What choristers can teach us about student engagement

If we want children to take more ownership of their work, we need to show them that what they do matters, says a music specialist

Helen Cocks

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It’s 8am and 30 boys between the ages of 7 and 13 are waiting to go into school. Some are playing football with a balled-up pair of gloves, others competing as to who can shout “bogies!” most loudly, while a suspiciously quiet group is poring over something questionable on a mobile phone. Eventually, a harassed-looking man appears to confiscate the mobile phone and open the door for them.

The boys enter the room and take their places at tall wooden benches. A hush falls, and they begin to sing 16th century church music.

We might be used to seeing choristers singing carols at Christmas, but for hundreds of children – mostly boys, but also, increasingly, girls – this is daily life.  The young choristers of around 50 UK cathedrals, churches and chapels rehearse daily and perform up to eight times a week throughout the school year and beyond.

In several years working with choristers I have been struck by the juxtaposition of their normality as kids and their professionalism as musicians. In everyday life choristers are as noisy, cheeky and disorganised as all children. But in the choir stalls they are able to concentrate on difficult tasks for long periods of time, persevere when things get tricky and pick themselves up and carry on when things go wrong; all skills we try – and often fail – to instil in other children.

Choristers are not extraordinary, but they do extraordinary things, and I believe the key to this behaviour lies in the sense of responsibility they feel for their work.

Choristers learn to take responsibility

So much of modern childhood is having things done for you. Not just on your behalf, but for your benefit. “It’s your own time you’re wasting” we hector when waiting for noisy classes to quieten down, “Homework is for you, not me” or “because it’s good for you”.

How can we complain that children don’t take responsibility for anything, when the constant message is that nothing they do matters to anyone except themselves?

But choristers understand that what they are doing matters to others; people come to watch them sing and demonstrate their appreciation. The pride that the children take in this is evident, as are the positive effects on their feelings of self-worth.

So, how can we create this same effect for other children? A place to start is with explaining consequences. Making children feel valued has to include giving them responsibility for their actions, whether positive or negative. This can be as simple as letting children know when what they do or say affects people beyond themselves.

Children learn responsibility not just as a set of rules by rote, but as cause and effect. Of course there are plenty of responsibilities which are too complex for children really to understand, but starting small can get them thinking in the right ways.

A sense of ownership fosters pride. To remove the ownership of a child’s actions from them is to tell them that they are not trusted to do the right thing.

All children, not just choristers, are capable of remarkable things. If we expect a lot from them, we might just be surprised by how much they can rise to the challenge.

Helen Cocks is a freelance journalist and a former administrator to the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School.

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Helen Cocks

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