE option, as they do as my school in year 8, less attention to detail was certainly evident in practical work. Whilst in school, there is a behaviour policy, including sanctions for students who don’t try in their learning, or for students who disrupt others. At home, it’s a physical impossibility to provide the same support to encourage learning. We have to think differently. As we plan lessons, so much information is available about each student, about their prior attainment in various subjects or about any barriers to learning they might have. However, the greatest, most insightful information I can know about a student, is seeing how they react when each new aspect is completed, or seeing how they struggle when they can’t see connections in knowledge to reach a confident level of understanding. It is a fundamental problem, to not have the opportunity to see our students during this time.

A frustration I’d felt for a few years (before lockdown) was a seeming perception that some students knew the best way to learn and could very much dictate this to teachers. I’ve even had a few conversations in the last couple of years where students have disagreed with the content of the curriculum. I’m very much in favour of student-voice activities and I’ve shared much in previous blogs of situations when students have inspired me. However, it seems to be more overlooked these days that I’m a specialist in my subject, and perhaps even more so in the context of education. I think historically, certainly in my own school education, there was a ‘taught respect’ to learn as much as possible from teachers. These days, that sense of respect requires a ‘trust’ to be earned by the teacher, before any sort of respect can come. Sometimes there are barriers or pre-conceptions that prevent this from happening easily.

So with all these challenges, it’s perhaps not a surprise if some students, who would need significant encouragement to work whilst in school, struggle to get started on their work at home.

For me, this is the most demoralising part of teaching in lockdown. It’s something that I can’t control. I can produce the most inspirational, practical, ‘accessible to all’ tasks possible, considering a very wide-range of factors, with clear instructions, but if students choose ‘not to engage’, I cannot help them. Even with a little attempt, ‘just having a go’ can be a starting point for an online dialogue to begin and for some students who had struggled in the past, this new style of learning has been hugely encouraging for them.

In this lockdown I continue to use Showbie as a secure online platform for file-sharing and feedback. The majority of my 762 students have an iPad, but for those who don’t, they can still access their Showbie account through any computer (Mac or PC), or smartphone, and from what I can see, all but a few can therefore access everything I’m sharing. (The few are sent a paper pack). Specialist music students who are learning to play an instrument, have their instrument at home. Many have found an instrument in their garage or loft and others with iPads are using the GarageBand app as an instrument. So lots of live music-making can still take place. The notification system in Showbie sends me an email every time a student: makes a comment, asks a questions, adds a answer, annotates a worksheet or uploads a performance. This creates many thousands of additional emails every week, but is a great way to ensure I don’t miss any student interactions. I endeavour to respond during the same day and in most cases can mark work or give feedback within minutes.

I am completely in the dark when students receive work or feedback from me and this is the greatest challenge. If they’re in front of me as I give feedback, (so much of which is usually verbal feedback in music), I can instantly see if my contribution is encouraging or helpful. In lockdown, I cannot see this. In the last week or so, I’ve begun to receive some encouraging signs that I’m helping, as a few parents have written to say how much the work or a “well done” 😀 has meant to their son or daughter when they’ve received it. I’ve also begun to receive messages to say “thank you” directly from students.

Showbie also time-stamps every interaction, so it’s possible to see when each interaction happens. It’s therefore also very easy to see if a student has had no interaction with the online work. As a team, our faculty have just completed a review of students’ interactions since Easter, including students producing outstanding work and those who haven’t engaged with their work during the 3 weeks at all. We’ve shared this information with other faculties and there seems to be 3 groups emerging (from my early analysis). Some students are attempting work in all subjects, some are choosing to prioritise some subjects over others (although it’s impossible to see whether it’s due to a perceived hierarchy of academic importance, or a choice of subject preference) and some are not accessing work in any subject, although I’m approaching all of this with some caution, as I cannot see the circumstances in which every student has to work in during lockdown. To begin to form assumptions as to why students might have made a choice to ‘not work’, is unhelpful. We cannot understand an individual’s circumstances unless there is communication.

We can continue to create inspiring and helpful content to encourage our young people. We can also make sure we’re ready to help and support when it’s needed. Above all we can celebrate every achievement. Remarkable is even more remarkable in the current circumstances.

Another platform I’m using more and more is YouTube. The analytical data is similarly helpful to the time-stamping in Showbie in that it highlights the number of viewers to each video. For those choosing to login into YouTube with their school google account, it’s also possible to see a breakdown of which age groups are accessing the materials and whether they are boys or girls. According to the data of users who’ve logged-in, more boys are watching the videos.

It’s possible to present live on Facebook or YouTube (as well as a few others), but some time ago I was recommended to keep Facebook for personal use only and that continues to be my choice. I communicate developments publicly with Twitter (@DaveLoweMusic) and the occasional Instagram, and share video content on Vimeo and YouTube. Vimeo I’ve found is an expensive personal outlay and doesn’t have the same features as YouTube. Since the lockdown began, my YouTube content has expanded to over 100 videos, including some live streams.

For GCSE learning, YouTube Live (via Wirecast) is great as I can combine ‘talking-to-camera’ with visual demonstrations on instruments, software and theoretical drawings on iPad. If students watch the live stream, they can have real-time discussions with other students within the safety of Showbie as they watch. They can then revisit modelling demonstrations as often as they need, to see how an idea was created and developed and they can go through descriptions of theory as often as needed. It’s like having an interactive textbook, specifically for them. The response from my year 9 and 10 GCSE students has been mixed. Just as with the younger students, there again seems to be the 3 groups and not all are choosing to engage. That said, a number of colleagues in other schools have contacted me to say how much my materials are helping their students.

However, the greatest challenge is an assumption I’ve felt when creating the content. From the timely analysis of the YouTube data, not all students are watching the videos, and those who are watching, are not watching and listening all the way through. Perhaps this is a deeper understanding into how 13-16s approach online video content. My assumption had been that I’d explained everything that’s needed to complete a task at the simplest level. Whereas, that might be true, some students have emailed questions that prove they’ve not listened to the videos all the way through. Subsequent conversations have confirmed this. A further helpful analytical figure from YouTube is the average % of viewing time. In one recent case, an 8-minute demonstration of how to recognise intervals by listening, the average viewing duration is 6 minutes (75%). In comparison,that’s quite high, but only 16 times has that video been viewed ever and it’s possible that it’s not been viewed by 16 different people. Of the 67 cohort, I’m unsure as to why so many chose not to view the resource. However, the video I’ve found most astonishingly-ignored is one I made for year 8 students to demonstrate how to play drum-fills on an iPad. The average viewing time is 33 seconds of the 10 minute video and unsurprisingly that was an aspect that most of the 250 students struggled with when it came to the recent assessment.

This is deeply challenging. It’s probably no more frustrating than being in a classroom giving instructions, for the student who wasn’t listening to then question what they should do. But I wonder whether if I should be sharing information differently. In this lockdown, I’ve experienced students of all levels of ability developing skills of independence in their learning. So I know the materials I’ve provided are helpful for all abilities, but maybe this is a great time to return to more study-skill type activities. There’s still nothing I can do if a student chooses to not ‘have a go’, but could some learners be better equipped for the restart?. At this point, are skills and resilience in how to learn within different situations more important that the subject learning itself?

I’ve found I’ve become more-reactive within lockdown and this is something I’m wrestling with at the moment. Feeling a duty of care to these young people, the moment they struggle with something I’ve made, I try to help them. This comes back to that impossible situation of not being able to see how they’re struggling and trying to make my provision the best it can be. This realisation (of immediacy in reaction) hit home this week. Straight after Easter I launched a new approach for GCSE students to address two aspects they’d shared they wanted more help with. These were: confidence in music theory and technical ability in performance. Perhaps having not fully read the first week’s instructions, two or three students got in touch to ask for more explanation in the work I was setting. My reaction to this was to panic that everyone would have difficulty understanding, so I recorded a podcast-like video and began to write more and more explanation for the tasks they had to do. I’ve now had a couple of students email to say they don’t understand the work as there’s too much to read! This is not a battle I’m going to win.

The 67 GCSE music students are all fantastic young people. They’re all great to work with, but are all vastly different (which is challenging and wonderful at the same time!). They represent a vast range of musical abilities from those who don’t play an instrument, to students who are already working towards grade 7/8. From the honest feedback I’ve received, people have shared of how grateful they are for me keeping things going and remaining positive in the content I produce. So many times we’ve decided that ‘things aren’t perfect’, but perhaps they can’t be just at the moment. An agreement shared by all I’ve spoken to though, it’s far better to try to do something, than to not do anything at all!

At risk of being further reactionary, next week, I’ll try another different approach to setting work. There will be one statement on Showbie for GCSE Music students. “Watch this to know what you need to do this week”. Next to that will be a Video link. I’ll keep the video short and will outline the 3 tasks for the week (to cover the 2 hours of lesson time and 1 hour of home work they are used to). Of the 3 tasks, one will be related to developing a study skill as opposed to a musical skill. I’ll write a blog to share findings of this later.

There’s far more to share about the real-world of music teaching in this lockdown, but at risk that you might not read all the way through (joke!), I’ll write a separate post about extra curricular, the second half of my job, which has created the very lowest point of this lockdown for me as well as the very highest. And the highest(s) far far outweigh any lows I’ve experienced in this period!

My passion to help young people to discover great wonderment of music and great confidence in performing and creating it, is as strong as ever. I can only do what I can do, but I’m learning many new things during this period. There are always things to improve.

All views my own.

Author: davelowemusiceducation

Dave Lowe MA PGDip PGCE(M) BSc(Hons) MISM - Currently Director of Learning: Performing Arts & Head of Music at Manor CE Academy, York - Specialist in Music Education using Technology - Author of "How to Write Great Music" (Lulu Publishing, 2015) - National examiner and moderator for GCSE Music Composition

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