In March The Dana Consortium released a compilation of research dealing with the arts and cognition. How does studying music or dance or the visual arts affect brain development and learning? I’ve been fascinated with this topic ever since the governor of Georgia, Zell Miller at the time, proposed providing the parents of every newborn in the state with a CD of classical music to play for their infants. The Mozart effect promised to boost performance, particularly in math, simply by listening to classical music. Music could make you smarter.
Well, maybe not. A small study that showed improved performance on a paper folding task after some of the subjects had listened to Mozart became headline news in a media hungry for big stories. Other studies that showed temporary, but not lasting, boosts to IQ (which itself raises interesting questions about what IQ really measures) fueled the media flames. The fact that subsequent studies showed that similar increases in performance could be sparked by other relaxation techniques did little to dampen the media-whipped excitement around the Mozart effect. Naturally, those follow-up studies received fair exposure in academic journals, but the popular media had little interest. Bold stories sell papers (or clicks on the Internet). Nuance is too complicated.
But nuance is often the true story behind the research that makes headlines in the popular press (as opposed to the academic journals). Whenever I see a story, even in Education Week, about a dramatic research finding, I track down the source article in the academic journals. How was the research conducted? What do the results really tell us?
The Dana Consortium report does a wonderful job of describing the bits we know and the many questions we still need to answer about the arts and cognition. Learning music intensely, for instance, does seem to make a difference in academic performance. Just listening to music or the occasional weekend music lesson doesn’t reveal any meaningful differences. But serious music study does appear to have a positive spillover effect on academic tasks.
However, the report cautions that it isn’t clear that music is what makes the difference or just the intense study of a subject. Learning music teaches students how to focus their attention, and that habit may be the key underlying skill for success in other areas. Or maybe there is something about music in particular. Of all the activities studied by brain imaging techniques, performing music lights up the most parts of the brain. While the question lingers, there’s certainly no harm in encouraging music study among our children. It does seem to make a positive difference for whatever reason. I see it in my teenage son, who is a serious music student and a successful school student. Like chicken soup, it couldn’t hurt.
Boston hosted the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) annual conference at the end of March, and Tom Snyder Productions hosted 50+ science educators from the conference for an open house at our office. A mix of science teachers, district-level science coordinators, state consultants, and other science education specialists from across the country joined us for an evening of demos and dinner. It was great fun and a wonderful opportunity to connect with the people doing the hard work at the front lines.
I was particularly impressed with the number of TSP folks who surrendered a Friday night to hang out with a bunch of science educators. Engineers, quality assurance specialists, producers, IT personnel, customer service reps, and others mingled and chatted with our guests. Most of these TSP employees don’t get a chance to meet the people who actually use the products they create. There were fabulous conversations going both directions. I look forward to the next time a relevant conference is in town.
I was invited to say a few words at dinner. The last thing I wanted to do was interrupt the flow of the evening (and the meal) with a boring speech. So I kept it short. I offered three bits of research-based advice for how to behave at dinner.
1) Talk to your neighbors. Research is very strong about the value of sharing what you’re learning to build your own understanding. In fact, recently published research on problem-solving transfer among young children concluded, “The general lesson might be that if you are having difficulty in understanding something, you should try explaining it to your mom.” (Rittle-Johnson, et.al., 2007). I like that.
2) Be careful what you say. Last year’s report from the National Research Council called "Taking Science to School" offers a very nice summary of the available research on science learning and instruction. The report notes that past science instruction paid little attention to the informal background knowledge that children brought with them to school. Kids’ have some well-entrenched notions about the workings of the natural world, notions that can help or hinder the acquisition of accurate scientific concepts. If we don’t take students’ existing understandings into account, then what we tell or teach them may well reinforce a fundamental misconception.
3) Have fun. Affect, the way we generally feel, has an impact on how well we learn. Engagement and happiness tend to reinforce retention. We remember what we enjoy. So have a good time. Learning is fun.