Research Report


This report presents the research output from Music Lab, an action research partnership programme between NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and Sage Gateshead which took place between September 2010 and November 2012, designed to explore the question: 

‘How can teachers and musicians work together to improve the learning of KS3 learners in science?


Led by Sage Gateshead’s Learning and Participation team, the Music Lab Advisory Board, made up of experts from the field of community music and science education, was established to direct and support the programme. Shortly after, four secondary schools with a track record of working with external partners to develop their teaching and learning practice, were selected to participate in the programme. 

Four individual action research teams made up of music specialists and teachers from STEM2 subjects, mainly science teachers, from the participating schools and musicians, with secondary schools and teacher training expertise from The Sage Gateshead’s Learning and Participation team were established. Together they co-devised a set of projects designed to experiment with practical strategies and approaches for enriching and transforming teaching in the area of the individual teachers’ specialisms, with insights and approaches from music learning and participatory practice. The work was modular, enabling insights to be captured and incorporated into the programme as it progressed (working in classic action research cycles).              

Flo-culture, an independent organisation specialising in research and evaluation in arts and cultural engagement, was appointed to support the school-based research teams to develop robust approaches to their action-led enquires and identify and making connections with relevant theories and practice that will add depth and understanding to the field work. 

Research context

A mutual interest between the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and Sage Gateshead (SG) in understanding better what makes learning engaging was the initial incentive behind the development of the Music Lab Action research programme. 

This interest seemed even more pertinent in the context of science education given the increasing importance of a science as a generator of wealth and wellbeing across the UK, European and globally, and the underlining reluctance of students to envisage themselves pursuing a career in science.

This project was established to explore how working together musicians, teachers and students could devise new approaches to teaching KS3 science that proved to be more engaging and thus inspire greater interest in the subject.

Summary of the four action research projects                  

Project 1

This project explored the relationship between music and science education from a number of perspectives. The first stages involved considering the impact of listening to music on science subject learning, which was then extended to include the impact of composition on engagement. They tested this further by using emotive music and images to accompany the introduction to different topics, including creating a graphic score for a chemical reaction, and then asked students to choose their own music for their presentation. 

In the second stage of their action research cycle, they explored the notion of 'performance', with students creating and presenting short performances around agreed areas of the KS3 science curriculum. Four classes devised performances on one topic to help the other classes revise, and then presented them to their peers. 

In the third stage, a small group of students used their previous experiences to devise and deliver a creative science activity session for Year 6 pupils.

Project 2

This project examined how a science teacher and a community musician working together can share learning about different ways to better engage students in science learning. This was explored in three stages. The first stage investigated the impact of pupil-led learning and investigation, and considered how the amount of teacher input had an effect on engagement. The second phase developed these ideas further by investigating the difference in engagement resulting from the different approaches adopted by the community musician and science teacher working with the same class of pupils during one term of science lessons. The final stage involved supporting a group of young people, who had been involved in the earlier stages, to plan and deliver two science lessons that tested further the approaches trialled by the musician and science teacher previously.

Project 3

In this project the musician, music teacher and science teacher were keen to identify particular pedagogical approaches which seemed to be most engaging for KS3 science students. Essentially, their explorations involved the community musician, the science teacher and music teacher working alongside each other in an experiment that brought together three existing sets of professional practices: school science, school music and ‘community’ music - in the hope and expectation that a dialogue between those practices and the professionals involved would reveal new insights into what makes learning engaging for KS3 students.

They used various methods to test and explore the implications of ‘merging’ these practices, including collective planning and delivering small group science-based music sessions, whole class music sessions, and undertaking science and music class observations. 

There was a strong emphasis on dialogue as an important vehicle for pedagogical development. The common thread throughout the different types of activities has been the emphasis on reflecting on what has engaged the young people and what this means to everyone’s practice.

Project 4

The School 4 project focused on providing opportunities for four KS3 science teachers at different stages in their teaching careers to reflect on their approaches to teaching and learning through participation in a fun, challenging, and physically and emotionally engaging musical learning process.  

Through a series of group workshops the musician taught them how to play steel pans. This enabled them to develop new skills in an ensemble/group setting. Reflecting on their learning experiences and associated emotions was actively encouraged and facilitated throughout the process. The project culminated in a final performance for other teaching colleagues. 

Overall the project enabled the teachers involved to develop new insights into how they learn as individuals and the impact that different teaching approaches can have on their learning experience. Ultimately this project enabled help them to consider the implications of this experience on their own approaches to teaching in the classroom.

Approach to data capture

The primary source of research data for this project was generated from semi structured interviews designed in response to some of the initial findings and feedback from participants following the first round of project enquires. Teachers, musician and students were interviewed by members of the Flo-culture team at the end of each project cycle in order to capture their reflections on their experiences. The interviews were recorded and transcribed for analysis.


Following analysis of the transcriptions, the findings from the project were categorised under four themes. These themes describe the different features and outcomes of the teaching and learning practice that arose as a consequence of the project and that were identified as being significant by participating teachers, musicians and pupils:-

+Choice-making and ownership of learning (and motivation)

+Active multi-sensory learning

+Collaborative relationships

+Challenge, risk and the unknown 

Summary of conclusions

Based on the teachers’, musicians’ and students’ perceptions,  the final evaluation of these projects reveals a number of interesting issues and pays great attention to the student voice.  

Firstly, it emphasises the importance of finding Continuing Professional Development (CPD) time to stimulate and share issues around learning and teaching. Secondly, seeing teaching and learning through a different lens can provide motivating and stimulating activities for participants and it promotes more understanding of learning and each other’s perspectives.

In terms of learning, the project reinforced the significance of small group activities where more active, embodied and autonomous learning can be supported. In these groups shared dialogue was more possible, and positive relationships and confidence were supported. Teachers had opportunities to present a more human and emotional face, which perhaps has the potential, if enacted often enough, to support greater student identification with both teacher and subject. Pleasure in learning was more apparent and more memorable both for students and staff. 

These active group contexts, at times injected with the excitement of performance, mirrored the contexts and strategies associated with musicians' work in less formal contexts rather than the more routinized interactions of schools. 

The strategies that these teachers and musicians experimented with are well-known and established in good practice literature and in theories of learning. Additionally, the significance of context and staff student ratio and the constraints of school teaching have always impacted on the quality of learning and relationships in classrooms, and this too has been reaffirmed.