School Improvement Episode 31: Improving confidence in music teaching

Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine, I’m Dominique Russell.

As a primary school teacher, how confident would you say you are at teaching music? Do you feel adequately prepared to teach music, or incorporate music into your lessons? What areas of music do you feel you need the most support in?

A pilot professional development program on music teaching in primary schools has been assessed in a new report. The program involved five separate sessions on different areas in music, like composition, singing and instruments. The confidence of the teachers involved in the program were assessed before the program commenced, and after they’d completed all the sessions. The main contributor to their increase in confidence was the simple activities they were able to pick up, which we’ll share in this episode.

I’m joined in this episode by the report’s authors, Benjamin Thorn and Inga Brasche. Benjamin is a composer and a casual lecturer in Creative Arts education at the University of New England, and Inga Brasche is a former university lecturer and currently teaches at Presbyterian Ladies' College in Armidale, New South Wales, the same region where this study took place. Let’s jump in to hear more about their research.

Dominique Russell: So why was this study so important for you to conduct?

Inga Brasche: I suppose my interest in this is kind of both personal and professional. I have four kids and I think that was what was the initial idea behind the research. I just noticed how little music education my kids were getting in their primary school.

… So my interest in music education – my first degree is in music and my [qualifications], my teaching [qualifications] are in music, but, like I said, it really came back to having four kids and seeing the lack of music education happening at their particular school. Knowing that it had been a school that had had a really strong music tradition. And that got us both thinking about how, in a town like Armidale, which has – it’s sort of spoilt for choice with public primary schools – but how there can be such a disparity in the music education that’s being offered within those schools.

So a town that, where schools should, you know, for all intents and purposes, be offering the same type of thing, there was a huge difference. And then we started drilling down a little more into that. Into, well, why is it not taking place, or taking place in an ad hoc manner? And that really came down to both the in-service (what was happening in the schools) but also the pre-service preparation that teachers were getting.

Benjamin Thorn: I will just add that, you know, Armidale is probably lucky compared to some places. I’ve had primary education students who have gone out on prac and I’ve got a frantic phone call from one saying ‘I can’t do a music lesson, my supervising teacher says: “we did music in Term one”.’ Which was really worrying.

IB: Yeah, and I think we also have, we’re very spoilt for choice with schools but we have some private schools in town as well. And I’m actually currently teaching at PLC Armidale which is a school that has a highly supported music program. And that also corresponds with it has excellent academic results, extensive co-curricular offerings.

So we decided not to do a comparison between apples and oranges and look at the private system and the public system because we wanted to just kind of keep the control as all of the public schools which really they’re running the same curriculum and they have the same requirements to meet the number of creative arts hours within the school week, but it just wasn’t happening so we were interested to know why.

DR: Why is it that you think many primary school educators lack confidence and skills when it comes to teaching music and particularly when it comes to composition and to singing? Is it, like you say, does it begin in the pre-service space?

BT: Yes it does. I think part of the problem is that music is seen as a specialised skill and highly skilled thing which of course it is. And, you know, in an ideal world, a good teacher who has good musical skills will probably do a better job than one who doesn’t have them. But I think too many teachers feel that they haven’t got those skills in composition; they think it’s a frightening thing, it’s done by dead white males. So it’s just, you know, lack of confidence to do it.

What they don’t realise of course is that they, in many other areas that a generalist teacher has, they don’t have a really high skills. They’re not university-level mathematicians, but they still manage to teach mathematics quite effectively. So it’s being able to convince them that they can be facilitators as much as anything else, rather than having to instruct it which is what I think is really important here.

IB: I think there’s also a little bit of a thinking out there that, ‘someone else will do it, so I won’t have to’. I think that’s quite common with generalist primary teachers, in particular. I think that lack of confidence and particularly around singing possibly comes from – I’ve worked internationally and when I lived in Africa, singing is just so much a part of daily life. It’s just what you do, all the time, no matter what you’re doing, there’s just singing and music happening all the time.

And as a culture we’re not like that. Unless you participate in church or a community choir or something like that, singing kind of falls of your radar after about preschool – or primary school, yes – it sort of drops away until suddenly you’ve got adults and they may not have sung since they sang nursery rhymes as a kid.

So we don’t really have that cultural, kind of collective singing experience that I think would normalise the process so it feels like something that’s really odd and exposing and makes people feel vulnerable. And when people feel vulnerable, they won’t do something. But I think the biggest factor as to why teachers aren’t confident is it does come down to – particularly with the last couple of generations of teachers that have gone into the workforce, they’re not given anywhere near the required amount of professional preparedness before they come. And that’s been just a gradual process of lessening hours as part of their university qualifications in that area.

So I think it’s a multi-faceted causal set of reasons, but I think it’s cultural, it’s a lack of preparation, and it’s also this sort of idea that ‘well, someone else will do it’.

The other thing that we haven’t mentioned is the importance of schools and principals and cohorts really getting behind music. Schools often like to have different focuses. It’s a lot easier to get behind sport, or even outsource sport programs, but music is – everything hinges on the support of the principal and the support of the school community for it to really thrive.

DR: And so obviously this pilot study that was evaluated in this paper that we’re looking at was focused on music professional development to really address all of these areas. So can you talk me through who took part in these sessions and what was covered in them? I think there were five in total?

IB: We had 17 participants, I think, from across five schools in town. We ran five sessions. We decided to keep it fairly concentrated – do it over a five week period just for an hour and a half each. That was partly due to not wanting to overwhelm teachers; working with their availability. And we were really lucky that the principals of the schools that were involved were incredibly supportive and provided RFF [relief from face-to-face teaching] for the teachers.

We broke those sessions down. Ben and I shared them. I did the first couple, I think. One was just straight out on singing. And then one was on singing and also developing resources and repertoire – how do I actually find appropriate songs?

And then Ben did a session on composition and then he did another one which was sort of on composition, movement and using instruments, and then the fifth and final week that we had them, it was peer teaching. So they got to choose one of the areas and actually try it out with a friendly cohort.

And the thing that we found was that there was actually a lovely rapport within the group. We filmed it all and so we could actually witness kind of thawing of fear and this really active engagement that happened and it meant that then almost immediately teachers reported back that they’d gone into the classroom and put this stuff into practice.

So, it was a total of seven and a half hours of PD, that’s it. One and a half hours each week and the teachers all came up to the university and we had a big space, and we had a little afternoon tea, it was free.

BT: Yeah, well I think the really interesting thing. Well two points – one is they came from all the local primary schools apart from one where the principal decided, you know, they didn’t need this. But the other, the really interesting thing was, I think, the ability of them to get an idea, go back to the classroom and do it the next day. And that, I think was what was the real strength of the program. The linking, the close nexus between learning to do something and implementing it. And I think this is, you know, really important.

IG: I think the three main factors – and I think a lot of our research kind of comes back to this – is that we had willing participants, so no one was forced to do this. It was just offered and people opted-in. We had a really supportive environment and we had obviously really strong and whole-hearted principal endorsement and those three things make all the difference.

DR: Absolutely. There’s one point that I just wanted to pick up on there – like you said, they implemented these activities straight away, and you mentioned particularly that these activities were particularly around composition. I was wondering if you’d be able to give a couple of examples of what some of those activities were.

BT: Composition was the thing that initially the participants were least confident about. And they made a fantastic improvement in terms of their confidence. And I’d like to claim that this was absolutely fantastic teaching, but really, it’s probably the fact that we just provided them with simple activities that they could use and implement in the classroom.

A lot of this was around creating semi-improvised soundscapes, using stimuluses from either stories or pictures. This is something which works really well in the classroom, because the teacher doesn’t actually need to have the skills. The teacher just needs to set it up and then the kids will create things that the teacher has not thought of and couldn’t think of.

Basically it was providing them with, being able to give the kids a framework saying right, ‘here is a picture of a rainforest. What sounds might you hear in this rainforest? How can we create those sounds with the resources we have? Which can be our voices, it can be our bodies, it can be ad hoc instruments in the classroom, or if you’ve got real instruments you can use those.’

That’s the start of a good sound scape. Then, of course, you want to give it some structure. So you want to think about ‘okay, that’s those sounds. What happened just before this? How are those sounds different? And what happens just after it?’ Again, how is that different? And then it suddenly gives you a nice, well-structured shape for a composition.

And this is the sort of thing that people went, our participants, went back with. The other thing we can do is find stories which have lots of nice rhythms and how can you enhance these?

IG: I think the other thing that Ben’s kind of alluded to is it helped teachers to realise that composition doesn’t have to be about the dots on the page. It can be about creating soundscapes, creating rhythmic ostinato, building from stories. It doesn’t – I think people sort of, there’s often a block where people think it’s a skillset that involves being able to read manuscript and note take perfectly. It’s actually not, it’s an aural skill and it’s a creative skill. So it was kind of shifting that paradigm from it being a written, dots on the page kind of practice, to actually just, create a soundscape, create an atmospheric kind of creative piece in whatever form.

BT: Yeah, and it’s that mind shift to you know, ‘what is possible?’ and ‘oh, we did that, that’s really easy, I can do that, that’s really effective’. And that was responsible for a massive shift in confidence in doing composition from the beginning to the end of the workshops.

DR: Yeah, absolutely, and like you’ve said there you know what the difference was between the beginning and the end of the professional development program because you conducted some surveys before and after. So can you talk me through a little bit more about what some of the biggest changes were between the surveys that the educators did at the very beginning and what they had given as responses at the end of the survey?

BT: Yes, well we did this, we asked them about their confidence to do certain activities and gave them a seven point Likert scale. So, four was in the middle, one was not very confident and seven was really confident.

At the beginning most of the things were roughly in the middle with a little bit towards the less confident. But we had massive changes when we looked at the means. Composition, for instance, increased by 2.8 points. The mean went from 3 to 5.8 which is a massive change. But we also had significant changes of more than two points in being able to find repertoire and find resources and to use odd things as musical instruments. Making music out of everyday items, those were the four things: teaching composition, finding resources, finding repertoire and making music out of everyday items.

… Confidence in teaching singing went up quite well; confidence in singing solo in public went up a little bit, but you wouldn’t expect it to go up a lot in over just five weeks.

IB: But they did enjoy singing in a group. And I think one of the biggest area of improvement that we saw was – we sort of categorised things around confidence and initiative and creativity. And the biggest area of improvement was in that teacher confidence. So across a whole lot of domains they felt far more confident after just seven and a half hours of targeted PD.

But also in that initiative. Knowing how to source repertoire, knowing what sort of resources they can quite easily and comfortably can use in the classroom. So that was a really big shift which was really nice to see.

DR: And so if we could move onto the implications of this report and of this pilot study now. What would say are some of the implications for primary school teachers across the country?

BT: Well I think the implication is that, first of all, that in terms of teaching music, there is a serious deficit in terms of confidence. But this can be solved fairly easily and that producing small chunks of PD (professional development) which can be immediately implemented is a really strong thing that can be done.

I mean, I think again, I would reiterate that the ability to learn something one night and go back into the classroom, try it out and then succeed with it the next day is a really powerful thing. What the participants got out of it is that they gain some knowledge of what can be done and see it modelled and try it out. And it’s that nexus that I think really the most important thing so that, you know, I suppose it calls for a great opportunity for creating professional development which can have immediate and significant effects.

IB: … But I think there’s also really profound implications in all of this for school leadership and I think that came out really strongly both in most in the most recent research that we did but also in previous research where we did some case studies of various schools within our region.

And we realised, like I said earlier, that everything hangs in the balance of principal support. A principal can make or break programs which is often influenced by their own personal priorities and perhaps a lack of awareness around some of those quantifiable academic outcomes that a music program can actually deliver.

So I think we’ve witnessed just in the last five to 10 years here in Armidale that individual schools can go from zero to hero in terms of their measurable indicators of wellbeing, their academic results, their engagement, and this has all been through music programs. But equally they can go from hero back to zero if that principal support changes.

So I think for principals there is a real need to not only recognise those academic benefits but to support professional development for generalist staff. Recognising that, you know, it’s possibly an area that is falling a little short in their pre-service preparation.

Engaging specialists where that is possible. Not all schools can afford it or prioritise their funding that way. But where possible, have specialists enhance those programs and being really welcoming to peripatetic staff. The more experts in the community that are welcomed into schools the more it just creates that creative culture. It actually sort of changes the dynamic of the school.

And aspirational parents will recognise where that creative culture is and they will sort of, they’re the schools that tend to attract those high achieving students but also the academic benefits that flow down to every individual student. Regardless of the haves and have nots, everyone benefits from a music education.

BT: I’ll just add to that, that while having specialists … in the school is a good idea, we do need to encourage the generalist teachers to use music within their general teaching because it’s too easy to sort of throw it off, you know, get out of it. And one of the things that we did point out, is that so many musical activities can be linked to cross-curriculum.

So that, you know, it’s a way of getting the kids enthused and more importantly, getting the kids to think about different curriculum areas in different ways. And that is fantastically valuable for their overall intellectual and academic development.

IB: I think like we said earlier, it’s getting over that ‘someone else will do it’ mentality and realising ‘I can actually do it’. And it’s an easy way of teaching kind of, it’s a fun way to teach all sorts of other KLAs [key learning areas] is to introduce a little bit of music in the room. I think it is about just developing that culture of creativity.

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Thorn, B. & Brasche, I. (2020). Improving teacher confidence - evaluation of a pilot music professional development program for primary teachers. Australian Journal of Music Education 53(1):41-47.

Inga Brasche says ‘…for principals there is a real need to not only recognise those academic benefits [of music] but to support professional development for generalised staff’.

As a primary school leader, how have you prioritised music education over the past few school years? When was the last time staff had the opportunity to participate in music-based professional development? Have you measured staff confidence in teaching music?