How many types of differentiation do you employ in your teaching? Lots, I’ll guess. How about in your musical ensembles? Err…How often do you ask the drummer to play the clarinet part? Seldom, I’ll guess. Yet that’s what seems to me to be happening in the weird and wacky world of school views of assessment! Let me explain…
The phrase teaching music musically (the title of a 1999 book by Keith Swanwick), is very well known, and often crops up in conversation. I’d like to think that the phrase assessing music musically is also frequently uttered, but I think I may be kidding myself on this one! But assessing music musically is vital, if assessment in music is to have any meaning. I have written, spoken, and blogged about the need to know who any assessment is for when designing it: pupils, teachers, or system? And I know from what is said to me when I meet teachers in schools or at conferences that this resonates with them when I talk about it.
But it seems that some (many?) SLTs just don’t “get it”. So, one of the phrases that I hear a lot at the moment runs along the lines of:
“My SLT won’t let me do that, as they say Ofsted are looking for consistency”.
This normally puts an end to assessing music musically, as consistency is mistaken for uniformity. This means that assessing maths mathematically, geography geographically, and English Englishly cannot take place as that would not be consistent (ie uniform) with what the SLT have decided the school is doing.
I think this is wrong, and is like asking the drummer to play the clarinet part in the example I gave above. A one-size-fits-all policy can end up actually fitting no-one. So what is going on? The same SLT would be down on a teacher like a ton of the proverbial bricks if said teacher observed that the reason for their lower sets not doing too well was that “I don’t do differentiation, I assume they are all top sets, and teach them identically”. And quite rightly so! Yet this same attitude doesn’t permeate through to differentiation for the teaching staff. So, can it be consistent for maths (4 lessons a week, say) to have to report assessment levels (or whatever has replaced them) at the same half-termly rate as music (one lesson a fortnight)? No, this is not differentiating, it’s not, in the true sense of the word consistent. Neither is it subject-centred, or even learning-centred.
Which brings me to the word I think we are in danger of losing: coherent. I think it is possible for music to assess musically, maths mathematically, and so on, and for coherence to arise from this. This could be simply in the way, say, that effort grades are given, or the timing of when reports are sent to parents. But it can also be in that subjects are allowed to assess in ways which suit learning and doing on that subject. I think that coherence matters. Of course I would like there to be internal consistency in the musical assessments, but that does not mean that they have to be identical to ones in maths. Coherence arises from understanding this, and this is an area that I feel that SLTs need to understand.
It is, for example, incoherent to say that musical learning can only be assessed through written work. It is also inconsistent. At the moment, schools are gearing up for the musicfest that is Christmas. I’m sure SLTs wont be too impressed by music teachers who say, “we’re not singing carols this year, but year 7 have written some good essays on the origins of English Yule-tide musical genres”. No, we expect carols to be sung, not written about by kids. Likewise I bet the PE staff don’t select the football team on their ability calculate the hyperbolic trajectory of spherical objects to 2 significant figures!
I think ‘consistency’ has become of these Ofsted-myths. I made a typo in a presentation recently, and put “Oftsed”. I think some of these myths are oft-said so frequently they take on what Bruner might have called ‘folk-status’, and people assume they’re true, simply because they have heard them so frequently. Oft-said does not equal Ofsted!
But I know that as a result of me saying this teachers will contact me with examples which when examined closely are not consistent, or at all coherent, and which they are forced to do. I can only offer suggestions, and I feel the time has come to stand up, be counted, and say “coherence matters more than consistency”, and that subject-specificity should not be lost in the steamroller effect of whole-school systems inherently unsuitable for some subjects, in our case, music.
And that’s an argument I shall be making both consistently, and, I hope, coherently in the coming weeks!