Encouraging reflective learning and critical-thinking


When music teacher Phil Kennedy wanted to encourage his pupils to engage more deeply in reflective learning and critical-thinking, he devised an in-class research project. Sarah Fleming explains more.

It is a scene many teachers will be all too familiar with – that point in the lesson where you feel sure a small army of invisible ants must have somehow staged a takeover bid for at least half the chairs in the classroom.

Rather than engaging in a bit of deep reflection on the practical session they have just enjoyed, your students are beginning to shuffle in their seats. Throw in a few glazed expressions and you know that some of your learners are not engaging quite in the way you might like.

It is an issue that music teacher Phil Kennedy, from Fallibroome Academy in Macclesfield, decided to tackle with a bit of targeted enquiry – something which is encouraged by the school as part of its research-engaged ethos.

Phil’s project was one of a number undertaken by Fallibroome – a national Teaching School and specialist college for the performing arts – under the guidance of the Futurelab at NFER Enquiring Schools programme.

The project

During the point in the lesson when Phil was encouraging students to reflect on their work, usually towards the end, he noticed tell-tale signs that they were “often switched off a little bit”. 

He explained: “Their language, their use of musical language, deteriorated and they weren’t having the same sort of engagement with that part of the lesson as they had during the rest of the lesson.

“So I decided to have a look at ways I could improve that; to improve their use of musical language and hopefully improve their skills of reflection as well.”

As the focus for his investigation into how to improve pupils’ engagement in reflective learning, Phil turned to music social network NUMU. “It basically works a little bit like Facebook,” he explained. “You can upload student work, and you can upload projects for them to listen to. They can then comment on it on a wall – exactly as you’d write on somebody’s wall on Facebook.”

Phil undertook his research with three year 7 classes, each with a distinct role in the experiment. He explained: “I chose one class as a control group, and basically just gave them access to the social network and said ‘here you go, here’s some music, get on with it’.”

With the other two classes Phil wanted them to have models of assessment for them to use when they were undertaking reflective learning. With one, he created a model of a way that they should give feedback – they had to say something positive, use some musical language, and then set a target for improvement.

The final class was tasked with designing their own criteria for critiquing the music and Phil asked them to listen to NUMU in accordance with what they thought good reflective learning should look like. He added: “(What they did) was actually very similar to my view, but by choosing their own model, it was actually quite a powerful tool.”

Baseline data collection

At the start of the project it was necessary to do some baseline data collection to paint a picture of where students were with their reflective learning, and what they understood was expected of them. 

Phil played each of the three classes a piece of music (in this case a recording of a performance by other students) and then asked them to complete some reflections on it – for example what they thought worked well, what was different about it, and so on. He then categorised their responses into four different groups to establish his baseline. 

“There were the ones who just gave a simple word answer like ‘awesome’; there were the ones who put it into a simple sentence; some that used musical language; and some – only a couple – who used really detailed answers.”

Measuring progress

As the project then went on, Phil carried out further reflective activities on his students’ work – once in the middle of the project and once at the end – to try to establish what progress was being made by the different groups.

“It was clear,” he said, “that progress was being made with the two groups who had rubrics of assessment so that they knew what good assessment feedback looked like. They were able to use that feedback in a much more constructive way, so there was a significant shift in (the number of) pupils who were able to develop longer answers using more musical language, and I was able to reduce the number of pupils who would just say it was ‘really good’.”

This encouraging result seemed to show that Phil’s strategy was indeed improving pupil’s engagement with the idea of critical-thinking – a result further underscored by his findings from the control group: “Interestingly, they actually deteriorated in the way that they gave feedback,” he said.

“When I let them loose on the social network without a model to follow, it was exactly as you would imagine Facebook to be – they were just writing all sorts of random comments which had no relevance to the performance. Just saying things like ‘Fraser you’re cool’ and things like that!”

The outcome of Phil’s research into a new strategy to address a specific problem seemed to validate his hypothesis that a change in approach towards guided reflection would help prevent pupils switching off from it.

Creating an impact

So far, so interesting – but was this exercise really any more than just a diverting experiment? 

Phil thinks the evidence of a positive impact on his students – which far exceeded his initial expectations – speaks for itself. 

He continued: “I think this project has helped prepare some of the students for studying at a higher level because, certainly in my year 7 classes that have had the assessment model, their use of musical language is far superior to those classes that I’ve got in older years – some of them are already using musical language which I wouldn’t normally teach until GCSE.”

The outcome of the project, he added, has also given him a new perspective on the capacity of his students to take on board more complex ideas and information at an earlier stage in their learning.

“It’s made me focus on what students can actually take on board in year 7,” he explained. “They’ve been able to take on a lot, lot more. They are also much more used to listening to music; sitting and listening to music is not necessarily something we do a lot of at key stage 3, but they are more able to listen critically to music and deliver their own opinions as critical-thinkers as well – which can only help them when it comes to the listening paper at GCSE.”


The idea of practitioner-led research and evidence-based practice has been gaining a lot of ground in recent months, but amid the important every day business of the classroom it can seem like a distraction – or even an intellectual indulgence.

However for teachers such as Phil, who have engaged in researching their own classrooms, it has not only brought new insights, new levels of understanding and new challenges, but has enhanced the quality of teaching and learning at the same time. 

“I think this project has helped me continue to reflect and build on different teaching strategies,” Phil explained. 

“I felt quite confident as a teacher before, and that I could help students make progress, but by having a specific focus to reflect on, and to try and improve, I think it made me teach in a different way and try some different and new things.

“The fact that I had a focus and there was something to try and improve on specifically actually had a knock-on effect on the rest of my teaching and I feel has improved it all round.”

  • Sarah Fleming is media and communications executive with the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

Research Mark
To encourage and support schools to engage in and with their own research, the NFER has launched the Research Mark – a new quality mark supported by a range of organisations, including SecEd and the National College. NFER Research Associates study applications, visit applicants to gather further information, share expert knowledge and insight, and provide feedback. Visit www.nfer.ac.uk/ms2
Research resources
The NFER has lots of new free and low-cost resources to support practitioners’ evidence-gathering, including expert guidance on research topics and methods as well as examples of relevant existing research for further reading. Visit www.nfer.ac.uk/schools/research-in-schools
Further information


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