Introducing learning logs can help pupils to reflect on their learning by identifying their attainment and progress says Steve Gibson, director of music and public performance at Carmel RC College, Darlington

For a number of years, schools have utilised homework diaries for children to organise their out-of-lesson learning and to assist parents in monitoring the completion of tasks. However, although the homework diary provides an excellent aide-memoire for children to remember what they are required to do at home, I became increasingly concerned about how children recalled what they’d actually achieved while at school.

In Key Stage 3, children receive one hour of music tuition per week, which means that they have 24 lessons between each of their music lessons. This is a major factor in limiting progress from week to week, as children do not always remember the point that they reached in the previous lesson, which slows progress.

I also identified the fact that, as music-making is predominantly practical, children completed little work in exercise books and their traditional perception of teacher feedback rested on comments written at the end of pieces of written work. They had little concept that the formative feedback given in each lesson as they worked on a practical task was as important within the subject setting as written feedback would be in other subjects. It was on this foundation that I developed a pilot project, based on children reflecting on their learning, in Years 7, 8 and 9.

Reflective learning
Journals have been extensively used by students in higher education for many years, with notebooks full of quotes, references and ideas being kept in preparation for significant assignments. Reflecting on the learning that takes places within a lesson had been a priority for my department for some time, and the development of plenary ideas had become embedded in all teaching sessions for a number of years.

As part of a whole-school initiative to ensure that formative feedback assisted the learning process, I decided to pilot a project based on the idea of learning journals, as an intrinsic part of the plenary time for Key Stage 3. This was to act as a reference point for the children to identify their attainment, progress and record feedback that had been given during the lesson.

Music education is centred on the acquisition and development of skills. These skills and ideas are linked in a complicated cognitive structure, in which some aspects of this cognitive network are linked heavily to each other and some are linked in more irregular ways. The more often that these links are rehearsed, the more embedded they become and a solid developmental process takes place in the performing or composing process. In music education this complex cognitive structure is called musicianship – the elusive quality that changes a musical idea from a mathematical formula or pattern into a creative expression. The benefits of keeping a learning journal in creative subjects are clear; and recording the subtleties of thought, inspired ideas, aspirations and choices made in a performing or composing process is vitally important to ensure that development takes place from one music session to the next.

Considerations in creating a journal

When considering how the idea of a reflective journal could be applied to the reality of a Key Stage 3 lesson, there were three factors that I wanted the children to be able to reflect on:

  1. What had been completed during the lesson.
  2. What concepts/skills they had learned.
  3. Next steps to be taken and feedback received as to how to achieve them.

The terms ‘diary’ and ‘journal’ were discarded, to avoid the implied verbosity and instead point the children towards a more succinct summation of their progress. The title ‘learning log’ was selected, with the intention of recording a snapshot of learning at a specific point in time, although space was to be provided for more open developmental comments to be recorded.

Time constraints were also an issue. As the children have only one hour of music each week, lesson time is at a premium. Spending time on written reflections during lessons would be at the expense of practical activities, but it could be justified by the end result – greater development of skills. As completing the log was to be built into plenary sessions each week, the children would become used to their reflecting time as part of the lesson routine.

The log was designed with three boxes, to be completed at the end of each lesson in response to the three areas that I had identified as requiring reflective attention. The prompts given in each box were:

  1. What have you done in music today?
  2. What have you learned in music today?
  3. What feedback have you been given and how will you improve your work next time?

These questions required the children to write open responses limited only by the size of the space. As visual prompts, the lesson objectives would be displayed on the whiteboard during the plenary, plus a list of key words that had been used during the lesson.

It is important that children are given the opportunity to stop and think about the work that they have completed, and the process of putting pen to paper forces them to clarify their own thinking into sentence structure. The practice of writing ideas down not only creates a record of a train of thought for future reference, but focuses attention on how the practical activity during the lesson has achieved the lesson objective. The feedback response box was designed to be the development planning section of the log, with an opportunity to record how formative comments had assisted in the learning process and what was needed to begin the next lesson effectively. This third box also asked the children to code the given feedback as to whether it was given by self (S), teacher (T) or peer (P).

‘Doing’ and ‘learning’
The introduction of the learning logs required explanation and a degree of training in their use. This training began with an extended discussion about reflecting on learning.

The first interesting hurdle to overcome was the children’s confusion in differentiating between what they had ‘done’ during the lesson and what they had ‘learned’. A class discussion ensued about activities that they could remember doing in music lessons, and we listed these activities on the whiteboard. We then talked about the skills that we try to develop in music and matched these with the activities on the board. With this in mind, I asked the children to write a couple of sentences in their learning logs, to describe one of the learning activities that we had listed; and to then write a further sentence about what they thought had been learned during that activity.

Use of the learning logs quickly became embedded in our classroom routine and the initial reflections were interesting. Most students had understood the concepts of doing and learning and were able to apply this, although a number of students still found the separation of the two difficult.

However, the most difficult section appeared to be the feedback and development question, which elicited the fewest responses. This further raised the issue of whether the children did not recognise verbal comments as formative assessment.

F is for feedback
To enhance their understanding of formative feedback during a practical session, I decided to print small coloured cards with a large letter F on them. Whenever I spoke to a student to give assistance or a suggestion, I placed an F card on the keyboard in front of them. This visual signifier was not only useful to the children to make them realise that what had been said was in fact feedback, but also helped me to make sure that everyone had at least one F by the end of the lesson.

After several lessons using these feedback cards, I gave an F card to each of the students as they entered the room at the start of the lesson. At a given point during the lesson, they were all asked to stop work and listen to their partner’s performance, make a constructive comment for development, and then hand over their own F card.

It was through continuous use of this system that the majority of children using the learning logs gradually came to properly understand peer and teacher assessment. Over time, the ‘F’ cards were dispensed with, and in most cases the recognition of feedback remained without the visual clue.

In many cases, the learning logs provided interesting insights into the students’ views of their own learning, and in turn prompted reflection on my own teaching. Of course, as it was an ‘unmarked’ piece of work, some children did not take as much care and attention in completing their log as I would have hoped. However, whether or not the learning log should be marked is a contentious issue. If it was to be marked, criteria for marking would need to be created. If criteria were to be assigned, it would then make the process quite complicated – it would be easy to give criteria as a checklist of what to include, but it would be difficult to assign a value judgement of ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’ to personal reflection.

I had originally toyed with the idea of simply initialling the log to say that it had been seen; however, I discounted this as I believed that the style of writing within the log would change, depending on who the students perceived the audience to be. For example, some students would not admit to having achieved less than they thought they should, if they thought that their teacher was going to read this admission.

Moving forward
The learning logs will continue to be a part of music lessons in the future; however, there will be some changes. One is that the students need a larger space in the log in which to reflect on their learning and to suggest improvements for their next lesson than they were given this year. Despite many students having not filled the small space that they were given, I think that with further training they will be able to reflect more effectively on their work and the skills that they are developing. Giving a more substantial space to complete will ensure that the reflection is more personal and that students will make a more diverse range of comments than the directed comments that many have written this year.

Teachers are now more than ever aware that an understanding of how children think and learn is vital for effective progression. Reflecting on the learning that has taken place is an important part of the developmental process and has proved useful in this subject during this pilot project. Appropriately, I have also been able to reflect on the use of the reflective journals and to develop the idea for future use – a process that will continue after each cycle of use.

However, the most important aspect that has been learned from introducing these logs is that students require substantial training in effective reflection if the process is to be useful. The amount of time given over to this was originally a concern, as it took away time from the actual practical activity of the lesson; however, it has paid dividends and hopefully contributed to the development of self-awareness as a transferable skill to other subjects and aspects of education.