Instead of agonising over why Australian students can’t or won’t study maths or science perhaps we should concentrate on improving the nation’s cognitive capacity via music lessons.
Is the answer to the complex issue of raising literacy and numeracy standards just about giving more “prime learning” time and emphasis in every school day to these areas? And if it is, why aren’t we seeing the results of these changes schools and education departments have already made in NAPLAN and PISA scores?
In Bill Shorten’s reply speech to the Budget 2015 this month, he put forward Labor’s intention to sponsor 100,000 students to do STEM degrees, which are science, technology, engineering and maths degrees at university level. This is with the intention of strengthening the knowledge economy of Australia, to continue the impressive record of innovations and discoveries that can be attributed to Australian educated and supported researchers.
So how do these two issues of literacy and numeracy standards and STEM-focused university degrees come together? The answer is in the general cognitive capacity of our population. In order to ensure the capacity for there to be 100,000 students willing and capable to undertake STEM degrees at a tertiary level, we need to have children achieving and maybe even exceeding the required standards for literacy and numeracy from the very beginning of their education.
The human brain begins life with the structures and functions that are then enhanced, changed and evolved by our life experiences. An integral part of our brain development from birth forward is the creation of neural networks. It is these networks that neuroscientists have found can be profoundly impacted by anything from educational practices to parenting styles to all forms of disadvantage.
It is now commonly understood that the first seven years of a child’s life is the most important time for the creation of these neural networks. To use a crude but simple analogy, following on from the STEM focus, if something is wired right the first time, it is more likely to work well into the future. Get these neural networks established as well as we possible can from the beginning, and a child has a better chance of success, cognitively, physically, emotionally and at the pointy end of the argument, economically.
Based on neuroscientific research, the approach used at present of “more time in the basics means better results” may well be flawed. The creation of strong and effective neural networks is a product of more than just specifically focused literacy and numeracy lessons. It is a part, and not the only part, of an educational experience that extends from home to school and back again.
So while we focus on the whole educational experience for a child, it may be time to consider a very old idea that has been made new again by neuroscientific research: music education – the neural network enhancer.
Two decades of frenzied research has now found that music education grows, hones and permanently improves neural networks like no other activity. Children who undertake formal, ongoing musical education have significantly higher levels of cognitive capacity, specifically in their language acquisition and numerical problem solving skills. They also continue in education for longer, reverse the cognitive issues related to disadvantage and earn and contribute more on average across their lifetime.
Such research flies in the face of suggestions in the Australian Government’s Review of the Australian Curriculum this year that music and arts education should only be started after Grade 3 so students could get a handle on the core literacy and numeracy requirements.
It also goes against the experience of many of Australia’s business and thought leaders. Kim Williams, former Foxtel and News Limited CEO whose first tertiary degree was in Music composition, put forward a cogent argument on ABC’s Ockham’s Razor for the imperative of both arts and science for the future of Australian’s society and economy – “I would contend that in this century, a society which loses contact with, and commitment to, respecting and appropriately resourcing pure science and the arts across many domains, will decay”.
Music education is often one of the first programs to be cut or scaled back when the purse strings are tightened in a school. Again when considering the research that now exists, this also seems flawed. Many of the intervention programs that are in operation in schools may find they are less in demand if music education is viewed not as an extra but as a concurrent neural enhancer to literacy and numeracy education.
At present many principals have direct control over the provision of music education in their schools. They don’t need a state or federal program mandate to include music education in each child’s educational experience. They only need access to the neuroscientific research to understand how beneficial music education could be to their bottom line, educationally and economically.
By Anita Collins, www.theage.com.au, www.msidallas.com