Discovery Learning by me – aged 6

I can’t remember too much about my first school but I do have evidence of a little trip I made when I was 6 years old with my friends Jonathan and Kelly from Selwyn Junior School in Plaistow in 1983. I have some memories and also I have a little newspaper article that I wrote that was published in a magazine.

The biggest memory was getting the chance to leave Miss Khodabandelou’s Class 1 and go with my best friends to do stuff with computers. I had recently got a ZX Spectrum bought by my mysterious grandparents that I had never met and I had excitedly told my mum how we could make it “talk” using the command “beep”. But this was much cooler as we were going to use a robot called a turtle. For a six year old kid on Free School Meals who had barely ever left Plaistow this was megacool. The only other trip I remembered was going to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the new robot exhibition. I was all into robots, computers, playing the recorder and the musical Cats. And dinosaurs. Everyone was into dinosaurs.

We got to the place and it was full of computers and ginormous awesomeness and there was a soft cuddly turtle that I hugged. Jonathan even drew a picture of me sitting on a chair cuddling the turtle. When I looked him up on Facebook 33 years later I found out he was a graphic designer. No surprises there. But something even more incredible was about to happen. There was a transparent robot turtle on the floor! And it could be controlled using a BBC computer using the programming language Logo. I had already used Logo before to make a green cursor move around a screen, probably one of the reasons I was picked for the trip.

We were given a task. A pure discovery-learning task. We had to get the robot turtle to go around a little maze without it going outside the perimeter. We were given a little bit of help – when the turtle went too far we were told to put a different number in, perhaps a bit less. But the part that was really hard was turning the turtle so it could go around the corner. For this we had to know a little bit about angles and crucially the idea that a corner was a right angle – 90 degrees. But we did not know this and so spent a frustrating amount of time trying to work it out. Finally (with help), we did get the turtle to go round the track, but only when we told to write in the code, “RT 90”.

Logo and turtle graphics were the brainchild of progressive educator Seymour Paupert and the idea was we would learn more by having a go and experimenting with trial and error. And he may be right – perhaps the frustration of being unable to solve the problem was fundamental to the my memory I have of this day. Like I said, I can barely remember anything else. Although I guess someone taught me to read and write. But still, if we were told the crucial fact that a right angle was 90 degrees we would have completed the task much, much quicker. And in the end we were told the fact even after all the experimenting. Perhaps if we were told the fact earlier we could have done some more complicated mazes. Did the experimenting help me understand angles? Not really, because I wasn’t thinking about the numbers. I was only thinking about getting round the track. I remember getting very annoyed that that the bloody turtle couldn’t understand the command “Corner Right”. Stupid robot.

I think this is one of the reasons why discovery-based learning has such a low effect size compared to direct instruction. The argument should not be about which is more effective, because that argument has already been comprehensively won by direct instruction – the research says it is close to twice as effective. Professor John Hattie tells us we shouldn’t really be looking at any approaches that have an effect size less than 0.4, yet every school I have worked in is going down the progressive discovery route, even though it is under 0.3. However, there may be an argument that the process of discovery may make learning more memorable. And if you are less likely to forget it or have to relearn it, perhaps that is one reason why we shouldn’t toss out the whole approach. I still think that in Primary Schools we need to base almost all learning on direct instruction and in secondary we should loosen up and allow a bit more discovery once students have the core knowledge secure.

I guess my question to all those teachers who rate discovery learning highly is simply, why won’t you let kids get quickly and accurately around the mazes you set for them? What is the benefit of withholding information to complete tasks? If it’s genuinely to make learning memorable then I’m OK with that. But if it leads to frustration or misunderstanding, let’s just tell them what works.

Stop making us feel guilty for direct instruction

“Don’t tell children something they could discover for themselves”. Nice, wise advice. Normally nice, wise advice from a consultant or manager. Someone who probably teaches less than twenty hours a week. For many teachers this advice is advice that makes them feel guilty. They feel guilty because they have made a short-cut. Or twenty short cuts that week. Instead of having a lesson where the children research Indian instruments, you told them what a tabla and sitar was by putting up a picture on PowerPoint. 15 minutes v 1 minute – same result, they know what a tabla and sitar are now. Instead of giving children a song on an MP3 player set up with headphones and some instruments nearby and asking them to work out “Smoke on the Water”, you’ve put a cryptic phone number on the board 035 0365 035 30, instructed the class how to read tab and told them to play it on the thick E string of the guitar. Ten minutes later you have a few spare minutes to show them how to play E minor.

We could go for minimal instruction and more discovery. But we DO NOT HAVE MUCH TIME. We have to:

  1. Sort out the show
  2. Sort out the concert
  3. Sort out the instrumental staff
  4. Plan lessons
  5. Teach lessons
  6. Jump through management hoops
  7. Write letters to parents
  8. Plead with parents to get Johnny back to Orchestra
  9. Explain to class teachers that music teachers don’t need to make up lessons if they went on a course or were ill
  10. Explain to class teachers that it isn’t OK to double up two classes because one of their colleagues is off on a course or is ill
  11. Explain to SLT that putting on a last minute reward trip to the bowling alley isn’t a great idea at the same time as the orchestras last practice before the concert
  12. Photocopy all the orchestra and choir music. Again.
  13. Run back for the stands and microphones, as the venue that promised you them actually doesn’t have any
  14. Locate the missing drum mat
  15. Lay down gaffer tape
  16. Lay down more gaffer tape
  17. Have a long conversation with a manager which results in laying down even more gaffer tape
  18. Locate the missing child
  19. Locate the missing parent
  20. Locate the missing music teacher.

Discovery learning, inquiry based learning and project based learning are fine when you are privileged enough to have loads of time. For the rest of us, just let us teach the kids and don’t make us feel guilty about it. Direct instruction is fine. According to Professor John Hattie, more than fine – twice as effective as any of the other approaches. And if people who don’t teach kids don’t like us doing it, perhaps you should give up your privileged position and TEACH THE KIDS.

Who Will Buy?

I have scored out “Who will buy?” – just the street seller bit.  I didn’t use the score, this is just from listening to the recording.  I wonder if it is almost correct?  If anyone has the real score can you have a look and … Continue reading Who Will Buy?

Ambitious Idea

I have had an ambitious idea for Primary School Music.  The idea is that at the end of Year 6, children could be entered in for (if they wanted to) Grade 1 Recorder, Keyboard, Ukuele, Singing and Theory.  The materials I have been making basically reach this end goal and I think the majority of children could pass it.

Recorder would have five years of study from Year 2 to Year 6 so that is certainly manageable.  Keyboard is a little bit more tricky – we are introducing it to Year 4’s at the moment.  I taught Grade 1 Keyboard for quite a few years, you really need two years for most children to pass Grade 1 Level, as this would only be part of the overall Music course you really would need four.  I think if you started Keyboard in Year 3, there is enough time to get children to Grade 1.  I passed my Grade 1 Ukuele last year – I entered with my friends 8 year old son.  It wasn’t too tricky but I think for most children you are going to need two to three years to pass it.  My friend’s son managed it in two.  If we could start the children in Year 4 this is definitely possible.  Singing is the easiest to administer and most of the repertoire you can put directly into the curriculum.  I think if you started in Year 5 this isn’t too hard for most children to obtain.  The hardest is Theory.  The amount of theoretical knowledge is quite taxing for Grade 1.  I think you would need to start it in Year 3 and really do a little Theory every lesson.

It’s not exams for the sake of exams, it’s something to aim for so we have well-rounded musical children.  I don’t think it should be mandatory but for some children, if there is no end goal then they won’t work too hard.  For some children this could be something they would really want to do.  And for secondary teachers, they would inherit multi-instrumental children who can read music in Year 7.  They would like that, I’m sure!

I’ve just finished writing some workbooks for Years 4, 5 and 6.  I’ve written out all the music using MuseScore and put in theory exercises, listening exercises and opportunities for performance and composition.  Each unit is six weeks long and each unit has a 12-14 page booklet.  The idea is that all performances and compositions will be emailed in to me whenever the children want to (in my school they all have iPads and Email) and I will take the workbooks in every six weeks to mark.  The children bring their workbook to class each lesson, they can choose to do homework if they want to, there is plenty of material to play and simple information to guide.  I think they will be popular with parents who will know exactly what the children are doing in class and how they can help them improve.  All the lyrics for the singing are included in the booklets as well.  I will publish a few on this blog soon – I have written five so far; Spooky Music, Roundabout, Sea Shanties for Year 4; Space Journey and Cyclic Patterns for Year 5 and Form and Structure and Water Music for Year 6.  I have used the excellent Musical Contexts website that we subscribe to as a base but I am developing the curriculum to make it a little bit more performance based with a little less composition and a lot more singing.

The approach I am taking is a mix of knowledge and skills but it has memory at the forefront – the hardest bit about formulating this curriculum is keeping the units distinct whilst leaving room for interleaving and spaced practice amid a multi-instrumental program.  And the biggest challenge will be changing the culture where a set of final products will be expected every six weeks from music lessons.  But they do this for other subjects, so why not Music?



When a knight won his spurs

Here is a simple two-part arrangement of “When a knight won his spurs”.

When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old
He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold
With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand
For God and for valour he rode through the land

No charger have I, and no sword by my side
Yet still to adventure and battle I ride
Though back into storyland giants have fled
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
‘Gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed
And let me set free with the sword of my youth
From the castle of darkness the power of truth


Catch A Falling Star


I have made an arrangement of this for classroom use.  I would aim it at Year 5 or Year 6.  You can find the audio here:

and pdf’s here















In Year 3 we have a five week unit on tempo linked loosely to Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals”. The children have to listen to, sing and perform music with different tempi. We only learn five tempo directions in Year 3 – largo, andante, moderato, allegro and presto. The children need to learn the Italian terms and their English names as well as the generic term “tempo”.

The main task is to sing and play the Can-can on xylophones. I explain that Saint-Saens made a slow version of the Can-can and called it “Tortoises”. I then play them the original Can-can and we compare the speeds using Italian terms. Next we sing the Can-can chorus using the tongue-twister. The kids love this. We start “largo” and then repeat the song at a slightly faster tempo. It’s important to continuously refer to the Italian terms every time you get faster or slower. Then we play the Can-can on the xylophones.  I teach it by rote to start with, then give out sheets for the children to practice at school and at home. In Year 3, I do not write the letter names for the children, they fill them out in pencil using the C major scale diagram to help them.  I give them some time to play on their own and then we play it together in unison. This lesson is repeated with variations for the next two weeks so they have revisited the Italian terms and are fully ready to perform.  In the fourth week I record the children individually on the iPad. While I am recording, I book a TA to supervise the class practicing. After the recording, I airdrop the videos to my computer and then label each file.  The performance needs to show their fluency and accuracy.  I always give them up to three chances to play and pick which one they thought they played best. I don’t believe in high-stakes assessment so multiple chances is ethical and fair. I play these performances to parents at parent-teacher consultations and they love it because they can see exactly what their children can do and how much they are concentrating.  

The task has no differentiation but I do send a piano version of the Can-can for anyone who wants to play it at home who is also receiving piano lessons. I also model how to play perfectly; with a couple of mistakes; not great and absolutely awful. The children love this, especially when I make a whole set of dreadful mistakes and they know what they have to do to play the melody as well as possible. Our school doesn’t have many SEND students (although it is 90% EAL) so I haven’t felt the need to make any special allowances, but one student had a TA point at the note names and say them as he played as his reading fluency is poor. 

The fifth lesson is a little more relaxed, we still go through the Italian terms but this is the lesson where we bring in a little composition. The children make up their own animal pieces in pairs using any of the instruments in the room and the others have to guess what they could be according to the tempo and the timbre. This lesson has the least amount of learning and is normally a little chaotic but I do think the children need a little bit of unstructured time to experiment using instruments.  I always find it is best to put composition at the end of a unit as the children need to have had a lot of structured input before delving out in pairs.  I also think it is better to keep it as paired work.  When the children get into small groups it normally ends in disaster.

This will not mean that the children have learned about tempo.  I get them to write down the five tempos on whiteboards after a month doing something different.  I will also ask them to do this again near the end of the school year.  We have to interleave learning and allow the brain to forget and then relearn.  This makes the learning pathways stronger, coating synapses with myolin.  Nothing has truly been learned until it enters an individuals long term memory and so it is important to revisit these Italian terms sporadically so that they can never be forgotten again. 

Three Arrangements


At our school we have a partnership with Juilliard and we follow a curriculum which has a focus on keyboard skills and twelve core works.

I have made three arrangements of these works for tuned percussion ensemble.  The first “Battling Instruments” is a conversation between the soprano and alto xylophones and metallophones with a pulsating bass part.  It is based on a theme from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”.  This is a good springboard for developing material and changing structure.  You can play it straight or you can develop it.  The changes between four and three in a bar worked very well when we did this with Year 6.

The second is the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  This arrangement has started off very well and we have completed the first three pages with Year 6.  The end of it is a real challenge and we will be doing some more tomorrow in our lesson.  But if you just want to get as far as bar 27. that is a pretty good achievement too.

The third is “Eine Madchen oder Weibchen” from the “Magic Flute” by Mozart.  This will be our last arrangement of the year so if you want to be the first to perform it, feel free!

All the scores are on MuseScore – if you aren’t using this and you are a music teacher I would highly recommend it.  Sibelius is probably a better notation package, but the community support of MuseScore and the access to so many really well made scores has been a revelation for our department.

What can the UK learn from the PISA results?

I am currently reading “Cleverlands” by Lucy Crehan.  She describes her journey to five high-perfoming countries that have ranked near the top of the OECD PISA tests. She spent a month in each country examining their education system to see if there are any common similarities.  She went to Finland, Japan, Singapore, China and Canada.  Although this book is new this year, the most recent results have put South Korea right at the top, one of the country’s she did not visit.  Last week, I was listening to a pod-cast that Lucy Crehan was giving and she is currently in South Korea looking at their education system.  One thing to be aware of before reading further is that the results of PISA do change and currently Finland is starting to fall quite fast down the rankings and be replaced by countries such as India.

PISA 2017


PISA 2015


However, the five countries in Lucy’s book are still doing very well and she has found some common similarities:

  1. Children in high performing countries start school later than the UK at about 6 or 7
  2. There is a culture of working hard and an importance given to education from parents
  3. There is little to no personalization of the curriculum and children don’t move on until everyone has learned the knowledge or skills (mastery)
  4. Children use textbooks way more than in the UK and the curriculum is more detailed, more structured and teaches less but in more depth
  5. There are far less data requirements and accountability for teachers to deal with.

This is very different to the UK.  Point 1 means that all children are ready to learn when they are formally schooled.  Much of this though could be down to point 2, where parents ensure that their children are ready to learn.  Point number 3 means that all children access a similar curriculum where the expectation is that all will achieve.  And point number 4 means that students, teachers and parents know what is being studied, what they have studied and what is coming next.  Point 5 is that teachers do not need to spend so much time gathering data, possibly because of points 3 and 4.

Why did the UK move away from this?  Most of these points were what used to happen in the UK before the education revolutions of the past 25 years.  I think it is because of a false understanding of inclusion.  In the 90’s when David Blunkett was Education Secretary he wanted children like himself who had a disability to be able to go to mainstream schools with support.  And he was right.  But what happened next was the idea that all children should be in mainstream education with support, including children who had serious learning difficulties.  And then it snowballed into all children who aren’t making as much progress should be taught at their own levels within mainstream schools with support.  But the support was barely given and no government was prepared to finance teaching children in very small groups to meet all of their needs.  Ofsted did not help matters by constantly harping on about how high or low level students were achieving.  This all resulted in schools creating differentiated worksheets for three levels of ability in each class and detailed lesson plans containing three lessons for each individual class.  Very few textbooks had these type of differentiated activities so they were binned.  I remember walking past a table in a school a few years ago, piled high with textbooks ready for the bin-man.  I queried why and was told by a young teacher that good teachers didn’t use textbooks.  Where has this attitude come from?  Resource sites like Tesresources, Sparklebox and Twinkl sky-rocketed in popularity and teachers ended up spending a lot of time cutting and sticking work into exercise books.  This work had to be marked and personalized with colour codes and a conversation between students and teachers (the “triple marking”).  All teachers who questioned this approach were told that “this is what Ofsted wants”.

The common denominator is personalized learning in the UK.  It has been a disaster.  We have fallen down international rankings and we see that the countries doing the best do not do personalized learning at all.  See this graph from Greg Ashman:

personalised learning.jpg

The elephant in the room is that you cannot do personalized learning in a classroom with 20-30 children, unless you want all students to put on ear-phones and gaze at laptops and tablets all day.  Or maybe you have teachers that are either The Flash or you’re not too bothered about them burning-out with the workload.  It is not ethical, fair or practical to expect teachers to teach parallel lessons and it looks like it doesn’t even result in better learning.  In fact, it is the opposite – the more you personalize the curriculum, the worse your results.

We need much better quality textbooks and a reappraisal in the UK classroom that if you use textbooks it does not mean you aren’t a good teacher or a lazy teacher.  We need to move away from differentiated worksheets and have more time for intervention with children who are struggling.  This means shorter, simpler lessons with more playtime.  Lucy Crehan said that most the countries she saw all had a ten to fifteen minute break between lessons.  This is where intervention happens and it is short, targeted and immediate.  We need to cut most of the data requirements that teachers are being asked to do.  Perhaps an answer is to create summative assessments based on well designed textbooks that can be assessed by computer.  Anything that cannot be moderated this way should be done by comparative judgment.  Stop the crazy criteria-based marking that is subjective, time-consuming and relatively inaccurate.  Stop marking books and leaving a color-coded conversation, instead spend time going through homework with the whole class.

There will be savings on data, administration and photocopying.  There will be added costs in textbooks and playground supervisors.  But this would dramatically cut work-load and would be much more beneficial for children.

It does mean admitting we got it very wrong…