Measuring outcomes has become the holy grail in our education system. But could nurturing our children’s souls be far more important and could music play a vital role?
Welcome to the age of standardized childhood. Well before our little ones enter the world they are measured, quantified and rated. Ultrasound scans estimate size, weight and gestational age, post-birth Apgar tells you in a number how well they appear to have coped with the challenge (and sometimes trauma) of birth, weight and head circumference are tracked on centile charts and regular checkups tell you whether your bundle of joy’s cognitive and physical development is above, on or below average. Then children enter school – the place where the powers that be have perfected the art of quantifying the unquantifiable. Ofsted determines a school’s performance following a specified set of criteria. Journalists pick up on this and create school league tables. Children are rated based on their performance in maths, literacy and science. Worth can be calculated using a simple mathematical formula:
Child’s performance/age = worth as a human being.
“What is your understanding of a child? Is a child a robot? Is a child an object, where you just have to fill the brains with knowledge, do a couple of skills and they go away and do a test?” – Naveed Idrees, Head of Feversham Primary
But is it that simple?
Naveed Idrees, head of Feversham Primary, the school that over the past year has repeatedly made the headlines after experiencing an astonishing transformation from a failing to an outstanding school thanks to putting music back into the curriculum, doesn’t think so.
He challenges teachers, policymakers and politicians to go back to basics. “What is your understanding of a child? Is a child a robot? Is a child an object, where you just have to fill the brains with knowledge, do a couple of skills and they go away and do a test?” In his view, this view, mandated by the government approach to education, is failing our children for the simple fact that it ignores the soul of the individual child.
For well over a century, some of the most enlightened minds have argued that education is not something that is done to a child. Rather, at its best, it is a process that the child engages in joyfully, willingly, with every aspect of their being. Yes, the cognitive matters, but we’re not minds in boxes and the physical, emotional and spiritual are equally important.
What is it that fuels a child’s thirst for knowledge, exploration, mastery of new skills, building of human relationships? Surely it is Joy – a love for life and a fascination with what it has to offer. Try to pin it down, though, and Joy will elude you. It cannot be counted, measured or produced, only experienced. But it shows – a child that is fascinated by life has a certain look about her, she’s on a mission, there’s a light in his eyes, he’s a spotter of opportunities, ready to take on a challenge. These children have a capacity for deeply engaging with life and enjoying the inherent rewards this brings – equally visible on the faces of a child totally into her play and boxing world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua in the last rounds of his fight with Alexander Povetkin.
But how do we foster this aliveness, this fascination, this joi de vivre, and what on earth has music got to do with it?
Well, for starters, actively engaging in a musical activity is highly enjoyable. Since time immemorial, celebration and music have been inseparable. Communal chants, dances, processions, singing in rounds, these all are expressions of joy and humans are drawn to them. Children raised in singing cultures spontaneously break out in song, on their own or in groups, playing clapping games, ring-a-ring-a-roses… It just feels good! And recent research confirms it – engaging with music bathes the brain in endorphins and that’s about as good as it gets for us! More than that, however, this is the neurological state in which the best kind of learning happens; the environment in which neurons most readily form a plethora of new, strong connections. Happier brains are literally better, more functional brains.
Happier brains are literally better, more functional brains.
Secondly, the human brain is a sucker for patterns and music is full of it. Patterns of pitch, rhythm, phrasing and overall structure – our brains love solving puzzles, it’s why we’re so successful as a species! Learning to solve musical puzzles lays the groundwork for recognizing mathematical and linguistic patterns, and the physical sensation of moving in time to the music forms muscle memories that serve to reinforce this.
Thirdly, it allows us to access our emotions, on our own and with others. Music touches us in places that little else can reach, it helps keep the airways open, so to speak, to process deep feelings that might otherwise get buried and fester. It also creates a resonance between people. You cannot pay a human being a greater compliment than to be totally on their wavelength and music is a fantastic facilitator. A shared musical activity builds strong bridges between adults and children, and between the children themselves – a communal sense of well-being that sets the tone for all other interactions.
And finally, there’s the utilitarian argument. Music is good for behaviour and academic performance. An endorphin-bathed brain makes it easier to concentrate. And, as Maria Montessori wrote seventy years ago in her seminal work, “The Absorbent Mind”, a child that is fascinated is a child that behaves well. Furthermore, mathematical concepts such as counting, fractions and repeating phrase patterns, to name just a few, are inherent to music. Music is also a powerful teacher of language, enhancing and exaggerating cadences, rhythmic patterns and intonation; thus, when you teach music, you simultaneously also teach maths and literacy. Bonus!
However, as in many cases, the total is greater than the sum of its parts – music is a powerful force, let’s enjoy it and let’s enjoy life. Measurable outcomes can be a helpful indicator of whether we’re on track, but they should be servants, not masters. Let’s remember with Naveed Idrees that it is the soul that matters – being alive!