Monday, February 6, 2012

Music and learning - how does it help?

The state of music in Australian public schools is fairly poor.  According to 'Music: Play for Life' only 23% of public schools offer a substantial music curriculum. Compare that to 88% in privately funded schools.  So what is the motivation for private schools to be spending significant budget on some pretty serious music programs?

I think there are three main reasons.  The first is culture - high culture in fact.  In Australia the association between having cash and understanding music is well established.  Most funding of  cultural events is bolstered by philanthropic donors, and although the cost of attending is not exorbitant, nor is it particularly cheap.  So participation in the arts can indicate a status.  And perhaps more importantly, a substantial music education means that people have the skills and capacity to appreciate complexities associated with many genres of Western Art and Jazz music.  So kids that go to well-funded private schools are more likely to appreciate high culture.

But there are two other arguments for including music in the curriculum that schools find interesting - and these are related to learning outcomes.  It is quite easy to blend these two perspectives together, to make an over-simplified mega-argument, but I think it is very important to be clear about which is which.  Nikki Rickard wrote a chapter in our recently released book (Lifelong Engagement with Music: Benefits for Mental Health and Well-Being: Nova Publishers) that really clarified my thinking on this.

One perspective is that learning an instrument improves cognitive functioning in maths and literacy.  The other perspective is that targeting particular learning outcomes with musical strategies improves those outcomes, potentially in maths and literacy.  Am I making the difference clear? Let me explain  a little.

There are studies that show groups of children who have instrumental lessons do better in maths (in some studies) and literacy (in others) than a comparable group of children who have not had music lessons.  These are mostly small, individual studies and there is not a strong body of evidence to support this contention due to limitations in methodologies and number of participants.  But many people do accept this argument because they picture the high achievers in their local school context and they notice that those students are also studying music.  So anecdotal experience matches the hypothesis and the idea is more easily taken up by teachers, parents and the media.  Nikki points out that it is important to note that improvements have not been measured as resulting from generalist music classes in primary school - this is about specialist music tuition improving cognitive capacity .

The idea that music can be used to enhance learning through careful inclusion of tailored musical activities that target specific outcomes is different.  This is about embedding music within curriculum goals, where music contributes to the targeted outcome, often alongside other strategies.  Again, there are individual studies that show comparatively better learning outcomes for those students where music was involved.  Music has been used as a mnemonic aid throughout history after all - to learn times tables in mainstream schools, body parts (Put your finger on your nose, on your nose), emotion recognition (If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands) and much more.  Music therapists frequently draw on these possibilities in special education contexts, writing songs that are specific to the skill to be learned.  This is also powerfully illustrated when people have dementia and can't remember where they are nor recognise their children, but they can sing the words to a song from their youth.

These are distinct arguments, are they not?  And yet I have not always found it so easy to distinguish them.  The most popular form of simplified blending is to argue that music is good for learning.  Well, yes it can be.  But exactly how this is so is worth noting.  Simple exposure is probably not going to do it -but it might be fun (which might motivate you to get on with your study;)

Ahhh, life is beautifully complicated.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

learning to blog

My interest in blogging was first piqued by a music therapist turned blogger in the United States named Kristen Chase.  She had written a fantastic book on music therapy assessment, but when I tried to find what university she had attached herself to, I discovered she had become a famous blogger, who gave great advice to new mom's.  She called herself the 'Mominatrix' and she was brilliant
So I was inspired, but inactive.

Then I then had the opportunity to contribute a couple of blogs in response to an almighty furor that erupted when I took my research on teenagers and music to the media to try and drum up some participants for my next study

I really appreciate the opportunity to write without having to provide evidence that my ideas have been inspired by the ideas of others - and this is fundamental academic currency.  So in this place, out in the real world, I want it taken as a given that I have read, well, you know, quite a lot of stuff and that it is all in my head somewhere, informing my thoughts, even when they seem innovative.  I promise to reference appropriately in all other forms of writing.  I do.  God bless blogging!