Ofsted, music & the knowledge rich curriculum.

On 12th July 2021, Ofsted published a Music Research Review, designed to help subject leaders with their curriculum planning. This is one of a series of reviews into all the national curriculum subjects which will be released over time, and will be followed up in 2022 with a subject report based on Ofsted’s own findings from Music Deep Dive inspections.

Ofsted have published this review in the context of an education sector that has been pushed in recent years towards acceptance of a ‘knowledge rich’ approach to learning, based on cognitive science principles (many of which are actually untested on children – see this article for further information: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/how-and-why-classroom). This has resulted in schools scrambling to create knowledge organisers, ‘progressive’ vocabulary lists, and evidence of the ‘facts’ that children are being taught. This approach might not do too much damage in knowledge-based subjects, but music is skills-based, and does not fit neatly into a knowledge-rich box. Yes, there are facts to learn in music, but these tend to be extremely peripheral to the main job of learning to perform and create music.

It is great to see Ofsted acknowledging in this review that in fact a ‘knowledge rich’ approach to music shouldn’t mean just the learning and recalling of facts. Instead, they identify three different types of knowledge which should be covered in a successful music curriculum: tacit (experiential), procedural (skills) and declarative (facts). These map really well onto existing theories of musical knowledge, where we often talk about knowledge how (procedural), about (declarative), and of (experiential). Having the inspectorate lay this out for schools in their research review will be a welcome relief to the music teachers who have been fighting their corner against the homogenisation of the curriculum into a one-size-fits-all approach.

This research review also places considerable emphasis on cognitive load theory, and argues that musical skills should be developed incrementally over a sustained period of time in order that ‘low level’ processes become automatic to ‘free the mind from mundane considerations.’ The review suggests that humans can only process 4-7 pieces of new information at any one time, and that the process of playing an instrument using notation requires many more pieces of information than it is possible to successfully process. They go on to say that ‘this cognitive liberty allows a focus on the musical quality in performing and composing.’ Whether or not you believe in cognitive load theory, the process of learning an instrument, and to read musical notations, has always followed this structure of aiming to become more fluent so that some tasks can be completed ‘automatically’. In the past, teachers have referred to this as ‘muscle memory’ and it is an important part of becoming a more competent musician.

The review also defines learning as ‘a change to long term memory’ and states that ‘we consider long-term memory to be the chief enabler of development.’ Many commentators disagree with this view, pointing out that it is quite possible to have learnt something but then forgotten it, which is not the same as not learning it in the first place! For example, think of all the pieces of music you’ve ever learnt to play over the course of your entire life, most of which you would probably now have to get the sheet music out for if you were to play them again correctly!

If we take this statement about long term memory in the context of the whole research review, it appears that what Ofsted are really trying to encourage as ‘learning’ is fluency in playing an instrument and reading notation. Again, fluency is not something that many music teachers would argue against as a principle, even if we might not agree that this is the only true definition of learning.

On the whole, Ofsted’s position on knowledge and learning in this research review should be broadly helpful to music teachers, particularly those working in schools adopting a solely declarative approach to a knowledge rich curriculum. It certainly seems to be the case that anyone selected for a deep dive in music is not just going to be asked to present knowledge organisers and vocabulary lists, a fact for which all the music teachers in England must heave a collective sigh of relief!


This is the second in a series of three Learning Music blogs about the Ofsted Music Research Review. See also: Ofsted backs music in schools and Ofsted’s features of high quality music education.

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