The Good News of Why Schools Fail (And What To Do About It)
Thursday, 12 July, 2012 12:09
iStock_000003893953MediumRecently, education experts have been vocal about stating that the school system is failing our children (and thus catching up with what I tried to explain to my teachers as a teenager…).   From Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk (with currently over 3,5 million views on youtube) to last year’s documentary by Lord Puttnam, “We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For”, experts are lining up to say that the current school system is not serving the children nor the society. 

Their common criticism is that the schools are still stuck in an old world where it’s enough to specialize in a narrow area of expertise. For instance, Robinson says that the school system is only designed to develop university professors. Everyone else is trained to become workforce.

Yet our children are born with amazing potential. When you look at your child and see all the imagination, creativity and natural intelligence, doesn’t it wrench your heart to think that this human being would be trained to become a cog in the wheel for society?

But there’s an upside to the “failing school system”. 

Because in today’s world, the school system is not only failing the children, but it’s failing the society too. Concentrating on developing just a few skills rather than supporting the child to fulfill their potential was never serving the child – but in the old days, it served the society.

These days, the demands of society have completely changed. The world is changing so fast that the narrow areas of expertise are dying. In the beginning of the new millennium, there was more information produced within just two years than in the previous 5000 years combined. New professions are replacing old ones – and within a few years, those new professions will themselves be replaced.

The good news is that the society cannot justify designing children to be cogs in the wheels anymore. Because by the time those kids are grown, the wheels have been changed and the cogs won’t fit. 

The only way for a person to secure his place in today’s world is to invest in his full development. There’s no excuse anymore not to allow our children to develop their full potential.

Some parents have sensed this, panicked and signed their child up to a million different classes since the age of 0. By the power of numbers, they try and ensure that at least one of the skills that their child learns will still be relevant by the time they grow up, so the kids are shuttered to classes in Japanese, Chinese, French, Extra-Curricular Mathematics, Dance, Sports, Music, Art and Drama. This phenomenon has been labelled “hot-housing” or “pushy parenting”.

They are all wonderful hobbies by the way! And nothing beats early learning. It’s just that experts are worried that children miss out on developing their most important assets – namely, their character, emotional well-being, and ironically, learning skills, if they continuously miss out on the most important component of a healthy childhood (besides parental love): free imaginative play. Because free play allows children to learn on their own terms.

Child development experts from Rousseau, Dewey and Montessori onwards have always emphasized that children should be allowed to develop their full potential. But rather than meaning that everyone has to become experts at everything, this means that we all have our own unique capabilities (as well as flaws), and that our multiple talents cannot be graded as easily as the old-fashioned and partial school grade system implies. Howard Gardner’s famous idea of multiple intelligences emphasizes that what the schools are focusing on is indeed a narrow slice of human abilities. A bit of mathematics, a bit of reading and writing (for secretarial purposes rather than expressive).

Interestingly, Howard Gardner says that there are at least 9 types of intelligences and that out of these, the school system only focuses on a mere two: Logical-Mathematical and Linguistic.

Howard Gardner’s famous list of intelligences includes these types of intelligence: Logical-mathematical, Spatial, Linguistic, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic, Existential/Spiritual.

What I find fascinating is that not only is “musical intelligence” considered as its own type of intelligence, but that according to a growing number of scientific research, music learning boosts almost all of these other types of intelligence!

Let’s have a look at the intelligences again:

*Logical-mathematical intelligence. Early music learning is shown to increase mathematical skills and IQ, the standard measure for logical intelligence and reasoning abilities.

*Spatial intelligence. An array of research by Frances Raucher and her research team shows evidence that early music learning in childhood boosts spatial-temporal intelligence (this is measured by spatial-temporal IQ).

*Linguistic intelligence. Nothing boosts linguistic abilities, language development and reading skills like early music learning. Children, even toddlers, who study music, develop a bigger vocabulary, better linguistic intelligence and better reading skills. Brain research has even shown that this is because music and languages reside in the same brain networks. Lack of sufficient awareness of pitch is even linked to reading difficulties such as dyslexia, and music learning counteracts this!

*Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence. Instrument playing is shown to boost motor skills. And early rhythmic learning and coordination, before a child is even old enough to learn an instrument, is shown to boost the child’s all-round development and even intelligence.

*Musical intelligence. Ditto, musical learning boosts musical intelligence.

*Interpersonal intelligence. This is “social intelligence”. Children who study music are shown to be, in general, better adapted socially, have better social skills and even have more friends!

*Intrapersonal intelligence. This is “self-awareness”. Toddlers who study music are shown to have better “self-regulation skills” – they are more patient when waiting and have better control of their emotions because they are more able to calm themselves down in a stressful situation.

*Naturalistic intelligence. I must admit, I haven’t come across any research that says that music learning boosts natural intelligence. Outdoor play is the only way!

*Existential/Spiritual intelligence. Every musician knows – although they may vary the terms that they use – that making music, and even listening to it, could often and easily be labelled as a “spiritual” experience. For me, music has always been the innocent place where I can return to, where everything is well – that world of childhood happiness and imagination. Although scientists could say that it is because music has the same euphoric effect on the brain as some infamous drugs! (Which I have personally never experienced, but these scientists have done brain scans and shown that music activates the same “intensely rewarding” brain regions as cocaine.) Music learning also boosts scientific thinking, thought to play a part in existential intelligence.

So, in this day and age, schools should take heed and focus on nurturing each child’s unique gifts – and give a wide opportunity for them to develop.

And if you are a parent and want to boost your child’s overall development, remember that the scientists say that the school system boosts only 2 types of intelligences in your child, and music learning boosts an unbelievable 8 out of 9! As for Sir Ken Robinson’s views on schools that kill creativity – nothing fosters creativity better than the full development of self and investing in one’s multiple intelligences – for true “lateral thinking”!

Liisa Henriksson


The surprising way to boost your baby’s language development (you can do this at home)
Thursday, 12 July, 2012 12:08

It has become a cultural norm that parents must boost their baby’s language development. Evidence of this is that the “nighttime story” practice is common in most families and parents are very aware that they must talk to their baby ever since he/she is born (or sometimes while the baby’s still in the womb!).

However, the news from science has not travelled so fast into the reach of families. Whilst the nighttime story is a great practice, and talking to your baby is crucially important not only for the language development but the social and emotional connection, there is one piece of information that is often missing.

That is, music. While the weekly baby and toddler music groups are a popular activity, imagine if your baby could only hear people talk during a 40-minute weekly session, and for the rest of the week, not only would anyone speak to them, but they would not hear any spoken language.

It’s easy to see that this would mean serious delays for the baby’s language development.

Yet this is exactly what is happening to the musical development of many babies, toddlers and small children.

The reason for this is obviously the common assumption that for babies and children, language development is crucial, while musical development is optional. The school system encourages this kind of thinking, focussing on “core skills” – the three Rs.

Yet the best way to develop all of the three Rs is – surprisingly but scientifically – early music learning.

Babies and small children who are fortunate enough to benefit from early music learning, and the brain boost that it gives, are statistically shown in later life – when the school years start – to excel in reading, writing and mathematics compared to the children who miss out on early music learning. And the instant benefits for babies include bigger vocabulary and more advanced communication skills.

Science shows that the best time to start early music learning is as soon as possible. Different ages require different methods – a baby or toddler cannot yet take instrument lessons, nor can most preschoolers (due to the motivation, practice and discipline that instrument lessons demand – unless you are lucky to find a great teacher suited to teach small children), but there are basic musical skills that even the smallest of children can master.

For instance, did you know that – as simple as it sounds – clapping to different rhythms is shown to increase the language development and school success of small children more than anything else? It’s remarkably simple but it works. (See, for instance, the study by Brodsky and Sulkin, 2011)

And for babies, who cannot yet clap, the benefits of music learning are indeed nothing short of remarkable. They gain better early communication skills and are even easier to soothe when they are upset! (See, for instance, this article in ScienceDaily)

And the simplest way to support your baby’s development – language development as well as your baby’s overall brain development – is to support your baby’s musical development. We can start this, very simply, by singing to our babies and having a musical environment at home which exposes the child to different types of music. I initially started creating the children’s songs, that became the foundation for Moosicology, so that my Son could listen to a wide range of different music concepts and thus acquire a large “musical vocabulary”.

The baby’s first years are a time of intense brain development, when the brain forms new connections between different neurons depending on what kind of stimuli it encounters in its environment. The world’s leading music educators, such as Edwin E. Gordon who invented the widely-used music aptitude test, comment that babies’ brains are missing out on their optimal development if they miss out on music – to the point where the lack of sufficient music stimuli can actually be called “music abuse”.

In his article that is provocatively called “Early Childhood Music Abuse: Misdeeds and Neglect”, Prof. Gordon writes: “With regard to language, most youngsters receive at least enough informal guidance in linguistic skills to benefit from formal instruction. Unfortunately, that is not the case with music. The majority of children who are ready to receive formal instruction in school music are bereft of appropriate musical readiness to learn.”

Several studies, such as CA Mallett’s “An examination of parent/caregiver attitudes toward music instruction, the nature of the home musical environment, and their relationship to the developmental music aptitude of preschool children” (2000) have shown that the musical environment that a small child has at home is the best predictor of how advanced their musical development is.

Babies and children do not learn music if they cannot access the learning of it. Musical talent is not something that is inborn in some of us and not in others. It’s something that is wired in the brains of every newborn, just like the potential for learning a language.

Just like babies learn language skills from good access to language, babies learn music skills from good access to music. And as music learning is shown to make a real difference like no other activity in the language development of babies, it is time that we become more aware that music is not something “optional” and “on the sidelines” but just as crucial for a small child’s full development as language learning.

So enrich your baby’s home music environment, sing to your baby and play them different types of music! (The nighttime song routine is also a great way to ensure that your child gets to hear at least some singing every day. Why not follow the nighttime story by a soothing song!)


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