marking, grading and feedback when teaching music - teacher and musician
Wednesday's #mufuchat got me thinking about assessment. Again.  In particular it got me thinking about how muddled our vocabulary can become on the topic.  Not only does the 'teach-speak' jargon often fall victim to interpretation (ask ten teachers what 'formative assessment' means and I'm confident that you'll get ten different answers) but even the simplest of words seem to have become synonymous with each other.

In this blog post, I want to look at three words that I feel need to be seen as distinct when used by teachers.  Specifically, they are:

  • marking
  • grading
  • feedback

"I've got so much marking to do"

Teachers always have marking to do but do they always mean marking?  At the time of writing, many of you are probably deeply involved in the process of 'marking' GCSE and A-Level coursework.  With very few exceptions, I'd gamble that you're not actually marking but, instead, grading the work. As a result of this grade, you may well be going to back to the pupils and providing some feedback to get an urgent resubmission so that they hit their target grade.  Oh, the joys of impending coursework deadlines... 

What I mean by 'marking'

When I use the work 'marking', I'm referring to the process of annotating a pupil's work.  This could involve ticks, crosses, question marks or any of the myriad systems that teachers have developed.  If you're marking a composition in Sibelius, maybe you're colour coding areas that you feel need further attention.  

There's no grade, level, percentage or 'mark out of' anywhere to be seen if all you've done is mark the work.  Its main function is to feed your understanding of the quality of work but it is also a means of highlighting things to the pupil.  

What I mean by 'grading'

Grading can seem like a very American term.  I must admit, whenever I think of it, I see Ross from Friends saying "I've got to grade some papers".  That's probably just me...  

Grading is the thing that you usually do after you've marked a piece of work.  Now that you've marked/annotated the work, you have fed your understanding of its quality.  Consequently, you now have sufficient knowledge to award the piece of work a grade, level, percentage or 'mark out of'.  As you write down (or type) that grade, you are grading the piece of work.  

To my mind, the primary purpose of grading is to feed the system.  It's there to enable teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders to identify trends within the school.  It may be a useful in conversation with the pupil but it's not the thing that makes a real difference to learning.  It's an idea reminiscent of what John Hattie was saying about assessment in yesterday's blog.  

What I mean by 'feedback'

This is the one that makes the real difference to pupils.  You tell them about the work that they've completed and then you tell them how to improve their work.  For us as music teachers, 'tell' is probably the wrong word.  More likely, you will replicate the musical sound that they made and then model the sound that you want them to make instead.  You exaggerate and highlight the difference before, again, making the exact sound that you want from them.  

In reality, this might involve you singing, playing an instrument or using technology.  It might involve you digging out an old (or commercially available) recording.  The vital thing is letting them hear what you want them to achieve.  More on this in a future blog post.  

The primary purpose of feedback is to feed the learner.  Marking helps you understand the work completed so far.  Grading helps the system understand trends within the school.  Feedback helps the pupil to become a better musician.  

Does it matter?

I can see why people would think I'm being pedantic to worry over these differences but I genueinly do see a benefit in being very clear about what we say.  By doing so, we help ourselves to understand the goal of what we're working on at any given time.  As with so many things, it makes me ask myself Martin Fautley's catchphrase:

"Who is this assessment for?"

Giving pupils feedback makes them better musicians; it's really important.  Marking and grading?  They're important too but, to my mind, they should play second fiddle to feedback.  

As usual, I'd love to see what other teachers think.  Send me a tweet (@johnskelleher) if you think these distinctions are:
  • pedantic
  • wrong
  • irrelevant
I'd also love to hear whether people agree with me or not on the idea that feedback is the most important of these three ideas.  
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a Pearson 'Open Ideas' event featuring a conversation between Peter Hill and John Hattie.  Listening to these two men speak quickly shows you why they are so well respected within education - they really know their stuff.

The conversation covered a wide range of topics and the audience were privy to a few insights into their perspective on the current state of affairs and what they see as the necessary 'next steps' in education.  Below, I've pulled out a few key quotes that I found most interesting.

I am aware that the majority of my quotes here are from Hattie.  Peter Hill did make some very insightful comments (particularly about identifying the needs of teachers in other countries/environment/systems), I was just capturing 'sound bites' that stood out to me and it would appear that Hattie is very good at this!  Hill's talking points tended to weave a longer story and so feature a little less here.


"Getting the data is easy... the hard part is figuring out what it means."  You have to ask yourself "What's the story?"  

"PISA, I have mixed feelings about but, on balance, I think it's performed an incredible service...  The quality of tests are very good, within the confines of what it does...  Only two countries have moved forward in reading...  In mathematics?  None."  He went on to say that, in Australia and other countries, there's too much of a focus on the rankings and not enough of a focus on the raw data that it provides (i.e. we need to look at whether we're improving, declining or staying on a plateau).  Hattie jumped in and said that, in Australia, "We're going backwards because we're cruising" and that the challenge is to get people to realise that's the reason for the decline in rankings - not a decline in standards but a plateau.  


"Let's not forget that the purpose of assessment is for the teacher, not the pupil."  He then went on to describe that, when he sees assessment systems that have been designed for the pupil, he thinks "Well, you've missed the point".  

"Teachers are to DIE for: good Diagnosis, good Intervention, good Evaluation."  This reminded me of PiXL's DTT (Diagnosis Therapy Testing) model.  

Hattie went on to suggest that assessment is to tell teachers what they've taught well, not to tell the learner what they've learnt well.  


"Feedback is one of the most powerful influencers but it's also one of the most variable".  

"Feedback thrives on errors and mistakes.  If you don't make a mistake, feedback is useless... When you go into stunning classrooms, they're full of errors."  

"We think of feedback as something that we give but the more powerful notion is how we receive it... Kids are humans, how do we get them to better receive feedback".  

Hattie went on to explain that pupils only see feedback as relevant if it includes a "where to next" element.  If it focuses just on the quality of their existing work, then it has a less significant impact.  


"Nearly everything in the top ten to twenty [i.e. this info] are in the hands of the teacher but all of our debates are about schools and systems...  I don't care about how teachers teach, I care about their impact".  

"Free schools, academies?  What a a distraction!...  This con of giving parents a choice.  You can choose the school.  You can't choose the teacher!"

"Teachers think their job is to create resources.  Oh my God, there are billions out there now!"   He went on to say that many teachers justify this by saying that their class is unique but that this isn't true.  

"It's totally unreasonable to ask teachers to be expert in everything... Schools need to train one person in every school to be expert in interpreting data"

"There's no evidence that action research makes any difference to the quality of teaching".  This was said in defence of teachers who don't want to conduct research but want to get on with things that they know to work well.  

Talking points

There's a lot to talk about here!  Some potentially controversial points and some that may ring true with you.  As always, I'd love to extend the conversation.  Twitter (@johnskelleher) is always a favourite of mine but Martin Fautley has already said that he feels his points on this would need to be a bit longer, so I've created some space on the forum page for this.  

Disclaimer: I've tried to be as accurate as possible in my quotes but am open to the possibility that a few words are inaccurate here or there.  I am, however, confident that I captured the spirit of what was said.  
a-level music technology survey results
Last month, I ran a survey to ask what teachers would want to see in a revised A-Level Music Technology.  I included information from this survey in a letter of support for the qualification.

At the time of writing, Edexcel has submitted their revised proposal to Ofqual and are waiting to hear if the qualification will be approved.  Due to the impending general election, Ofqual will not make an announcement about this until May.

While we wait to find out if the course will run, why not have a look at what teachers asked for in the survey?  You can access the raw data here and I've created a Wordle below.  I was really pleased to see that the words 'music' and 'sound' were some of the most used terms.  I also found it interesting that 'A2' was referred to so much.  Could this be a sign that this is where teachers have the most concern?

You can click on the image to see a larger version.

a-level music technology reform - ofqual - survey results

assessments in music lessons - survey - the resultsA few weeks ago, I ran a survey to find out how music teachers report pupil attainment to parents and senior leaders.  Since then, I've received 39 responses and you can find the raw data here.  Unfortunately, only five of these responses were from primary school teachers - I would love to get more KS1/2 teachers to respond so that I can update this post in future.

Some of the more interesting headline facts would be:
  • None of the primary schools report using National Curriculum levels
  • 65% of secondary school respondents still report using National Curriculum levels and sub-levels, despite Ofsted describing them as 'unhelpful'
  • 85% of respondents report using the same method as all other subjects in the school
  • 23% of respondents report using a system classified as 'other' (although this drops to 15% for when secondary schools are looked at on their own)
  • Only one teacher reports using audio or video footage of pupils' work

Three key questions...

There's a lot of thinking to do with this data but, to my mind, there are three key questions:
  1. Are teachers using sub-levels because they like them or because their senior leaders refuse to acknowledge that sub-levels are 'unhelpful'?
  2. Why are so many teachers using the same reporting method as for other subjects?  Are they required to or is it to portray music as being of equal value to 'academic subjects'?
  3. Are the 23% of schools classed as 'other' innovating in all forms of assessment or just reporting? 
I'd be really interested to extend this conversation on Twitter (@johnskelleher).  Similarly, if you haven't responded yet, please feel free to have your say here.  

assessments in music lessons - overall

assessments in music lessons - secondary only

assessments in music lessons - reporting consistency

I've used my fair share of VLEs.  More often than not, however, I've used them despite their dramatic failings when it comes to being genuinely useful in the music classroom.  While a good VLE can enable great feedback, this tends to favour the written word over musical sound.  As great as this can be when it comes to written work, whenever I've tried (or been urged to try) integrating a VLE into the more practical aspects of music lessons, the whole process just feels forced.  With the recent (yet gradual) demise of NUMU as a platform for school music, now seems like a good time to reflect on the features that would make a VLE useful for music teachers.

Four simple features

To my mind, a VLE needs just four features to be of genuine use to music teachers.  In short, they would be:
  • audio
  • integration
  • sharing
  • mobility
My thinking behind this list is pretty simple:


This is the big one.  While all the VLEs that I've worked with allow you to upload an audio file, it's rare to find audio as a key feature of the platform.  The ability to drag and drop an audio file onto the page and have it instantly appear in an HTML5 player would be a huge boost for music teachers - if YouTube can do this with video, surely someone can do this with audio.  If this could be extended with the inclusion of timed comments (in the spirit of SoundCloud), then that would help too.  Taking this a stage further, if those timed comments could be audio too, then just think of the possibilities that would open up.  

Audio is how music teachers can gain an insight into pupils' learning and this is a near-constant feature of their lessons.  A simple way of allowing pupils to upload audio and for teachers to respond with audio (because musical feedback makes more sense than written) would make a world of difference.  Again, the emphasis needs to be on simplicity - no file format/size/length limits.  Schools have a wide range of recording equipment with enormous variety in default export formats; let the technology take care of the hassles this generates.  

This doesn't even take into account Robin Hammerton's Ofsted/TES blog about using catalogues of recordings.  

Video might help too but uploading lengthy video on a flaky school wifi network is rarely fun.  The option would be good but some finesse with audio would be my first priority.  


The lack of a music-friendly VLE has led to music teachers getting very good at using products that weren't necessarily designed with education in mind.  SoundCloud, AudioBoo, ReverbNation, Noteflight and Soundation come to mind.  Being able to import and export to these services would allow pupils and teachers to get the best of both worlds and give them reassurance that their work would still be available if SLT decide not to renew the VLE contract. 


Anyone who has read 'Open' by David Price will be familiar with his imperative of social learning, 'Do it for the world to see'.  Being able to share work with the world at large can be a great motivator for pupils.  NUMU used to make it easy to pin a pupil's work to your home page, can this be brought back with a 'share to school website' button?  Twitter integration for your music department account would be nice too.  

While we're at it, bundling the appropriate licence for sharing pupils' cover versions would be a nice return of one of NUMU's coolest features.  


Music teachers are pretty mobile.  With practice rooms to move between and a variety of instruments that need moving, it's probably safe to say that only PE teachers move more.  Let's have a VLE that accepts this fact.  If a teacher is lucky enough to have a laptop, that's still quite a big tool to carry if you've got a guitar in the other hand.  Apps for smartphones and tablets are a must but why do so many VLE apps only allow for photo (or maybe video) uploads?  Build the aforementioned audio abilities into the app and make it a breeze to add it to a pupil's workspace.  Steve Jackman wrote a great piece about how he uses Showbie for this and highlights how even the might of Google couldn't replicate the experience.  

Who will take on this challenge?

Have I just been unfortunate in that I've never encountered a school VLE with this range of features?  Has someone already built it?  If not, who will take on the challenge?  

Finally (and implausibly), have I thought of everything?  Tweet me (@johnskelleher) if there's anything that you think I should add to this list.  
The three Es of great school music

I've been thinking a lot about the way in which a musical culture is created in schools.  The values displayed by music teachers can have a huge impact on the way our pupils behave and I've come to the conclusion there are three values that have a particular impact: engagement, excellence and equality.

Some definitions

In the spirit of a clich├ęd presentation, I'll take a moment to explain what I mean by each.  

Engagement is the value that teachers place on getting pupils to enjoy their music lessons and being around the music department in general.  Examples: Efforts to increase the number of pupils who take music for GCSE, rallying up extra choir members, encouraging pupils to use practice rooms at lunch.  

Excellence is placing value on the quality of the music that the pupils make.  Examples: Insisting that your orchestra members play the staccato phrase perfectly, refusing to accept a poor attitude to learning, not accepting unfinished compositions.  

Equality is assigning the same value to all pupils, all types of musician and all types of music.  Examples: Treating violinists and beatboxers with the same respect for their musicianship.  Taking an interest in the musical interests of all pupils.  Encouraging fledgling musicians who don't take private lessons.

Where these values can go wrong

It's possible to build a music department with an overemphasis on one of these values.  Where this happens, you may well find that you've developed one of the following cultures in your school:

Over-emphasis on engagement  

Focusing on engagement at the expense of excellence can lead to a school where pupils happily turn up to the music department but they achieve little.  They may enjoy making a few loud noises but their musical accomplishments are limited.  Perhaps they enjoy lessons but they don't identify themselves as being musicians.  

Over-emphasis on excellence  

Pushing for excellence without building in engagement and equality can lead to a culture with a 'snobbish' feeling, with an impenetrable clique of core pupils who see themselves as 'the musicians'.  You may have a very successful orchestra or an amazing rock band but there's a sense that music is 'for some' rather than 'for all'.  Worst of all, this core of pupils may actively try to exclude the 'non-musicians' from ensembles and even choosing the subject at KS4/5.  

Over-emphasis on equality  

Emphasising equality over excellence and engagement can be problematic too.  While you will certainly want to encourage different styles of music and musicianship, a turntablist probably has limited function in your orchestra's rendition of a Mozart symphony.  Such endeavours can work really well and can help an ensemble to create a unique identity but this may prevent pupils from experiencing a broad range of music.  It's even possible that an overemphasis on equality can lead to less actual equality (does including a piccolo player in a dubstep group grant equality to the piccolo player or take equality away from the rest of the ensemble?).  

Finding the balance

Each school will need to find its own balance when it comes to making use of the three Es but I'm confident that the best (and most successful) music departments have probably crafted a musical culture that combines a healthy dose of each one.