Digital Portfolios in the Music Classroom

1st September 2021

Claire Brown – Musical Futures Champion Teacher, Mounts Bay Academy, Cornwall

Through my years of teaching music there has always been a discussion about the relevance of exercise books in the music classroom. Some teachers use them, some do not, and I have often had a concern about their relevancy in practical subjects. I have also sometimes found myself getting students to complete work in their exercise books merely for the purpose of a faculty book look or work scrutiny.

Across a lot of subjects, exercise books track progress and clearly show the learning journey that students have been on. However, in music a student could write about how they have made progress and claim that they are brilliant at performing on a particular instrument, but does this actually prove that they are? Is there a more relevant way of presenting this information.

When I become head of Creative Industries at my school in July 2019, I was in charge of a variety of practical subject incorporating Music, Music Technology, Dance, Drama, Food and First Aid. Across these subjects, exercise books had traditionally been given to students to document learning and progress. These were barely used and came at an economic and ecological cost whilst not necessarily being fit for purpose. A number of SEN and PP students were also not making progress in line with their peers, and this caused a considerable gap in Key Stage 4 results. Therefore, a new approach was needed.

In September 2019, I removed all books, folders and paper-based activities from my faculty. These were replaced with digital portfolios using the student’s own technologies to evidence their learning. Photographs, videos, mind-maps and presentations were used to document the learning journey across all key stages in our subject – impacting on over 500 pupils. Feedback was given verbally and recorded on to the student’s device so it could be repeatedly listened to and referred to at a later date. Video diaries documented progress in practical skills, and these were stored on Googledrive so that the students, staff and parents could access them. This allowed for conversations about learning and progress outside school engaging parents in the process. This parental engagement is highlighted by the EEF as a good way to boost attainment for pupils.

Once we transferred to online learning, we streamlined this process through the use of an online portfolio called Seesaw which allowed for easy access to work retrospectively as well as a place that verbal and written feedback could be given and accessed later. Parents were invited to join each class and were encouraged to comment on students work opening a dialogue between teachers and parents.

In terms of presenting work, students were encouraged to present evidence through videos, annotated diagrams, recordings, blogs, vlogs, presentations, movies or written evidence. This freedom in how to present their learning gave students ownership of their outcomes and removed the literacy barrier. Instead of writing about what you have learnt and how you did it, show what you have learnt and how you did it. Your ability as a musician should not be assessed on how well you write. There is also never the problem of lost work, forgotten work or eaten homework!

The impact of this idea was quite phenomenal. The progress of SEN, PP and boys saw a very positive impact and the quality of outcome improved across all practical subjects in all year groups. Students took greater pride in their work and were proud to show it off. Instead of leaving year 7 music/dance/drama with an exercise book with minimal content that doesn’t truly reflect progress, students left with professional looking digital portfolios and a range of transferrable technological presentation skills.

For Key Stage 4, the impact of moving away from exercise books was clear in the exam outcomes for the cohort. For Key Stage 3, this was slightly more anecdotal. Therefore, I measured the impact through collecting comments from staff and students who had been involved in removing exercise books. These quotes as well as images of digital portfolios can be seen in the pdf file: Mounts Bay Digital Evidence.

The transferrable skills and industry standard thinking that this has developed within students will also definitely equip them later in life.

I know that every school has its own thoughts on the use of exercise books in the classroom. But, ditching mine has been an epiphany – for me, my faculty staff and the students.

If you would like to know any further details about this, please do not hesitate in dropping a line: 

Excellent workshops ‑ extremely accessible for all abilities and levels."

Claire Armour, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra