An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Music
Saint Columba’s College
Stranorlar, County Donegal
Roll number: 62861F
Date of inspection: 8 May 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Music
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Columba’s College, Stranorlar. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Music and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and the subject department. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
St Columba’s College currently caters for 410 male and 413 female students. The music department expanded in 2007 and is now staffed by two, fully qualified, specialist teachers. Responsibility for teaching senior cycle music is currently assigned to one teacher exclusively. Consideration should now be given to assigning each of the music teachers to a combination of junior and senior cycle classes in order to build capacity and experience in the music department.
Both teachers are members of the Post-Primary Music Teachers’ Association (PPMTA) and have attended many conferences. These provide valuable opportunities for networking and constructive dialogue across a range of issues relevant to classroom practice. This commitment to continuing professional development is commended.
Music has a high profile in the school and is available to all year groups. Fifth-year students are provided with a menu of subjects from which they can make their selections. This is good practice. In contrast, first-year students are provided with set bands which have remained the same for some years. This is unsatisfactory as it does not take into account the changing needs of students from year to year. Currently, Music is banded against Art and Technical Graphics. It is recommended that the school reviews the current system of subject choice for incoming first-year students. The uptake of Music in both junior and senior cycle is very good.
In order to support students in making their subject choices for the Leaving Certificate, an information evening is held for parents of third-year and Transition Year (TY) students. This is complemented by the provision of a pack which includes information regarding the music curriculum. However, the information that is currently being provided does not fully and accurately reflect all the components of the music syllabus. Therefore, it is recommended that school management, in consultation with both the music department and the guidance department, amends the information currently being provided to parents and students to ensure that it is fully up-to-date and correct.
TY is an optional programme in senior cycle and Music is mandatory within this. The timetabling allocation to Music in TY is very good. All TY students study Music for half of the academic year. In addition, these students study a module of Guitar for ten weeks.
There is no pre-determined budget for Music in the school. Instead, direct requests are made to school management when resources are needed. This system is reported to work well. Music lessons are held in two reasonably spacious rooms. This is good provision. Overall, resources for Music are quite good but these were better in one room than in the other. One music room houses the computer which has been allocated to the music department, an upright piano and a stave board. The second room is equipped with a small keyboard and does not have a stave board. This latter is a crucial resource for the teaching and learning of composition. It is important that the space in which Music is taught is adequately resourced to facilitate the delivery of the full syllabus and this should be addressed at the earliest opportunity.
Provision for information and communication technology (ICT) is satisfactory. In addition to the facilities provided in one of the music rooms, the music department can also access the school’s computer room upon request. However, the optional music technology component is currently not provided for Leaving Certificate students. There is considerable expertise in this area within the music department but this has yet to be fully optimised. It is recommended that the music teachers collaborate with a view to providing music technology to students as an option for the practical component of the Leaving Certificate examination. In time, as part of long-term planning, teachers should consider ways in which music technology can be integrated into lessons beyond the requirements of the certificate examinations.
Good efforts have been made to create a learning environment that is attractive and stimulating for students. Several subject-related posters, both professionally printed and handcrafted, are on display. Some of the printed materials were quite old. It is recommended that classroom displays should be updated on a regular basis and that student project work should be displayed. This would ensure that the learning environment maintains its interest for students.
In addition to the curricular aspects of the subject and preparation for certificate examinations, a wide variety of extracurricular and co-curricular activities in Music is available for the students. These include the annual school musical involving students from all years; Blast Beat, which is a rock band competition; the annual talent show entitled Columba’s Got Talent; the school chamber choir; participation in all liturgical ceremonies and the provision of entertainment for the annual whole-school award ceremony. A Rock School is established each summer for one week as part of the School Completion Programme and with the support of Peace Ireland. Tuition in this genre is available to interested students. The commitment of the music department in facilitating all of these activities is highly commended.
Formal planning meetings are held in the school each term to facilitate subject department planning. In keeping with good practice, minutes are maintained for all meetings. A music plan was presented on the day of the evaluation which was devised by one teacher and is followed by both. This plan provided insufficient information. It is recommended that this plan be developed further following collaboration between both teachers. A detailed audit of all available resources should be undertaken and included in the plan. The department plan should include long-term schemes of work with an indicated timeframe for the completion of topics and short-term schemes which link content to methodologies, student learning outcomes and the modes of assessment being used. This plan should also indicate how the three disciplines of Music—listening, composing and performing—are being synthesised in lessons. The Inspectorate’s publication, Looking at Music, which is the result of an analysis of forty-five subject inspection reports, provides useful advice for developing a music department plan. This is available on the Department’s website (www.education.gov.ie ).
Planning documentation indicates that the teaching of the three disciplines of listening, composing and performing is spread throughout the year for all class groups. This is good practice. However, the music department plan has some shortcomings in relation to programme content. For instance, heavy emphasis is placed on theoretical content, some of which is too advanced for students in the first-year programme. Care must be taken at the initial planning stage so that any theory taught is appropriate to the range of students’ abilities. More importantly, a Sound before Symbol approach should be adopted and reflected in the planning documentation for all composing activities. This is recommended.
For students in the first year of their Leaving Certificate course, it is evident that very little time is given to listening analytically to previously unheard pieces of music. It is important that none of the key skills in Music, such as this, is excluded in the planning for the subject and that students encounter the three disciplines—listening, composing and performing—in their fullness on an ongoing basis.
The TY plan is adapted annually to meet the needs of the current cohort of students. This commitment to reviewing the TY plan is very good practice. However, the music programme offered on this programme is quite narrow. The current TY plan is intended to expose students to the skill of bodhrán making. This is innovative and worthy of praise. Nevertheless, TY is an ideal opportunity to expose students to a breadth of musical experiences which could include bodhrán making as part of an Irish music module. This wider programme could be designed following some consultation with students. Consideration could also be given to the inclusion of a module of music technology. Therefore, it is recommended that the TY programme be reviewed with a view to ensuring the widest possible exposure to Music for students.
Individual planning for lessons was found to be very good. Both teachers maintain meticulous records of work covered. All handouts and worksheets that have been designed or acquired by the teachers are filed and readily accessible. Consideration might now be given to the acquisition of additional resources from alternative sources to enhance this very good work.
Four classes were visited during the course of the evaluation; two in junior cycle and two in senior cycle. Individual preparation for the lessons observed was of a high standard. Lessons included the integration of handouts, resources and musical excerpts all of which were very appropriate to the students. This is commended. Those lessons observed were well structured and moved logically from one stage into the next. However, the learning intention was not clearly stated to the students. It is important that students are clear about what is expected from them as this provides a focus and structure for the lesson. This is recommended. A warm and caring atmosphere was created in the lessons observed. Discipline was sensitively but firmly handled.
In the lessons observed, teaching and learning was supported by the use of varied teaching methodologies, many of which facilitated active and participative student activities. These included group work and pair work and the integration of practical activities. It is good to note that opportunities were provided for students to learn from each other. For example, in one lesson observed, students who were confident and competent performing on the keyboard demonstrated theoretical concepts to their peers. This is very good practice.
In the classes visited, students were provided with the opportunity to use their initiative and creativity and were constantly challenged to use appropriate music vocabulary in their responses to questions. For instance, a quiz was used very effectively to help students revise previously learnt material in preparation for summer examinations. This was very good as it instilled a healthy competitive spirit amongst the students and as an activity, was clearly enjoyed by all. More importantly, it successfully achieved the implicit learning intention of the lesson.
Practical activities were well organised in the classes visited. Best practice was observed when an aural approach was taken to the initial stages of the activity and when the teacher demonstrated the correct notes on the recorder prior to the students attempting the task. The latter is a particularly good strategy when students are still learning the position of notes on the recorder and while they are developing their musical literacy skills. These strategies were observed in a lesson where students engaged with the theme tune The Flintstones. Students, as a class, tackled the tune together and mistakes were amended when necessary by the teacher.
It is important that students build confidence and competence at performing independently and there was some evidence that greater advantage could be taken of the opportunities that arise to achieve this. In a lesson observed where students engaged with the song, The Little Sandman, the teacher played the notes on the keyboard as the students played the recorder during the initial learning process. It was evident that students were capable of performing phrases of the song by themselves but there was no provision for them to perform independently from the teacher. Student confidence and competence in independent performing can be facilitated by accompanying the students rather than playing the notes with them. In addition, this strategy can be a useful mechanism for assessing the students’ progress and, in particular, for detecting any difficulties individual students may be experiencing.
Following an examination of students’ manuscripts and folders, it is evident that composing activities are generally based on certificate examination questions. It is essential that students have the opportunity to engage with this discipline without any reference to examination questions. This could be achieved by analysing well known melodies and songs to determine useful features of composing or by engaging with a composing exercise aurally through a carefully structured listening activity. These strategies would ensure that composing is rooted in real music for the students.
In interactions with the inspector during the evaluation, students in music classes demonstrated a good level of achievement in the subject. The quality of practical performances was good and students were knowledgeable in the subject. However, in some instances, it was evident that students were unable to apply that knowledge or express opinions. To address this, it is recommended that attention be given to the questioning strategies deployed. There should be limited use of closed questions requiring specific answers and open-ended questions should be used so that students are provided with opportunities to think analytically and critically for themselves.
In addition to regular assessments at Christmas and summer and the “mock” certificate examinations for Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate students in the spring, formative assessment takes place in a variety of ways. Assessment strategies include questioning in class, completion of worksheets and practical assessments. In senior cycle, students are required to maintain all materials for Music in A4 ring binders. The quality and standard of all these materials was excellent. This system should be used for all class groups.
Monitoring of students’ work in Music is ongoing. Best practice was observed when students were provided with comments indicating strategies for improvement. In senior cycle, students are provided with good feedback regarding their performance when tackling certificate examination questions. This feedback follows the marking schemes set by the State Examination Commission. The use of ‘comment only’ marking strategies on occasion, instead of awarding grades, would focus students’ attention better on the areas for development. For example, composing exercises should include a comment on the musicality and flow of a melody. It is good to note that peer assessment and self-assessment strategies were used in those lessons observed. These are good practices.
In addition to reports being issued after formal assessments, annual parent-teacher meetings take place for all class groups. Teachers keep meticulous records of students’ assessments and this is commended. Patterns of achievement in certificate examinations are very good.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the music department and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published February 2010