“Stay on task, remember what you are doing and think creatively” says every teacher in some way to their students throughout the school test. While we might know what these learning behaviours look like from the outside, do we really know what is going on inside the students brains? And how on earth can learning music help?
In this study the authors summarise how music learning has been found to improve three areas of executive function (that group of functions that helps us act independently and we spend much of our childhood and a fair bit of our adult lives trying to improve): inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility.
Inhibition control is the ability to remain on task even when you are bored, frustrated or distracted (Something every 10 year old finds supremely difficult). Working memory is the type of memory (and there are many types) that is the temporary holding area for information. Think of it as we think about the things we need to do in a day as an adult, we pop out tasks and appointments into a temporary file in our head and then empty it at the end of the day. This is why when someone says “what did you do yesterday” you might draw a blank. For children this temporary holding space is very small and leaks like a sieve. Tell a toddler to complete two related tasks and they can be fine, ask them to do three and you might as well ask them to solve cold fusion.
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between thinking about two seperate concepts and/or think about multiple concepts at once and create connections between them all. In a classroom, or even an office, you might hear someone say “think creatively about the problem” or “think outside the box”. This is a highly sought after trait as an adult in many professions, but sometimes seems like an illusive concept to teach in children. It tends to be children have it or they don’t and we don’t know exactly why.
It is likely that mastering
such skills can lead to improvements in nonmusical cognitive domains.
In many school reports we might read that “Sophie needs to work on not getting distracted” or “Ben could be more creative with his writing or problem solving”. These three skills/attitudes are often seen as being present in a Western schooling system’s version of the “ideal” student.
How then does music learning help train, develop or enhance these skills? This study gives a brilliant practical example of just how this might happen through the experience of music learning.
“Playing a musical instrument requires musicians to continuously switch between reading notes and translating them into meaningful sounds by monitoring and adjusting fine finger movements. Furthermore, when playing in a group, musicians have to attend to new and competing streams of auditory information from other performers as well as their own playing. It is likely that mastering such skills can lead to improvements in nonmusical cognitive domains. Indeed, several studies have shown that individuals with music training outperform their musically untrained peers in tasks assessing executive function, including auditory working memory.”
Wrapped up in the experience of learning music are so many skills and attitudes that students can take into their adult life that will serve them well. How are you guiding them towards those executive function skills today?
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