Category Archives: Testing

A Rude Awakening

Wednesday’s edition of All In The Mind featured a study on the effect of rudeness (in the workplace) on creativity and productivity. The study by Amir Erez of the University of Florida and Christine Porath of the University of Southern California, discovered that even witnessing rudeness can affect cognitive performance, memory and incliantion to help out.

This discovery is at odds with our culture of humiliation as seen in Britain’s Got Talent; X Factor; The Weakest Link; Dragons’ Den; The Apprentice. The first two of these are extremely popular with pupils and, before hearing of this study, I often used to wonder what message was being conveyed when the response to ambition was often mere cruelty.

Listen again here, or else! The article is the second of three in the programme.

Perfect Pitch

Those most blessed with perfect pitch are, according to this New Scientist article, speakers of tonal languages. Next come those who begin learning a pitched instrument at a very young age – between 3 and 6. However, many musicians tend to exist on – or even move around – a continuum of absolute and relative pitch, depending on circumstances. Factors could include hearing music being played on their own instrument; hearing real notes as opposed to pure sine waves; being able to identify a chord more easily that an isolated note. If it is a skill which we can work at, then what better place to start than here?

Music Matters

The title of this post comes not, as you might imagine from a stirring manifesto, but from a radio programme of the same name. Music Matters, which goes out on Radio 3 at 12:15 on a Saturday, is a magazine programme. Tomorrow’s sole theme is music education. Below is the content of the email newsletter which, if you are involved in education as pupil, parent, teacher, manager or concerned citizen, might encourage you to listen in or catch up on iPlayer. (the emboldening is my own).

We’ve a special edition this week: Music Matters is at MusicLearningLive!2009, the national festival of music education. We put together a panel of key policy makers and thinkers – National Music Participation Director, Dick Hallam, Katherine Zeserson, Director of Learning and Participation at The Sage Gateshead, Christina Coker, Chief Executive of Youth Music, Richard Morrison of The Times, and cellist and educator Zoë Martlew – to debate the present and future of music education, from primary school to conservatoire, in Britain. And there is no better place to chew over the issues than on stage in the theatre of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, with contributions from festival delegates.

There is a lot to discuss: the government’s £332 million settlement for music education, announced at the end of 2007, is being rolled out across the country, and there are schemes and enterprises galore: Wider Opportunities, the Music Manifesto, and most visibly, Sing Up, a £40 million scheme that aims to have every child in primary education involved in singing before 2012. So everything looks good, right? Well, no: there are looming crises in music education, revealed in two recent reports on primary education from the government’s own inspectorate, Ofsted, and in an independent Cambridge review, both published last month. Their conclusions are strikingly similar: teachers are dispirited by having to reach targets and get kids through exams, with the twin behemoths of numeracy and literacy objectives squeezing everything else out of the classroom. The arts and humanities are suffering, and music in particular.


And that means children aren’t getting the rounded education they should be, despite the fact that there’s a statutory requirement for schoolchildren to have regular access to music lessons until they’re 14. The irony is that, by marginalising music, schools are missing a trick: there’s overwhelming evidence that children who do receive music education are more likely to do better in Maths and English. There was real evidence of this at the RNCM from Abbott Community Primary School, one of many ‘Singing Schools’ in the Manchester area which use music throughout the curriculum: the kids sang songs about fractions, times tables, parsing words into syllables, even an ironic lyric on SATs, showing how music can help achieve those apparently all-important targets.


But that’s not the real point of music in schools. Music is important because it’s music, not just because it can help achieve academic or social outcomes The question is, what happens when children with talent come through the system? How are they supported once they get to secondary school? Is there any hope for a gifted child to progress in music, who isn’t lucky enough to have parents rich enough to afford instruments or expensive private lessons? The panel, with questions from the audience, reveal their hopes and fears for secondary schools and what they think will happen after 2011, when the £332 million has been spent. All that, and we discuss what students can expect as they emerge blinking from the hothouse of a conservatoire education into the harsh world of trying to make it as a professional musician; why teachers need more training in music education, the significance of projects like the Scottish and English versions of Venezuela’s El Sistema, and orchestral outreach work. Also, why western notation matters, even if you can get a GCSE without being able to read music. I’m not saying we come up with the answers, but there’s fuel for more debate, and real passion about why music, er, matters. Enjoy! As always, 12.15 tomorrow.

Arms and gender wars

Having written on gender once or twice I was interested to hear, on a Guardian Science Weekly Podcast about a some experiments intended to put some gender stereotypes to the test. Some of the tests were to be used at an event last night entitled War of the Sexes at the Science Museum’s DANA Centre.

In the podcast, Professor Geoff Sanders describes tests designed to measure tracking ability – basically using a joystick to track a moving dot on a computer screen. In one version, a short joystick was controlled by the hand and wrist alone. In another, a longer joystick needed to be controlled by the shoulder and arm. It seems that women tend to be better at the former and men at the latter. Professor Saunders posits an evolutionary reason for this. One would think then that there would be, for example, more male cellists and trombonists and more female trumpeters and woodwind players. I wonder how to go about collecting the statistics on that…..

Had I not lived so far from the venue, I’d have been interested in attending an event like this. As it was, I was at a parents evening where the stats were:

Girls 45%    Boys 55%

Mums 50%    Dads 50%

Speaking of statistics, would it be stretching the spirit of the law to suggest that unnecessarily vague language constitutes a breach of the Freedom of Information Act? As a parent, which would you rather see?

Attendance – generally good


Attendance – 14/16 (missed 26 Nov & 13 Jan)



In 1977, while preparing for Higher Music, we used to practise rhythm dictation as a preparation for the more demanding melody dictation. It was a way of preparing a skeleton of the tune before worrying about the topography. Why not try it in this life-affirming syncopation-fest?

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I suspect that many readers of blogs are also writers of blogs. That could explain why John Connell’s post on English usage and pedantry attracted so much attention – apart from the obvious quality of the writing, of course. I would imagine that most people would like to believe that they can write English proper when required, but stop short of the zealous, Canutesque protectionism to which we refer affectionately as pedantry.

If you remain unsure of your status as a grammarian, why not try Broadcasting House‘s short Grammar Quiz. The correct answers will appear on this Sunday’s programme (Sunday 30th November). As for the pedantry – you’ll have to ask your friends.

May I offer this little warm-up question?

Insert apostrophes, where required, in this sentence:

Is is indicative of Englands medias attitude, to air the answers to Broadcasting Houses quiz on English grammars trickiness on St. Andrews day?

A testing time

Today saw the culmination of an experiment whose purpose was to reduce the agonising wait between applying for guitar instruction and getting the results. The beneficiaries were several classes of P5 pupils in two primary schools and, to make this possible, pupils from P6 to S6 sacrificed their first lesson of the session. Consequently, no P5 pupil had to wait more than 48 hours to find if they were able to squeeze into the limited spaces. In previous years, the wait has been more like 8 weeks because the testing time lasted only as long as the P5 teaching time – 2 x 30mins per school per week.

Overall, I’d say it was a success. From the point of view of the pupils this seems clear. From the point of view of their class teachers, they traded in low-level, lasting disruption for a constant but shorter variety. From my own point of view, I feel that the testing process was much quicker for not being a stop/start affair: the room and instruments were laid out, ready to go; one group of pupils followed hot on the heels of another; the vocabulary was fresh in the mind and the whole thing seemed to race along. From the point of view of those who missed a lesson, all I can say is that, if you have to miss one, the first one after summer is the one to choose. Pupils are instructed to have a rest from playing in the summer in the hope of returning refreshed and eager. This rest usually lasts right up until the first lesson so let’s hope the process of refamiliarisation with the instrument has been blossoming this week.

On an anecdotal note, it was nice to spend so much time in primary schools – the norm is only one day per week. I may be imagining this but primary schools feel more cohesive than their secondary counterparts – perhaps by necessity and very possibly due to size. There are also more spontaneous and smiley “hellos” in the corridor from pupils one doesn’t teach – and more engagement from pupils you don’t know. Primary pupils seem to feel that any member of staff is fair game to ask for and offer help – and somehow that feels right.



Like buses, synchronicity comes in threes. John Connell recently led me to an article in which Nicholas Carr asks Is Google Making Us Stupid? This Sunday, I came across Brian Appleyard‘s piece in The Times, Stoooopid….why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks. The next concentration-based piece I spotted, in a section called Emily’s News on the site of Scotland’s Centre for Confidence and Well-being, was entitled You may not see it, but TV is affecting children.

The last of these three articles, which deals specifically with very young children, is relatively straightforward. The previous two contain so many variables that it’s difficult to see this debate coming to an end any time soon – but it is surely a very good thing that it is taking place. My own view is that, before worrying too much about difficulty of reading lengthy articles online, a few parameters need to be set. I skim through a great deal on the net, often in the living room with the TV or radio on (sometimes both); my email & feed-reader sit open along with a correspondence-chess website. However, I consider this to be searching as opposed to reading. I would no more sit with my laptop, struggling to read an in-depth piece in a distraction-filled environment, than I would with a book. I’d retire to somewhere quieter, having set aside the time to concentrate. If that weren’t possible, I’d send the url to myself in an email, paste the text into a word processing application, or bookmark the page with del.ici.ous and read it later.

I spend more time online than many people I know and, to the best of my knowledge, my concentration is no worse than before. With books easer to track down, and reviews easier to garner online than off, I probably read more books now than at any time in my life. In school, I teach 52 lessons-per-week and don’t find myself suddenly wondering what I was saying, or who these people are in front of me. However, at 48 years old, my formative years were over long before the internet began to impact on my modus operandi. Has enough time elapsed to tell what effect, if any, has been wrought on young people’s concentration? Currently, they spend as long as I do in class; they sit in silent exam halls for as long as ever; as far as I’m aware, a football match still lasts 90 minutes….

The synchronicity was kept alive when I came to a captivating story this morning entitled The Last Channel by Italo Calvino – from an outstanding collection of stories entitled Numbers In The Dark. Without spoiling this almost Kafkaesque tale, I can reveal that the protagonist allows his habit of channel-hopping with the remote to escalate to monumental proportions. However, even he appears to be searching and not watching. If your brain is not e-addled, you may be up to reading it in parallel text.