Sunday, May 9, 2021

Balinese instruments, rap music promote learning


In the last week, we have seen a few articles that promote the integration of arts into the curriculum.

One entitled “The social and emotional benefits of being weirdly creative” is even from our home state of Maryland. Teachers at the Wiley H Bates Middle School in Annapolis are using the “Artful Thinking” program, the Edutopia blog reports. This program was developed by Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. According to a report about its development, the program’s main goals are

  • to help teachers create rich connections between works of art and curricular topics
  • to help teachers use art as a force for developing students’ thinking dispositions

The “artist’s palette” shown above is a metaphor for how children learn. Each color on the palette represents an activity that causes students to learn some subject. Using the arts, these activities can be combined in ways that create new “colors” and help students learn whatever’s being taught.

For example, students in one math class at Bates are playing cymbals of different sizes, making music and learning about circumference. Yes, they could learn about circumference on the whiteboard, but it wouldn’t be quite as memorable for them. Use a cymbal that they can actually play, a musical instrument that comes from Bali, and it sinks in.

According to the Edutopia blogger, who actually visited classrooms in Bates to report the story, “Virtually every kid is smiling, if not laughing out loud. Heads, tails, and torsos are wagging in all directions. A blissful oneness seems to reign across all the social divides, and even the three musketeers seem dead ringers for the goofy, upbeat little preschoolers I am sure they once were. When asked after the dance about circular geometry, the quick, animated responses from every corner of the classroom leave no doubt that learning is happening.”

There’s also the case of an elementary school teacher in Tennessee who uses rap music to help his students learn grammar, science, and math, as reported in the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Andrew Klicka, a second-grade teacher at Cedar Bluff Elementary School, started writing social studies lessons in rap three years ago to help students remember difficult concepts. That spring, his class presented a school “social studies concert.” His musical compositions have expanded to 20 songs in a variety of genres—techno (“Photosynthesis Techno”), reggae, funk, etc.—dealing with concepts such as erosion, the American Revolution, and area and perimeter, the News-Sentinel reported.

When you read the story, though, you see this big picture at the top, a picture of a teacher with a goofy look on his face and all the kids holding up their index finger, following his lead.

“Teachers have been doing this for years. Most of us remember things we were taught when we were little because we sang in class.” Kids are “very willing to get involved,” the News-Sentinel quoted him as saying.

Singing in class, getting involved during lessons, it’s all pretty much the same idea as the Artful Thinking project has. And the point is, kids learn by doing. No ands, ifs, or buts about it.

When kids do something actively, learning happens

As teachers have known, putting on little concerts about social studies can be fun. Playing cymbals in math class can be fun. And it’s fun because kids are being themselves, goofy as that may appear to adults, and participating in the educational process. The goofiness isn’t really the point, is it?

These activities promote learning in such an efficient way because kids’ brains become more active when they have to remember the next word in a song, the next beat to play the cymbal, or whatever. When a kid’s brain starts cooking, it tends to absorb things in the “learning neighborhood” more efficiently, such as the formula for circumference of a circle given the radius.

I don’t think playing cymbals teaches kids about area and perimeter, that is; it just juices up their brains so learning about area and perimeter is more readily absorbed. This is because music is associated with very primal parts of the brain.

  • In addition to curricular subjects like math and social studies, the Artful Thinking program and other uses of art in education have social and emotional benefits.
  • The social benefits of using the fine arts in classrooms for other subjects are derived from the fact that performance promotes collaboration between students. If you’re going to make music together, that is, you’re going to have to work together during the performance. This can create friendships that might not otherwise develop.

Absent technology, learning still happens

One thing that struck me about both of these classrooms was the absence of technology. I mean, Mr Klicka uses the software program “Garage Band” to compose his little rap songs, but “Garage Band” isn’t what matters; it’s Mr Klicka.

Using performance, provided you’ve got teachers who can incorporate it, can be an inexpensive way to drive home some of the same lessons many game manufacturers would want our schools to purchase an iPad for every kid just to accommodate. All you really need are a few Balinese cymbals, it turns out.

If the point of purchasing technology is to teach kids about the latest technology, that’s one thing. But saying it’s the technology itself that drives student learning is a big leap. It’s worse, in fact, than saying arts participation drives student learning, because it costs a lot more money to buy a laptop or whiteboard than it does to sing a song.

The actual point of technology—or any co-curricular intrusion, like singing, in our classroom lectures—is that it engages students. Computer programs can create artificial scenarios that you and I call “games.” Kids call them “games,” too, but what they really are is a way to keep students interested so they engage with instruction being provided by teachers.

And I’m not knocking the amazing things teachers have done with technology, either, like creating blogs, building little demos (we have some of our own, actually), awarding badges, and so on. As long as we keep our eye on the target, which is engaging kids in their own learning, you’re going to have them learning.

Games also promote collaboration, by the way, and result in friendships that might not happen otherwise.

What does this say about arts education?

Nothing, I think. At least nothing that we didn’t already know. You see, it’s not the use of music that matters; it’s the engaging of students. Music and acting goofy simply provide a vehicle for engaging kids that many teachers know works, but there are many other vehicles that work just as well.

Really, I don’t care if teachers engage kids by giving little concerts, as in the stories cited here, caring for the environment, solving a crime at a forensic science camp, building a robot, or anything else they can get their hands on to teach the core subjects, as long as they engage kids. When you engage kids, learning happens. The arts engage kids.

And I would prefer any of the activities in the preceding paragraph, which also require kids physically moving somewhere with their bodies, to a game on an iPhone. We cannot forget about physical activity in the rush to incorporate technology. We may be training them for 21st-century careers, but they’re not going to make it very far into that century if they’re not physically fit.

Finally, some performance genres require physical skills as well as collaboration skills. This is why I do so much on this site to promote marching band and musicals in our high schools. These performance genres, far more than technology, can be an effective way to keep kids active, keep them actively involved in school and the learning process, promote the social and emotional skills they need, and teach core subjects—without spending too much money.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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