On American Music Education Advocacy
Music Education Advocacy Should Get To Those Who Are Currently Ambivalent
You Own Your Own Brain
Why Doesn’t Everyone Do This?
If as many parents and administrators who say they believed that music makes you smarter actually did then music enrollment would be bursting at the seams. Has music educaiton advocacy at the national level been working, or has it been something of a negotiating position to keep music ed on life support? In any case can we do better?
According to The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, “A remarkably consistent picture of the value of the arts in a comprehensive PreK – grade 12 education emerges from a review of two decades of theory and policy recommendations about arts education.” (PCAH: 15)
Music truly delivers significant educational and life skill benefits, yet this sounds like some new age far off concept to most. We are at the beginning of the cavalcade of research that will point all education in this direction. We truly do have the keys. What will we do with them?
There have been problems with past reports of music instruction as a causative factor of positive outcomes in other areas of life. The now discredited media and entrepreneurial interpretation of the, “Mozart Effect,” took on a life, and an industry, of its own. An industry that thrives despite the easily accessible public information that refutes their claims.
We’ve heard that research has shown that participation in music reduces destructive behavior. Are we really convinced the type of young person interested in playing the violin in orchestra is even the type of person who would join a gang anyway? Which causes which?
Had music advocacy groups turned toward cognitive and behavioral psychology when that field was describing the architecture of learning and conditions that support it we would have found the described best practices embedded in music instruction. In 1982 Carnegie-Mellon published, “Acquisition of Cognitive Skill,” (Anderson) identifying that very learning architecture. And significant work has continued.
Instead we offer hypotheses such as, “It fosters creativity,” and, “It helps students empathize with others and work as a team,” that can be met with skepticism by the general public especially when we consider how little attention most pay to this. They may dismiss it quickly. What might we say instead that is research based and intriguing to all to create the nascent interest among the non-musical public that we would like to see?
We are at a unique point in history. Through brain imaging technologies cognitive and behavioral neuroscience is bringing to light the reasons and workings of the best of the same areas in psychology – and it is exciting to public. We have a chance to get it right in a pretty popular way.
Unfortunately, the mainstream hyperbole of watching brains light up during brain scans, and the media proclaiming the next big breakthrough, is producing what some researchers call, “neuromyths”. They write, “ . . . these naïve misinterpretations of science have spread throughout the folk psychology of educators in recent years.” the authors recognize, “The popularization of neuroscientific ideas about learning – sometimes legitimate, sometimes merely commercial – poses a real challenge . . . Meanwhile, the success of our schools will continue to be narrowly defined by achievement standards that ignore knowledge of the neural and cognitive processes of learning.” (Hardiman, et al.)
In our excitement to understand how the most complex system we know of, the brain, goes about learning we’ve internalized a type of ‘folk knowledge’ as to the role music plays in developing this. We watch videos of the brain lit up like a Christmas tree while engaging in music without thinking why this might be good, or if it even is. That particular image has been described as the cognitive equivalent of a full body workout. What would it be like if most of your muscles fired at the same time? These types of apples to oranges analogies undergird our thinking, but do not help. Sometimes too much of the brain being active is detrimental such as during a seizure. This is not to equate or compare that with the brain’s reaction to music, but is our reaction to the image well founded? It makes for good marketing, though, and media outlets and music advocates latch on to it. Sometimes in music education advocacy this seems to be a ‘more eyes on’ strategy rather than a quality of information to sway opinion one.
We should be able to engage parents, students, teachers and elected officials with more than suppositions or research we don’t understand, or have not vetted and go into some depth if we want to convince them to change long dominant behaviors that marginalize the arts in education.
The good news is that sustained music participation under good instruction does change the brain for the better in profound ways that are central to the learning process. The science of neuroplasticity, how we can physically change our brains through thought and action, is now undisputed in the scientific community. (Doidge)
The area(s) of science that deal with how the brain goes about learning are really a combination of two sub disciplines within two disciplines – cognitive and behavioral psychology and neurobiology. Many people lump all of this into the term ‘neuroscience’ (Hook, Farah: 339).
Researchers identified the process at the center of learning in 1993 calling it deliberate practice (Ericsson, et al.) later updating and expanding the work. (Ericsson 2006) The process can be represented as follows:
Some call this focus. It is the continuous participation in refining what you do, over and over, with intense concentration.
At its very essence that is what learning is. Things like grit, mindset, learning styles, safe learning environments, nutrition, and any other areas we deem important in education exist so that the student can be in a position to do deliberate practice over ever extended periods of time. In fact researchers identify things like resource constraint, effort constraint and motivational constraint. (Ericsson 1993) Creating proper learning can be viewed as removing constraints.
Researchers note that deliberate practice is not fun, “ . . . deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable and . . . individuals are motivated to engage in it by its instrumental value in improving performance.” (Ericsson 1993: 371) Most students don’t want to do it, and too many academic teachers, unfortunately, don’t know how to teach it. Those students that can figure it out on their own, or have someone show them how, we call talented because their performance stands out. It turns out that instrumental education teaches the basic skills needed to engage in this for any subject. And it is a skill that needs to be built over time. One must start with a little at a time and be guided through the process of learning to do it in ever greater blocks.
In, “Changes in the Development of Expertise: Neuroanatomical and Neurophysiological Evidence about Skill-Based Adaptations,” researchers Hill and Schneider published functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging results that show the brain learning a task. At first it is lit up like a Christmas tree. Most notably the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for executive function, is very involved. As the task is learned more and more regions drop out as the brain finds the perfect efficiency point for the desired ability. This has been called a process efficiency change and a skill is learned once it is completed. At the beginning of the learning process it is essential to use less of your brain, not more. This process involves difficulty and frustration as the brain is trying to figure out how to best deal with it. That we only use 10% of our brains is a folk myth of unknown origin. Perhaps it is really an observation that we only use 10% of our effort?
But this is only the first step to becoming fluent in that skill. At this point a specific neural network has been created. Everything we do and think is represented by neurons (brain cells) communicating with other neurons and these communications form neural networks. Each time an action potential (electrochemical nerve impulse) is sent between neurons it travels down an axon then across a gap called a synapse. When that happens it triggers specific cells attached to a part of the axon (specifically the internodal parts), called oligodendrocytes (Baumann and Pham-Dinh) to produce an insulating sheath for the axon called myelin. (Araque and Navarrete; Wake, Lee, and Fields) The more of this insulation there is the stronger the current (action potential) remains, and the faster it travels. It takes a lot of repetition, but the more myelin that is wrapped around an axon the faster we think, play, or execute any other skill are working to learn.
What this means in simpler terms is one must focus and continually problem solve even when it is frustrating until the solutions to learning the skill are found (process efficiency change). This crucial step in high efficiency learning has been called desirable difficulty by researchers (Bjork and Bjork). Then the skill needs to be repeated over and over and over to increase processing speed (myelination). As of this writing researchers have not been able to find the upper limit of this speed. Take a moment and consider what that means with regard to the potential of all students.
The study, “Improved Effectiveness of Performance Monitoring in Amateur Instrumental Musicians,” found that, “. . .higher levels of musical practice were also associated with a better engagement of cognitive control processes, as indicated by more efficient error and conflict detection . . . and reduced post-error interference and post-conflict processing adjustments.” To put it another way music study trains the brain to search for areas of error, is able to maintain focus instead of giving in to frustration, and then make adjustments based on finding those errors over and over as one works. I believe we teachers have a word for that – learning. That is how learning works for any subject, any skill, anything. The more you do of it the better, smarter, faster you get.
They go on to say, “Here we show that already moderate levels of musical activity are associated with improved executive functioning when performing basic non-musical cognitive task.” Executive function refers to the basic ability to choose ‘should’ over ‘want’, a crucial skill for adult self-reliance as well as good learning now. It also extrapolates future consequences for current actions. This is wired up in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain. The PFC is very underdeveloped in the young and will not finish developing until the age of 25. Have you ever wondered why your insurance goes down, or you can’t rent a car until you are 25? Actuaries have noticed this phenomenon for a very long time, now we have insights from neuroscience to bear this out.
In a recent study with a new and insightful methodological design researchers found, “Enhanced activation in musicians compared to non-musicians was reported in neuronal networks that sustain attention and cognitive control, including the supplementary motor area.” (Benjamin et al. 11)
This ability to control ones attention and focus on a task is called selective attention. The review, “The role of selective attention on academic foundations: A cognitive neuroscience perspective,” found that, “. . .selective attention is also highly malleable, showing enhancements under some conditions. Training data indicate that attention skills can be enhanced, and distractor suppression may be especially modifiable. In a classroom context, there may be large benefits to incorporating attention-training activities into the school context, and indeed some classroom-based interventions include such activities, with evidence for improvements in children’s selective attention (Diamond et al., 2007). Indeed, the history of such “mental orthopedics exercises,” or teaching children how to learn through training attention, self-discipline, and memory, dates at least as far back as Binet’s special education courses in Paris (Binet, 1911/1975). As noted then, some classroom visitors found these exercises unusual or non-academic, yet their power to influence students’ learning outcomes – to teach them to “learn to learn” – was evidenced in the children’s progress in traditional academic content.” (Stevens and Bavelier 44)
“In a world that is ever more complex and rapidly changing, and in which learning on one’s own is becoming ever more important, learning how to learn is the ultimate survival tool.” (Bjork and Bjork 63)
“On the basis of several thousand years of education, along with more recent laboratory research on learning and skill acquisition, a number of conditions for optimal learning and improvement of performance have been uncovered (Bower & Hilgard, 1981; Gagne, 1970). The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance.” (Ericsson et al. 1993: 367)
In the enlightening book, “Willpower; Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” Baumeister and Tierny show, among many other amazing insights, that the PFC functions like other parts of the cortex. That is you learn a skill (wire up a neural network) then through repetition make it stronger (myelination). This is to say that focus, self-discipline, perseverance rely on strong neural networks that need to be created in the PFC. This is the ability to focus, push through frustration, and learn at a high level for anything. This ability to control one’s focus and behavior successfully is the essence of self-reliance, and how well students build that skill will translate directly to how successful they are as adults.
The longitudinal, and now famous, marshmallow study by Walter Mischel showed that hundreds of children studied who demonstrated strong executive function, or willpower, at age four by college, “ . . . went on to get better grades and test scores . . . went on to score 210 points higher on the SAT . . . grew up to become more popular with their peers and their teachers . . . earned higher salaries [and] They had a lower body-mass index, suggesting that they were less prone to gain weight a s middle age encroaches. They were less likely to report having bad problems with drug abuse.” (Baumeister and Tierny 10)
Music study builds this in young people through constant refocusing of attention to ever finer details in the pursuit of continuous improvement. A conductor is a learning coach and by creating these neural networks and repeating the behaviors over and over the proper habits of mind for all learning are created.
Finally, and there is much more, the PCAH highlight findings that show:
- “Children who were motivated to practice a specific art form developed improved attention and also improved general intelligence. Training of attention and focus leads to improvement in other cognitive domains.
- Links have been found between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working memory and long-term memory.” (PCAH 22)
Knowing how all of this works, that it does work, and that their own improvement/accomplishment is entirely up to them, in my experience, is one of the most powerful motivators for student achievement.
IQ is Malleable
“[Some] assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism. . . .With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we are.”
-Alfred Binet, inventor of the original IQ test.
In keeping with the PCAH’s finding of improved general intelligence we can rethink our idea of fixed intelligence. “IQ scores do not actually report how well you have objectively mastered test material. They merely indicate how well you have mastered it compared to everyone else. Given that it simply ranked individuals in a population it is particularly sad to look back and see that Lewis Terman [the co-inventor of the modern Stanford-Binet IQ test] actually recommended that individuals identified as “feebleminded” by his test be removed from society and that anyone scoring less than 100 be automatically disqualified from any prestigious position.” (Shenk 34)
This is how deeply we can hold our idea of fixed intelligence. In reality IQ tests have been revised over and over to reflect the rising intelligence of the population over time. This lead a leading researcher in this area to write, “Were we getting that much smarter, or were our ancestors mentally retarded,” (Flynn 2006: 1) recognizing that those who scored well in the 1930’s would score much lower if they took the modern version of the test.
In, “The Mean IQ of Americans: Massive Gains 1932-1978” psychologist James Flynn found that, “The obvious interpretation of this pattern is that representative samples of Americans did better and better on IQ tests over a period of 46 years, the total gain amounting to a rise in mean IQ of 13.8 points.” And that, “Americans have registered massive gains amounting to almost a full standard deviation . . . these gains have far reaching implications, no matter whether they signal an increase in intelligence .or a rise in test sophistication, or even if they are merely an artifact of the tests themselves.” (Flynn 1984: 1)
He offers some potential causations for this, but notes, “. . .even these may fall short and force us to conclude that our knowledge of environmental determinants of IQ is more limited than we suspected. Recent research indicates that IQ gains over the last two generations must be due to environmental progress rather than to improved genes (Loehlin, Lindzey, & Spuhler, 1975, pp. 306-307).” (Flynn 1984: 46) It is of note that the representative samples of Americans are not focusing on honing their intelligence, but just developing over time.
We can expect better results when students are placed in instrumental instruction and given the environmental structure and instruction that accelerates this process. This is the, “practice, training, and above all, method,” Binet spoke about through which, “we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we are.”
Meaningful participation in music education gives you the tools you need to learn to become smarter in anything else.
Music Teaches This Best – Academics, Take Note
“To remain competitive in the global economy America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great. To do so, we must nourish our children’s creative skills. In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education. Unfortunately, many school districts are cutting instructional time for art and music education.” (PCAH 8)
“The Arts Education Partnership (AEP) has been instrumental in compiling research studies related to academic outcomes. Its initial research synthesis, Champions of Change (Fiske, 1999) reported seven correlative studies that show the pattern of linkage between high levels of arts participation and higher grades and test scores in math and reading. Included was the well-regarded Catterall study that first examined data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS)10 about the relationships between involvement in the arts and academic performance. The quantitative results (e.g., standardized test scores, academic grades, and dropout rates) showed that the probability of having more arts experiences in school was greater for economically advantaged students than for low-socioeconomic status students. However, students with high involvement in the arts, including minority and low-income students, performed better in school and stayed in school longer than students with low involvement, the relative advantage increasing over the school years. Low-income students involved in band and orchestra outscored others on the NELS math assessment; low-income students involved in drama showed greater reading proficiency and more positive self-concept compared to those with little or no involvement.” (PCAH 16) The Committee’s report goes on to cite more highly regarded research showing other aspects of this phenomenon.
There are no B+’s in music education. Imagine a performance in which a full 11% of it was mistakes. Music teachers must, as a normal part of their jobs to be considered ‘good,’ get all of their performing students to about 98% or better. The really good ones get very close to 100%. Yet many times a class average of B+ for an academic subject is considered excellent. It is a common myth that music teachers at the pre-college level seek out ‘talented’ students, or identify them in their classes, and then develop them. What we do is take anyone and everyone and know that if they will follow our directions (the learning process in its purest form) they will get good. This develops the PFC as well.
We can begin to see that these networks are created and strengthened in music training, then are made available for all academic work. This is because music teachers must teach process over content while the general strategy usually employed elsewhere emphasizes content over process.
Think of your rehearsals or performance classes, is that how math and science are taught? That is why you see such a stratification of grades in academic classes. In a competently designed curriculum there is no reason anyone should get below an ‘A’ with reasonable effort. The reason this does not happen is that most students do not know how the learning process really works. They are left alone to figure it out and their grade will reflect how well they did that, and ‘A’ means, at best, fluency, not mastery. That is another level. The few that can figure out the process on their own are called ‘gifted.’
The PCAH identifies, “ . . . instrumental outcomes derived from high quality arts education . . . including transfer of skills learning from the arts to learning in other academic areas. AEP followed up its original compilation of research with Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development (Deasy, 2002) that reported on 62 separate research studies, including several meta-analyses, many of which found transfer of skills from the arts (visual arts, dance, drama, music, multi-arts) to learning in other subject areas. 11 Other studies report positive outcomes such as habits of mind, self-motivation, and social skills, including tolerance and empathy and positive peer interaction, from arts engagement.” (PCAH 16-17). Now we know how and why that works.
There is another transfer of skills that can occur. “The documented benefits of arts integration have also been accumulating over the past decade, although only recently have researchers begun to understand why arts integration may hold unique potential as an educational reform model. While the term arts integration takes on different meanings to different people, it can be loosely defined as teaching through” and “with” the arts, creating relationships between different arts disciplines and other classroom skills and subjects (Burnaford, 2007). In recent years, it has formed the basis for several successful school reform initiatives, and has generated a lot of enthusiasm from classroom teachers, school administrators and policy researchers for its ability to produce results. Studies have now documented significant links between arts integration models and academic and social outcomes for students, efficacy for teachers, and school-wide improvements in culture and climate. Arts integration is efficient, addressing a number of outcomes at the same time. Most important, the greatest gains in schools with arts integration are often seen school-wide and also with the most hard-to-reach and economically disadvantaged students.” (PCAH 19)
Experienced music teachers understand the basic issues outlined here as part of their normal teaching. What is new is the coalescing of research, first from cognitive psychology then from neuroscience, that allow us to fill in the blanks and understand how all of these things function as part of a larger model. When we come to understand that we know how to teach others to do what we do.
Then we can offer significant professional development to teachers in every other academic department as to how to get all kids to 98% just like we do. It is a stroke of good fortune that music is a field that has demanded we adopt these now proven teaching methodologies, and we should be enthusiastic to share. I would imagine a teacher of any subject would be curious to learn about it, and when it works, for them to adopt and get better at it. Any good experienced music teacher is very close to understanding how to teach that. Teaching it, which will seem like information from another planet to other teachers, should take about as long as it takes to develop students to be in your top orchestra, and the process will be the same. Depending on where a given teacher is in their development this could take 1-4 years. It is not unreasonable to envision a school in which extra music teachers are hired just to coach and mentor. That is how powerful this is and we should start making the case to decision makers. We should also start developing our music teachers to understand how to teach this.
“The potential contribution to the overall improvement of teaching, including augmenting teachers’ skills in problem-centered, project-based and inquiry-oriented learning; performance assessment; and cross-disciplinary work with real world application.” (PCAH 39-40)
We are also advised, “Likewise, it is important to consider that replacing music programs with reading or math instruction in our nation’s school curricula in order to boost standardized test scores may actually lead to deficient skills in other cognitive areas.” (Benjamin et al. 12)
Playing is Fun, Practicing is Work, the More Work You’ll do the More Fun You’ll Have.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding that music study, which necessarily precedes good performance, is the same as good performance.
How we understand our involvement in music study can been misunderstood. Many advocates will emphasize that music study is fun. It is not, it is work, for everyone at the beginning irrespective of the misguided notion of talent. Playing is fun, practicing is work. The more work you will do the more fun you will have. Noted educational researcher Michal Posner says, “As we have seen, recent studies have transcended the failed paradigm of simply exposing people to the arts, and now concentrate on the effects of arts training over months and years.” (The Dana Foundation)
Yet what do music teachers encounter in the general population again and again? Stories of starting a child on an instrument, the child does not get good quickly and does not like to practice then quits. Learning a new skill is not easy for anyone. If such a thing called talent exists it is a small head start at the beginning that quickly evaporates once real work begins. The idea that someone cannot learn to play an instrument very well, or that someone with, “Talent,” can learn to play very well without a significant amount of work is a myth and much research bears this out. Not understanding this the child quits before any fun can begin. Music, parents will say, is just not for that child, they don’t have what it takes, no matter what they do they cannot perform anything well.
This fundamental misunderstanding, that music is for is not for everyone, can be the result of advocates promise that music study will be fun. The way learning works, and nobody is exempt, is that it is confusing and hard at first (Zygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, desirable difficulty). As skill builds the gratification of acquiring that skill becomes the primary motivating factor over time.
Skill in execution is always a function of accumulated practice (Ericcson). If a student seems to progress significantly faster than others there is some other previous exposure to the domain, or elements of the domain, perhaps outside of the individual’s notice, that cause this.
The Misunderstanding of Talent
“If it turns out that we’re all wrong about talent, and I will offer a lot more evidence that we are, that’s a big problem. If we believe that people without a particular natural talent for some activity will never be very good at it, or at least will never be competitive with those who possess that talent, then we’ll direct them away from that activity. We’ll tell them they shouldn’t even think about it. We’ll steer our kids away from particular studies whether they’re art, tennis, economics or Chinese because we think we’ve seen signs that they have no talent in those realms . . . most insidiously, in our own lives, we will try something new, and finding that it isn’t easy for us conclude that we have no talent for it, and so we never pursue it. Thus, our views about talent, which are extremely deeply held, are extraordinarily important for the future of our lives, our children’s lives, our companies and the people in them. Understanding the reality of talent is worth a great deal.” (Colvin 20)
For decades now researchers have been trying to find WHAT talent actually is. They’ve looked at memory, learning rates, legends of talent – Mozart and Tiger Woods followed the path of high level skill acquisition that anyone can, but few do – origins of creativity and more, and they have found nothing other than a common paradigm for skill development. (Ericsson 1993, 2006, Howe et al. 1998)
Whatever talent may be it is not something that allows someone else to accomplish something that one could not accomplish as well with about the same amount and type of work. At best it is a small head start in a marathon.
With regard to talent as a descriptor of excellent performance anyone can develop all of the talent they want by creating and strengthening neural networks that are under their control. This talent observation assumes, with absolutely no reason to do so, that the performer got there easier and with less time than we could. Of course they can learn new things in the domain much faster because they have already put in the work that is automatically discounted by our misunderstanding of talent.
Where There is Achievement, There is Interest
Self-esteem is the result of achievement not vice-versa.
There has been a great deal of interest in identifying strengths and passions in students then trying to nurture those areas. The science of skill development tells us, and many in the field are agreeing, that one should work equally on strengthening areas of weakness. Music study provides the transferrable skills necessary to do this, and there is more.
“CAPE researchers also began tackling questions about how arts integration supports student engagement in learning (DeMoss and Morris, 2002). Compared to traditional instructional experiences, arts-integrated units consistently engaged students in complex analytical cognitive activity, including those students who struggle with academic tasks. Students who were learning through arts-integrated units expressed no feelings of boredom or discouragement with the learning methods and showed interest in independent learning. After working through the non-arts units, students often self-described as discouraged; after arts-integrated units students demonstrated increased interest in the subject matter.” (PCAH 20)
The general theme of the’ teach to the strengths’ movement is that where there is interest there is achievement. Music teachers, however, have noticed that teaching students to do a reasonable amount of work and providing the sequenced instruction necessary to achieve each proximal goal creates a solid skill which creates enthusiasm for subject and genuine self-esteem. It is how we keep our top groups populated. An orchestra director must get a large group of students of different levels of development to the 98th percentile of performance by end of every semester. And they get these kinds of results in a course students do not have to take!
Researchers have noticed this too, “Multi-phase self-regulation training that is designed to enhance the quality of one’s practice improved not only skill acquisition but also key sources of motivation that underlie continued striving to learn, such as perceptions of self-efficacy or confidence and valuing of the intrinsic properties of the task.” (Zimmerman 719). He adds, “It should be noted that implementation of these self-control strategies often involves significant others, such as parents and teachers.” (ibid 711)
It is through this providing of structure that music teachers get their performing students to competent levels of performance where they enjoy the resultant self-esteem which provides motivation for further study. Parents should know this, especially during the crucial first stages of learning an instrument. It is amazing and empowering to know that the only difference between you and Mozart is how you manage your own brain. The research has to be taught, but can be understood by anyone.
You don’t need to become Mozart. Don’t do 10 years 10,000 hours if you don’t want to, but do involved deliberate practice however many hours you put in to anything and you will be very successful and stand out from the crowd. Music teaches this better than anything else.
Why many people can’t get out of their own way when it comes to learning.
Over three plus decades researcher Carol Dweck has done very important work on the underpinnings of a psychological concept she used for the title of her book, “Mindset.” (Dweck) A growth mindset looks at ability as something that can be developed, embraces challenges, persists in the face of setbacks (because they understand that goals will be reached over time), accepts and uses criticism and finds inspiration in others who are successful. A fixed mindset looks at ability as something that is innate and unchangeable that needs to be demonstrated to others for self-esteem, avoids challenges, gives up easily in the face of the inevitable setbacks, ignores feedback and criticism sometimes taking it as an insult, and feels threatened by others who are more successful.
Participation in achieving small goals on the way, and then the large goal of competent music performance not just teaches but lives the growth mindset.
Among many important insights Dweck found that groups of students who were praised for their talent, “ rejected challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call in to question their talent . . . in contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from . . . After the success, everyone loved the problems, but after the difficult problems the ability students said it wasn’t fun anymore. It can’t be fun when your claim to fame, your special talent, is in jeopardy. ” (ibid 72).
Music study creates growth mindset learners because there is no other way to do it but setting the goal, doing the work, and getting to where you need to be. If taught correctly students can apply this to acquiring any skill.
The Brain is Designed to Enjoy Learning
Making oneself do this can, at first, seem unpleasant for a young person. Many times they need to be structured into these behaviors (creating PFC neural networks). However, on the other side is a rich engagement of the brain that produces what the researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘Flow.’ This is the state the brain enters when it is fully engaged. We have experienced this as hours seeming like minutes when we are engrossed in a task. He argues that this is the most enjoyable state for the brain to be in and makes a distinction between pleasure (lying on the beach, playing a video game) and enjoyment (when the brain is fully engaged and we are truly enjoying learning). This state can only be achieved once some fluency is acquired as it involves higher level problem solving in the domain, and that is the difficulty (desirable difficulty) of the initial part of learning.
The good news is that it appears the brain is designed to crave high level problem solving/cognition, after all that is how humanity has advanced over the course of time, but the price of this productive state of enjoyment is persevering through the initial unpleasant stages.
After the initial difficulty true fluency in a domain produces enthusiasm for learning more about that domain generating genuine and lasting learning, self-esteem, and self-reliance (Zimmerman). Passion for music can be created by learning to play it well.
The Strength of Repetition, The Strength of Repetition
Despite its reputation rote repetition works and is essential. It activates myelination of the neural networks being practiced. It likely gets its bad reputation from being used as the only or dominant method of learning. In its place it is essential to how the brain increases processing speed in any task.
“Outcomes from arts integration in particular have intrigued neuro-scientists in addressing the question of transfer of learning in other subjects. Neuro-Ed Initiative researchers at Johns Hopkins hypothesize that arts integration, which emphasizes repetition of information in multiple ways, provides the advantage of embedding knowledge in long-term memory. The brain prioritizes emotionally-tinged information (again, a possible additional advantage for learning through music or theater, for example) for conversion to long-term memory. The rehearsal and repetition of information embedded in multiple domains may cause an actual change in the physical structure of neurons (Rudacliffe, 2010).” (PCAH 22)
Yes it does.
Teaching Creativity at the Atomic Level
Creativity, as most identify it, is a performance of intelligence. Or as Albert Einstein put it, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
In this new age of globalization there will always be someone somewhere who is willing to manufacture something more cheaply than we can here and maintain the expected quality of life. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan wrote of this; “Manufacturing jobs can no longer be highly paid, since it is consumers who at the end of the day pay the wages of factory workers. And they have balked. They prefer Wal-Mart prices. Those prices, reflecting Chinese low wages, are inconsistent with a funding of high-wage traditional U.S. factories. Forcing U.S. consumers to pay above-market prices to support factory salaries eventually would run into severe resistance. But by then, the American standard of living would have fallen.” (Greenspan 395-396) with regard to the workforce our schools are producing he writes “ . . . too many of our students languish at too low a level of skill upon graduation, adding to the supply of labor in the face of an apparently declining demand.” (ibid 399-400)
That is perhaps the most compelling reason for the current push to teach creativity. “In a world of forces that push toward the commoditization of everything, creating something new and different is the only way to survive. A product unlike any other can’t be commoditized.” (Colvin 146) Unfortunately academic teachers make a crucial error in trying to teach it. In 1989 the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, “ . . . report recommended a curriculum that dropped emphasis on basic math skills (multiplication, division, square roots, and so on) and pressed students to seek more free-flowing solutions, and to study a range of special math topics. I always wondered how you can learn math unless you have a thorough grounding in the basics and concentrate on a very few subjects at a time. Asking children to use their imagination before they know what they are imagining about seemed vacuous to me. It was.” (Greenspan 406). They have since reversed that position. There are similar examples from other subjects as well.
“The narrow focus on only teaching the basics clearly has not been the answer. Many high school graduates lack the skills to make them successful in post-secondary education and later in the workforce. These are sometimes referred to as 21st Century Skills, or habits of mind, and include problem solving, critical and creative thinking, dealing with ambiguity and complexity, integration of multiple skill sets, and the ability to perform cross-disciplinary work.” (PCAH 28)
However, the solution is not asking students to become creative without solid fluency in the domain.
“ . . . cognitive load theory suggests that the free exploration of a highly complex environment may generate a heavy working memory load that is detrimental to learning. This suggestion is particularly important in the case of novice learners, who lack proper schemas to integrate the new information with their prior knowledge.” (Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark 80) “ . . . the epistemology of a discipline should not be confused with a pedagogy for teaching or learning it. The practice of a profession is not the same as learning to practice the profession.” (ibid 83)
In other words – do what they did, not what they do. It is a failed paradigm to try and have students learn creativity by trying to do it as those at higher levels of the domain do. Duplicate what they did when they were learning, not after they have gone through the process.
Further, some music advocates can misrepresent the creativity learned through music instruction by claiming music fosters creativity. How many students in orchestras can improvise competently? Can they compose? Over time this becomes apparent to parents and others. The child has been in orchestra for a couple of years and plays well with them. This is wonderful, and if this level of fine performance is her goal then music will work its magic. However, she cannot improvise, write her own music, or play anything other than what she has been explicitly taught. Worse, the creative thinking that was supposed to take hold in other subjects is nowhere to be seen. Once again it is music advocacy making promises that do not pan out over time. Are we happy with that student populating our classes, but the family walking away with a lifetime impression that music does not really foster creativity? That model does not seem to be one for long term growth and success.
“Until recently, researchers have often though of creativity in two categories: Big-C creativity, which yields famous, influential products like the integrated circuit or Huckleberry Finn; and little-c creativity, which produces everyday creations like a TV commercial or a florist’s arrangement of flowers. But Ronald A. Beghetto of the University of Oregon and James C. Kaufman of California State University at San Bernardino have suggested that both types of innovation exist “on the same developmental continuum,” and that the continuum extends even further back than little-c creativity, to what they call mini-c creativity. In this framework, all levels of creative performance follow a trajectory that starts with novel and personally meaningful interpretations (mini-c) which can then progress to inter personally judged novel and meaningful contributions (little-c) and even develop into superior creative performance (Big-C).” (Colvin 159)
Something few seem to talk about with regard to teaching creativity through music is available to us from the first lessons, but we may not be teaching it much, if at all. The creative process is present in the steps involved in deliberate practice. Every time we repeat something and pay attention to refining what we do (Let’s run it one more time . . . ) we participate in this process.
The PCAH identifies that “ . . . the approaches used in teaching the arts are very compatible with the development of balance among the three types of abilities associated with creativity as described in a well-known theory of creativity development:
- synthetic ability or generating new and novel ideas [reflect]
- analytic ability or critical thinking which involves choosing which ideas to pursue [plan]; and
- practical ability or translating ideas into action [do] (Sternberg & Williams, 1996).
In Sternberg & Williams’ theory of creativity, it is easy to see the place for arts skill development, the value of practice, and the importance of models of excellence.” (38-39)
Note that is a description of deliberate practice.
- Plan – This is the generation of new and novel ideas. Even the most rudimentary solution, even a wrong one that the student should be guided to understand was wrong in the reflect stage, is problem solving which is separate from problem discovery. This is the exercise of rudimentary creativity – generating an answer that was not there before (if it is novel to the student then it is novel within the process). The continued refinement of those answers over time is the refinement of the creative process.
- Reflect – This is the act of analytical ability or critical thinking. This can be done with the young, though they need to be scaffolded in the problem discovery process, as music teachers know and do. A 1987 study on that issue researchers found, “These results suggest that problem discovery is associated with creative performance in adolescents . . . This result is consistent with Arlin’s (1875) position that problem finding is a developed skill and only becomes distinct from problem solving skill during adolescence.” (Runco and Okuda 217) Can you see the educational progression from the very basics to higher level creativity? High level creative thought has already worked through basic solutions thousands of hours and repetitions ago. What is left is novel solutions born of a rich mental model.
- Do – this is translating ideas into action
Together this is creativity at the atomic level. As we teach our students to recognize and refine their skills we should emphasize that they are being creative doing this, and explain to them how they are doing it. The more they do it the stronger they will become with it, and that creates the cognitive transfer.
Parents and Students
This works, so find a good teacher and begin a long term relationship with music instruction, and learning how to learn. It takes time, and is not easy for anyone, but the benefits are long lasting and powerful.
You’ll see that the research confirms what you have been seeing for years in your teaching. Understand it, and learn to use it. Understand the paradigm of learning as taught through music then remove music leaving the paradigm. You may insert any subject into this area. Learn to teach this to other teachers. Be patient as they will not be able to use it like you do for some time. They will need practice and coaching.
To Administrators and Officials
No doubt about it at this point – music gives students the skills of self-reliance that they need to carry them through learning and problem solving, and life itself. Music teaches creativity at the atomic level through continuous and small task problem solving. If achievement in the STEM areas is what you want then get the students into excellent music instruction as early as possible (though late produces benefits as well) so that they may learn the paradigm for success in the all of their classes (learning how to learn). Where there is achievement there is interest, and research backs this up. (Zimmerman) Music teachers are ready to mentor your faculty, who have not been taught this paradigm, over the long term coaching them to an understanding and practical use of this. You may want to hire a few more music teachers just to coach and mentor.
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