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The brain based/mental and physical well-being argument for music in the primary curriculum

Jonathan Barnes, 2005, Canterbury Christ Church University College Neurology and the young brain Recent strides in brain imaging and psychology have made it possible as never before to make firm hypotheses about how our brains work. Particularly important for teachers have been three recent discoveries about the brain which touch upon our sense of well-being
1. Research by Pinker (2002), Giedd (2002), Gardner (1999) and by Robertson (1999)

among many others suggests that our brains are much more plastic and susceptible to environmental influence than we had thought. There are widely differing interpretations of what that environment consists of. Pinker, for example suggests that each of us inhabit a unique environment (a mental, physical, social, experiential and geographical environment not even shared by an identical twin), but Gardner speaks of the cultural environment having major impact on our developing brains from shortly after conception
2. Neurologist Jay Giedd (1999) has demonstrated that the brain has a significant

growth spurt just before puberty, between 9 and 13 years in western societies. In this period a large quantity of new brain cells are created, particularly in the prefrontal cortex responsible for attention, planning, decision making, problem solving, forward thinking, critical thinking, feeling and expressing emotions, self control, the amygdala and hippocampus, both centrally involved in interpreting and handling sensory input of emotional significance. A related finding is that there is also significant pruning of unused brain cells in this period on a use it or lose it basis. In Giedds words, If a teen is doing music, sports or academics those are the brain connections which will be hardwired, if they are lying on the couch or playing video games those are the cells which are going to survive. (Quoted in Spinks, 2002).

The brain based/mental and physical well-being argument for music in the primary curriculum: Jonathan Barnes
3. Research by Antonio and Hannah Damasio (2003) demonstrates that the feeling we

call happiness or joy positively affects the way our brains and bodies work. They have found the mental feeling of joy rapidly promotes a more generous supply of blood to the brain, the release of dopamine and other positive neurotransmitters within our brain, which send signals to the muscles and bodily organs to ensure that they work at optimum efficiency. The Damasios research suggests that a loop between what our mind perceives and what our body presents is closed as our brain reads our own positive body state as a state of well being and works to prolong and build upon that sense of happiness. In earlier work (1995) they demonstrated the crucial part personal and emotional engagement played in the thinking and learning process. A psychological consensus For any education professionals these current neurological findings have obvious implications for teaching and learning but their potential impact is more than doubled when placed alongside recent developments in psychology. (a) Positive psychologists like Csikszentmihalyi (2002) and Seligman (2004) are now arguing that the condition of happiness (or flow) is the optimum psychological condition for learning. They also find in their respective researches that the feeling of happiness is most commonly generated by creative, physical or relationship-based activities. (b) Psychologists like Fredrickson (2000) have presented evidence of the significant survival and creative-thinking benefits of positive emotions. Her experiments and research have suggested that whilst negative emotions narrow and restrict thinking, positive emotions (such as joy, interest or contentment) broaden our thinking capacity. Fredrickson argues that in conditions of a personal sense of happiness, connections between ideas are made more possible, social communication more effective and creative thinking is significantly enhanced. (c) Wide-ranging theories of intelligence like Gardners Multiple Intelligences (1999), Sternbergs Triarchic Theory (1998) and the current interest in Emotional Intelligence (Goleman, 1996) have proposed a broader and much more inclusive www.music-ite.org.uk 2

The brain based/mental and physical well-being argument for music in the primary curriculum: Jonathan Barnes

definition of intelligent behaviour. These new definitions of intelligence show that what Sternberg calls successful intelligence may be seen in many real life contexts outside the narrow academic definitions dominant in the west through most of the 20th century. Skill in bodily movement, strong practical understanding, interpersonal and intra personal strengths, a clear grasp of spatial relationships, the disposition to be creative, and ability in various spheres of music are all argued to be not just useful but intelligent behaviours. Personal happiness and creativity Each of the six developments in science research outlined above took place outside schools, but have wide ranging implications for the classroom. I would like to make the case that their findings if shared widely with teachers should provoke a wide ranging re-examination of the purposes and practices of school education for the 21st century. I am particularly interested in the emerging consensus amongst some neurologists and psychologists that involvement in creative activity may provoke a personal sense of well being or happiness, which seems to provoke not only more efficient learning but also greater motivation towards learning itself. If as Csikszentmihalyi (1996) suggests, creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives then perhaps teachers throughout their normal day and in all subjects should be constructing situations which use creative activity to construct an atmosphere where such positive emotions are more likely. This is not just a psychologists view, there is a history going back to Aristotle via Dewey and Steiner and recently taken up by educationalists like Peter Abbs (2003) that existential relevance is a prerequisite for learning. Many educationalists currently propose a simple formula for the complex phenomenon of learning; Learning is a consequence of thinking (Perkins, 1992, Adey and Shayer, 2002). If this is true then involvement in creative activity in any subject may be the most effective way of promoting deep, transferable learning because creativity depends upon thinking. Government in the United Kingdom has recently recognised this in a rash of unusually upbeat publication titles which support this view; Expecting the Unexpected,(Ofsted, 2003) Creativity: Find it promote it,(QCA, 2003 /2005) Excellence and Enjoyment,(DfES, 2004). Each of them recognise that creative activities are generative of deeper, broader and linked thinking and the Governments own Primary Strategy firmly links creativity with www.music-ite.org.uk 3

The brain based/mental and physical well-being argument for music in the primary curriculum: Jonathan Barnes

enjoyment. In each document and the seminal report All Our Futures (DfES/DCMS, 1999) the economic and social value of developing creativity in our post industrial societies is seen as the justification of developing the creative curriculum, it is my argument that we should first be using creativity to help each individual feel a sense of personal meaning and the sense of personal happiness which arises from it. Creative music In the context of primary music, although creative music and in particular composition, seems central in both the national curriculum and the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency (QCA) guidance, there seems evidence that such aspects are still neglected. In recent (December 2003) questionnaire of primary Initial Teacher Education (ITE) students, 72% reported never having seen composition happening in their schools during 12 weeks of school experience. 69% had not seen examples of composition classes by their third and final school experience. 45% of music specialists in the third year of their BA, QTS course had not even seen musical instruments being used in school during their whole training. These findings were very much in line with the earlier findings of Rick Rogers (1999) in The Disappearing Arts, and reveal a worrying situation where apparently one of the most pleasure-giving aspects of music teaching is withheld from a significant number of school pupils and from those in Teacher education. In Rogers more recent Time for the Arts (2003) the situation had not improved in ITE institutions. The evidence for the benefits of musicmaking mounts almost daily, though it needs no defence apart the recognition that it is a central part of all human cultures (see the list of Human Universals in the appendix of Pinkers The Blank Slate, in which no less than 10 human universals connected with music). However in the current climate where everything needs justification in the light of its economic or measurable worth, it is not difficult to make the argument that creative music making, music performing and music listening might make us happier more fulfilled individuals and that being happier will make us more healthy, more productive and more creative members of society. (Clift and Hancox, 2001) In my own small scale research (January, 2005) I simply asked each student on a Primary, Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course to give me one word which summed up their feelings in different parts of a music session in which I had introduced the idea of group music composition to non specialists. I tried to avoid student tendency to supply a www.music-ite.org.uk 4

The brain based/mental and physical well-being argument for music in the primary curriculum: Jonathan Barnes right answer by choosing three similar but creatively distinct parts of the session; the composing, performing and evaluating of their group compositions based upon a Haiku poem. The results were interesting but perhaps only significant when taken in conjunction with other findings from elsewhere. During the process of group composition itself: Out of two groups comprising 44 students, 75% listed what could be termed positive emotions (see Seligman, 2004): relaxed engaged, interested, absorbed, excited, confident, happy, in control, proud, part of a team, Involved, immersed, creative, amused, keen. 25% listed what could be termed negative emotions (nervous, silly, worried, unsure, overwhelmed, frustrated, confused, pain) Whist performing their compositions, 65% said they felt positive emotions and 35% had negative emotions like nervous and scared During an evaluation session designed to be non threatening, supportive and formative, none-the-less 68% expressed feelings of negative emotion even anger apprehension, and fear. Whilst these figures may reveal areas of my own teaching which need attention, they do correlate fairly accurately with research into creative teaching conducted by myself and colleagues (Grainger, Barnes and Scoffham, 2004) where 70% of students used positive emotion language (playful, open, patience, interest, fascination, humour, inspiring, exciting, supportive, energetic) to describe teaching which promoted new thinking in a range of geography, English and music sessions. Music has probably always had a special place in the creation of that sense of both personal and community well being and the universality of this function has been well researched (see for example Blacking, 1974, Brown, 2000). As todays practitioners and educators in music with the well-being of each individual student and child in mind, we should take huge comfort from the findings of neurologists and psychologists and use them to revitalise our arguments for truly creative music at the centre of learning across the curriculum and the heart of every education institution.


The brain based/mental and physical well-being argument for music in the primary curriculum: Jonathan Barnes References Abbs, P (2003) Against the Flow, London , Routledge. Adey, P. and Shayer, M. (2002) Learning Intelligence. London, Open University. Blacking, J. (1974) How Musical is Man? Washington, WUP Brown, D.E., (2000) Human universals and their implications. In N. Roughley (Ed.) Being humans: Anthropological universality and particularity in transdisplinary perspectives. New York: Walter de Gruyter. (http://condor.depaul.edu/~mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm) Clift, S. and Hancox, G (2001)The Perceived benefits of choral singing Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996) Creativity; Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, New York, Harper. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) Flow. London, Rider Damasio. A (1995) Descartes Error. NY, Quill. Damasio, A (2003) Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the feeling Brain, Orlando, Harcourt DfES (2004) Excellence and Enjoyment: A strategy for Primary Schools. Nottingham, DfES Publications. DfES/DCMS (1999) All Our Futures; Creativity, Culture and Education. The Report of the National Advisory Council on Creative and Cultural Education (NACCCE) Fredrickson, B. (2000)Cultivating Positive Emotions to Optimize Health and Well-Being in Prevention & Treatment, Volume 3, Article 0001a, Gardner, H (1999) The disciplined Mind. N Y, Simon and Schuster Gardner, H. (1999) Intelligence Reframed. N Y, Basic books Giedd, J. et al (1999), Brain development during childhood and adolescence: a longitudinal MRI study. In Nature/Neuroscience 1999 Oct;2(10):861-3. Goleman, D.(1996) Emotional Intelligence. London, Bloomsbury Perkins, D (1992) Smart Schools, New York, Free Press. Grainger, T, Barnes, J. and Scoffham, S, (2004) The Creative Cocktail; Creative teaching in Initial teacher Education, in Journal of Education in Teaching, November, 2004. Philpott, C and Plummeridge, C. (Eds) (2001) Issues in Primary Music Education, London, Routledge www.music-ite.org.uk 6

The brain based/mental and physical well-being argument for music in the primary curriculum: Jonathan Barnes OFSTED, (2003) Expecting the Unexpected; developing creativity in primary and secondary schools. (http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/publications/docs/3377.DOC) Pinker, S. (2002) The Blank Slate. NY, Penguin/Allan Lane Qualifications and Curriculum Agency, (2003/2005) Creativity: Find it Promote it (http://www.ncaction.org.uk/creativity/index.htm) Robertson, I (1999) Mind Sculpture. London: Bantam Robertson, I(2002) The Minds Eye. London: Bantam Rogers, R (1999) The Disappearing Arts, London, RSA Seligman, M (2004) Authentic Happiness, NY, Free Press Sternberg, R.(ed)(1998) Intelligence, Instruction and Assessment. Erlbaum: NY Jonathan Barnes 2005