Guest blog: music, art and accessible teaching and learning

A guest blog from Alistair McNaught of McNaught Consultancy

My reading age for music notation is about that of 5 year old. 

When I try to read music, I empathise with dyslexic people. I decode phrases and arpeggios note by painful note and frequently reverse notes or miss sharps and flats. It is a bitter irony, because music moves me deeply, I love it with a passion and will pick up any instrument and give it a go by ear.

My vexed relationship with written music is by no means unique - I know many music lovers who cannot read a note. When I talk to them, the conversation often circles back to teaching assumptions and expectations - the mismatch between theory and practice. 

Joining the dots

Image of man painting dots on a wallOver the years, I have seen the same kind of mismatch repeated in relation to accessibility and inclusion. In this short post, I want to explore the themes using the analogy of music and art (well, dot to dot painting!). 

The problem with the music teaching was this. It started the wrong way round. Instead of indulging my love of music, letting me make music and then teaching me to “make it better” I was plunged into a world of concepts that made no sense in daily life. Crotchets made me think of knitting. Quavers evoked images of cheesy snacks. Staves were something to do with killing vampires. I had no motivation to learn. It didn’t directly contribute to my pleasure in musicmaking. 

The turning point came a couple of decades later, at the college photocopier, behind my teaching colleague, Jan. We were both preparing for Geography classes. Jan lifted the copier lid and saw the head of music had left his master copy behind. I looked over her shoulder as she picked up an A3 sheet covered with lines, dots and symbols.

She glanced at it. “What a lovely tune…” she said. She started humming what was indeed a lovely tune as she waited for her own copying. 

It was a poignant epiphany. A whole world of “lovely tunes” existed in music books and collections; tunes I could learn, tunes I could adapt or improvise. At that point I saw the big picture and knew that reading and understanding music theory was wholly relevant to the pleasure of practice and performance. 

Create an accessible digital infrastructure

This is where accessibility comes in.

An accessible learning experience depends on a number of actors - the teacher/lecturer needs to provide accessible content and activities, the IT and e-learning team need to provide an accessible digital infrastructure, the library service needs to provide accessible e-books and online journals, the institution needs to invest in sitewide assistive technologies, the disability teams the study skills teams need to advise on digital productivity and accessibility. This is a wide range of skill sets. If digital accessibility is to have any traction with such a diverse group of actors, it has to be contextualised to the actual job they do and the real-life constraints they face.Musical notes on a score

For this reason, the Accessibility Maturity Model for Higher and Further Education, co-developed by McNaught Consultancy and AbilityNet, is not full of checklists of technical compliance. It does not aim to be a step by step manual of accessibility. Instead – and possibly uniquely - it aims to be a storytelling device; a framework that allows teachers, librarians, managers etc to create their own narratives around overarching cultural themes that make sense to daily practice. 

Once I desired to read music (because I saw how it improved the things that mattered to me) I found myself returning to the rote learning that had previously been so meaningless. I saw the bigger picture and the dots I had yet to join. Now there was a purpose in crochets and quavers.

What sustains a culture of accessibility?

Sustainable accessible practice is similar. It’s about culture not compliance. Sure, technical and legal compliance have a key role in joining dots together but without a clear organisational culture – a big picture - some dots may be joined in theory but not in practice; like neglecting to use Word styles because the benefits were never fully explained. And without a big picture, dots can be joined in unhelpful ways with unintended consequences… for example deleting all your videos because you lack the skills, time or tools for scene description or captioning.

Our aim for the Accessibility Maturity Model for Higher and Further Education is to provide the big picture in a language that makes sense to stakeholders and that allows them to tell their own stories and “make their own music.” There are other maturity models that do a great job of the next stage – teaching the scales. We hope to provide the vital step beforehand – helping people see why it matters for their own professional esteem and organisational culture. 

We also provide a spectrum of support options from free Do It Yourself suggestions to commercial tools and services.

Find out more about the Accessibility Maturity Model for Higher and Further Education and listen to the podast (below). Or attend our upcoming webinar at 11am on 27 May 2020, exploring the key points of the maturity model. If you are responsible for preparing your organisation for accessibility compliance, this approach might just be music to your ears…

Further resources: