Break it Down (Issue 7, Conference June 2010)

– Scientific Learning in Create:  an experimental approach to active learning

There has been a shift in musical pedagogy in recent years, away from being able to cite possible composers for a piece of orchestral music, or to know your Rock Steady from your Reggae. Instead the music curriculum is now more geared towards the elements or building blocks of music, and developing an understanding of how music is put together through holistic activities that combine performing, composing and listening.

Indeed, the new AQA GCSE has moved completely from areas of study based on styles and traditions such as ‘Music for Film’ to the more fundamental ‘Rhythm & Metre’ or ‘Structure & Form’.

This elemental knowledge of music is vital at Key Stage 3, where the national curriculum is entirely skills based. The challenge we faced in writing the embryonic Create curriculum was how to introduce these musical elements in an engaging way, and also in a way that would allow scope for the other disciplines of Create (Media and Drama) to not only check understanding but to further it. The nature of Create demands a holistic approach, as do the main strands of Key Stage 3 Music, where we aim to encourage students to see the links between listening and appraising, composing and performing. In fact if you were to visit some tribes in Africa, they would not be able to make any distinction, for example between composing and listening.

After some thought we came up with the enquiry: ‘What would music look like?’ the idea being that students would have to make music tangible through the use of images. Students would be challenged to create a video that could help hearing impaired children to understand the musical elements. Students would create a piece of music and accompanying moving images, with clear links between the images and the use of musical elements such as tempo or  pitch.

Happy with this idea, we still had the dilemma of how to present the basic knowledge of the musical elements which would underpin the enquiry. Most students in Year 7 have a firm understanding of the more innate elements such as pitch or tempo, but few could explain what timbre is.

It was then that I decided to investigate a long-held wish. For years I had been frustrated that you could easily demonstrate dynamics (volume) with the simple turn of a dial, why could this not be true for the other elements?

Through a lot of trial of error, and yet more careful calculation with our web designer Chris Allen, I set about making an online mixing desk that did  exactly that, with a slider for each of the musical elements, the effects of which could be heard in real-time.

My thinking was that if students could experiment with, and experience how the musical elements work by making the changes themselves much like a scientific experiment, this fundamental knowledge would be much more likely to stick. Not only that, the activity itself would be completely student focused, encouraging active learning and allowing the teacher to have proper learning conversations with students, many of whom they were meeting for the first time.

I chose the current (ish… I am certainly not a “down with the kids” music teacher) hit by The Ting Tings, “That’s not my name” as the simple, hookbased nature of the song allowed me to use loops and samples and keep workload down in making audio clips for the resource.

In practice the activity was a resounding success. Before they got hands-on time with the musical elements mixing desk, students filled in a matrix of keywords asking them to write down what they knew about the musical elements. Students were offered a choice in level, with more complex terms on the higher level matrices.

When they got to use the mixing desk, the students were entirely engaged and were able to see the progress of their learning from the start of the lesson. Without fail all students in my class were able to add significant details about the musical elements to their matrices at the end of the lesson. In fact this lesson was delivered as a Create tutorial by all members of the Create team; drama and media specialists alike. The student centric experimental approach meant that even colleagues who were not music specialists were able to deliver the lesson from the point of view: “I don’t know the answers, but by the end of the lesson you will be able to tell me”.

During CPD sessions this year we were asked to give examples of active learning tasks as part of a market-style sharing of ideas. During this session I began thinking of ways this scientific, hands-on experimental approach could be used in other lessons.

Perhaps a short story in English, with buttons at the bottom of the screen to turn on and off devices such as similes or structuring using paragraphs? Whereby pressing the button will magically make the text come alive with similes appearing in the text accompanied by images to demonstrate. Or in Art a simple drawing could be brought to life by turning on shading or colour.

I’m now left hoping that The Ting Tings are still in vogue in September as I certainly intend to use the resource again. Though I’m not holding my breath, doubtless some new genre with a preposterous moniker like ‘Krunk n grind’ will be the latest thing. I’m also left with the knowledge that I am slowly, unavoidably becoming my father.

Martin Said