Sound Matters

As a lifelong fan of decent music and in my new role as a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce), I attended my first RSA event at the Sallis Benney Theatre in Brighton: The Future of Urban Sound Planning on Wednesday 22 February.

With an eclectic mix of seasoned speakers, University academics, and engineers of soundscapes, I was instantly engaged in the content of the evening. Sound really does matter and how we respond to the multitude of sounds around us is complex, innate and fascinating.

Julian Treasure, he of acclaimed TED talks on sound and founder of The Sound Agency, branding machine for international corporations, spoke at length with crystal clear audio accompaniment on how sound affects us. Sound in the workplace, open plan office spaces, distracting sounds, painful sounds and calming bird song with rhythmic pulses of ocean waves filled the auditorium and carefully contextualized the importance of the evening. Julian highlighted the importance of protecting our wellbeing through careful choices and through ‘sound’ design and not just volumes but rhythms and types of sound. He explained how we are designed to respond to our ears much faster than our vision. Hearing is 360 degrees he explained, yet our world is dominated by the visual signals we are subjected to on a constant basis. Sound affects our behaviour – the deepest bin in the world clip demonstrates this. Sound affects our mood – melancholy or magical tones can lift us or bury us. Music too has its own place in our world. We are born with a natural response to rhythm and we just know how certain combinations of notes can make us feel. I believe that music has a significant and profound effect on our emotions, that’s why I founded Music4Learning. That’s why I was interested in hearing more about soundscapes and how people are working to achieve better sound balances in our lives.

A team from Brighton and Hove City Council are working on a number of projects to create better urban spaces through a more creative use of architecture and sound. In one of their pilot projects, they took a busy seafront location, full of traffic, people and noise and used focused sound to create a calm zone. The results were spectacular. Another part of the research took them to use cameras and music in a dingy subterranean tunnel from the main road to beach and promenade. With the sugar plum fairy music from The Nutcracker Suite playing,  skulking changed to waltzing and introvert switched to extrovert in a matter of seconds.

Andy Knowles from Anderson Acoustics described brilliantly the passion that some architects have for creating better soundscapes, responsive to our needs and promoting our well-being. Sadly, planning blocks, intransigence and bloody-mindedness get in the way. It’s a frustrating business to be in by all accounts. Generating ideas is only half the battle.

One of the last presentations was on how the study of sound from an academic point of view can ‘open our eyes and ears’ to more thoughtful approaches to urban design and public health. In one part, Dr. Emmanuel Spinelli described how he had studied the designs and subsequent noise output of a wide range of hand dryers. Interesting – particularly when you consider the noise output from a child’s point of view. They are tested to within an inch of their life in sterile sound-proof booths but not necessarily in a fully tiled echo chamber that exists in most restrooms and can leave a sensitive 4-year-old requiring another visit to the bathroom.

I found the explanations of how sound design can be better incorporated into our world entirely fascinating. My role as founder of Music4Learning is to help teachers change the atmosphere in their classrooms through careful choices of music. Sound really matters.

The event was supported by The Noise Abatement SocietyAnderson Acoustics, and The RSA. Our Twitter feed commented on the evening @music4learning #rsasoundscapes

Science in Primary Schools

“The look on their faces as 30 rockets launched simultaneously into the sky was priceless! This is what science is all about.” – Year 4 teacher Mike

My new role this term has given me the opportunity to support science teaching in local Primary schools. Having taught secondary school science for twenty years, it is a privilege to be invited into a classroom as an ‘expert’. The real expert is the Year 4 teacher who knows his 8 and 9-year-olds better than I do. He knows their strengths and weaknesses, their habits and histories and what makes them tick. Mike has planned his lesson according to a scheme of lessons from Empiribox. It’s number one in the Forces Unit. The first part is an old trick. The glass full of water, square of plastic on top and then turn it upside down. Thankfully it does what it’s supposed to! It’s air pressure pushing against the water isn’t it. Of course it is! The lesson continues with a pair of Magdeburg Spheres (two flat rubber circles with metal hooks on the outside). Squeeze them together and ask the students to pull them apart. They can’t. Not even with a huge grimace from an 8-year-old boy. The question asked is “What keeps them together?” First response is glue, second response is a vacuum. Nope. It’s air pressure again! Then Mike prepares for his pièce de résistance: the egg into the conical flask. This requires a little more equipment and no shortage of composure. Mike is ably assisted by Kim, a TA, trained this month in practical science by Empiribox (part of their package). She knows what to look for and how to make it work. With a bit of careful timing and encouragement, the egg drops into the flask and then squeezes out again after some warming with a Bunsen burner. The question is asked and this time students can confidently suggest it is air pressure pushing the egg in and out of the flask. Great result. Misconceptions blown out of the water.

Mike uses my experience as a sounding board, a quick check that he’s on the right lines. The questioning is entirely developmental and students build their understanding and trust of the concept of air pressure and forces. Mike is encouraged by their responses and goes for the big finale. Thirty film canisters with a splash of water. Thirty students ready to put a vitamin C tablet in and click on the lid. Thirty students standing back with safety goggles. Off they go and the look on their faces is priceless! Mike is speechless. Kim is quietly smug that another lesson has gone off successfully thanks to her calm sense of organisation and the knowledge that Empiribox are just a phone call away if she needs help.

It is a privilege to see this in action. I will continue to work with each of their teachers and support the teaching and learning. The growth in confidence of the teachers is phenomenal too. They talk to each other, share ideas and iron out any tricky questions. The Head, Richard, is totally confident of the outcomes. “The impact on the school has been immense. Students talk about their science lessons all the time. There was a real lack of practical science in our school and we wanted to change that. Using Empiribox has made it possible. The training is high quality and the resources including lesson plans are first class. The impact on literacy and numeracy will also be enormous.”

Empribox provides the equipment, accredited CPD for staff and additional resources including detailed lesson plans and risk assessments. The cost is generally less than £1 per pupil per week but there is a generous referral scheme to offset some of the costs. It effectively means pupils are doing practical science every week. The long-term benefits for our country are far-reaching. There is a lack of students taking science at A-Level. Fact. Particularly girls. We can address this by inspiring young people to take up careers in science. This means better quality training for primary school teachers particularly in science and better resources for the classroom.

More rocket science next week! Can’t wait!

Empiribox are here www.empiribox.org 

Music4Learning #5

“Teaching is a passion. Don’t do it if it’s not.”

Wellbeing is underrated. So many people pay little attention to their own or others. Hardworking teachers and students crashing and burning their way through an academic week means there is little left for anyone else come the weekend. Teachers are victims of their own regime. The timetable creates a Pavlovian phenomenon of knowing exactly what you are doing and when. But this hamster wheel is where we lose the ‘why’ of teaching.

Let’s refocus on the ‘why’ then. Teaching is a passion. Don’t do it if it’s not. We nurture, guide and applaud young people. We push and pull, cajole and coax and equip brave young minds with resilience and tenacity. To survive this rollercoaster I need time to look after myself and my students. I need to know when I am pushing them too far. I use the music from I Can Teach to ‘chill out’. Generally, with no lyrics, the music allows me to refocus, to reflect and calm before the next onslaught. Try it before that ‘hard to teach’ class arrives. The effect is not short-lived. My favourite track in Chill Out has to be La Femme d’Argent by Air. You can almost feel the waves lapping around you and a gentle sea breeze keeping you nicely chilled. Follow this up with Homebase by dZihan and Kamien and you are in a different place – a different space. Northern Lights by Lux is delicious in its simplicity. You can melt away in this music.

So, you’ve tried the therapeutic self-awareness route and you are now confidently going to try it on that class of 8 year olds or 13 years olds that have bounced in after break. It works. It creates a calm, peaceful and purposeful atmosphere. It physically changes the chemical balance of hormones in the body. Calm teacher, calm class of learners. Greater focus means improved productivity and greater confidence. ‘Chill Out‘ does not mean ‘Doze Off’. There is an intrinsic purpose to this choice of music. It works.

ASAP Science: The Scientific Power of Music (2:00)

“More of the brain is involved in perception and response to music than to language or anything else.” – Oliver Sacks

Lastly, if you like the academic rigour behind all of this then check out Oliver Sacks – Tales of Music and the Brain. His site is here. Worth a good look.

Music4Learning #4

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” – T.E. Lawrence

Ever seen a bunch of 16 year olds dragging their knuckles, bringing last Wednesday’s clothes and smell with them, complaining of bright lights and too many things to do before sunset? Ever opened your classroom door to a sideways glance from a teenage girl who has scrunched the last bit of chew from a stick of gum and just about managed to string the words together: ‘Hope we’re doing something fun today!’? The joys of high school or secondary school bring tears to most teachers eyes – and for so many reasons. It is the age of consolidation. The voyage of self-discovery and the trials of adolescence.

My learners enter the classroom knowing there’s going to be some music at some point. Here’s how I use the Wake Up section on I Can Teach. The chemistry has to be right. Imbalance between the two hormones melatonin and serotonin can cause a delay in waking and difficulty getting to sleep. So there are times when music can help. He’s a Pirate by Klaus Badelt (from Pirates of The Caribbean) is a rousing bit of music. Use it to introduce a topic, a speaker or get people started on an activity.Can’t Stop Movin’ by Sonny J is just the ticket for a ‘moving’ activity but at the right volume sits just underneath constructive conversation. Choose carefully between tracks with lyrics and without. The temptation is to ‘hook’ into the lyrics and this can work to improve productivity, focus and concentration. The beats per minute is also important. Too fast and you lose the effect. Our brain is too busy interpreting and following. Watch this from Jessica Grahn (she’s a hip neurologist who knows her beats) to give you an idea of how it works….

The William Tell Overture by Rossini is a classic piece of music. Throw it into the classroom and watch students become productive, busy, sociable bees. Tidy up time never happened more efficiently. Use it as part of a routine and Pavlov’s bells start ringing – students will tidy up without even asking! There’s a good selection of beats, sounds and styles in Wake Up and they all work in different ways to achieve the same effect. Whether it’s early morning or early afternoon, there’s a place for some upbeat ‘wake up’ music. The results will speak for themselves…..

Music4Learning #3

“I look into the window of my mind; reflections of the fears I know I’ve left behind. I step out of the ordinary, I can feel my soul ascending, I’m on my way, can’t stop me now and you can do the same, yeah……what have you done today to make me feel proud?” – Heather Small

Music4Learning is all about learning.  It’s the complex connections that we make when we learn something new. Music is such a powerful addition to the process that it reinforces it in so many different ways. The TEDx talk by Jessica Grahn at Western University highlights the proven links between brain activity and music.

The opportunity to use music for reflection is so important in my classroom. I use the Think section in I Can Teach as a powerful tool when considering heavyweight topics such as world poverty, migrants’ struggles, pollution, natural disasters and the list goes on. I might use Reuters Images as a starting point – add the music in the background. It might be Elegy by Lisa Gerrard and Patrick Cassidy or it might be Cahuita by Oystein Sevag and Lakki Patey – both incredibly powerful. How about an assembly or a lesson on James Mollison’s photo series on Where Children Sleep – I used Adagio for Strings in G Minor – Albinoni – alongside these photos. The connections in the brain are stronger and reinforced.

Much of the music in the Think section, contains lyrics designed to provoke thought. So why not use it to do exactly that. Use the lyrics for analysis in English and as a form of expression and theatre in Drama. Use it in Religious Studies to consider compassion and understanding. True Colours by Cindy Lauper is a familiar and well-used classic piece of contemporary music. What do the lyrics mean? How can we make society fairer and more understanding? These are real questions for real learners.

My students show a greater understanding of ‘big issues‘. They can articulate their feelings about homelessness and famine and pollution. They report on issues that affect them. This is not a ‘citizenship’ lesson or ‘personal and social education’. This is real learning and music is integral to their progress. They tackle new challenges with greater confidence because they have better self-esteem and understand their own issues in context with those of others around them. They are better at learning and metacognition and make great progress as a result.

Finally, try this: Ludovico Einaudi – Nuvole Bianche (White Clouds) running alongside ‘The Mountain’ – if you haven’t seen it – it’s worth a look.

Music4Learning #4 will be about using the Wake Up section of I Can Teach. It does exactly what it says.

Music4Learning #2

A gruesome eye dissection in class always grabs most students attention. Even the ones that are covering their own are fascinated and can’t resist a peak. Give a class a set of scalpels and one beady sheep eyeball between two would be opticians and let them go for it. Now the music: I Can See Clearly Now by Jonny Nash.

“I can see clearly now the rain has gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind…..”

I sometimes go for the blindingly obvious. This is an example. Another might beSpeed of Sound by Coldplay during part of a lesson on sound. I used Around the World by Daft Punk with an animation on the Carbon Cycle. Jaws by John Williamscould be used for all sorts of things but I used it whilst studying classification of sharks with an Arkive resource. There’s always a chance to play Celebration by Kool and the Gang, even it’s just for 10 seconds. Sweet Home Alabama by Lynard Skynard at the end of a day is always a good note to leave on. All these pieces of music are powerful and instantly recognisable to most. These are all in the ‘Enjoy‘ section of I Can Teach. They are there to enjoy and have some fun with.

So what’s the link with teaching and learning? Learning is a multi-sensory, cognitive and emotional process – a journey. Memories linked to music are generally more powerful and more detailed. Given the neuroplasticity of the brain and the fact that emotions are tagged in our most primitive limbic system, we naturally learn better when we are engaged, happy and motivated. So if learning is considerably enhanced by the use of music, then teaching using it must be fun too. It draws teachers into creative and collaborative planning (use Google Apps to do this too!) and allows engagement with students on a much more multicellular and organic level.

Two observations here:

  • The choice of music can be down to students or teachers. Choice often brings devolved trust and confidence. If it’s innocuous background then it may not matter.
  • This music is designed to enhance the learning process. There is strong evidence to show that during recall, silence is better.

All our music is licensed. You stream it and use it as you wish. In Music4Learning #3 I will give you some ideas about using powerful and emotive music from the ‘Think‘ section of I Can Teach.

Enjoy!

Animations for teachers

Having watched a number of animations over the years that have been of the ‘doodle while I talk’ style, I thought I would share some of the good ones I have seen and the types of site that might help you make your own. My favourites tend to come form the RSA animate series https://www.thersa.org/discover/videos/rsa-animate/ where über eloquence is blended into fast hand drawing on a whiteboard. It’s incredibly engaging and quite mesmerising and you find yourself watching bits again because you were concentrating on the drawing instead of the listening. The first one is Dan Pink – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc There is much insight into this well thumbed/clicked talk given by Dan Pink. The animation highlights key aspects and pulls it all together nicely. The second one is Sir Ken (Robinson) – brackets because everyone’s heard of Sir Ken haven’t they. He packed out the BETT 2015 Arena in January this year. Standing room only. His talk about Shifting Paradigms is a succinct look at how our current system is fundamentally flawed, needless and economically unsound. The animation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U is here. The most recent one to cross my twitter feed (@ICanTeach_Uk) was David Marquet (@ldavidmarquet) with a ‘promoted’ look at leadership. His feed showed an animation (again) to accompany an excerpt from a book called Turn the ship around about life on a submarine. It suggested that in highly effective organisations, there are leaders at every level. https://t.co/zyC8ZKdKpX Worth a look.

So, in response to my own increased and sustained levels of engagement, I thought I would have a crack. First attempt was a look at how Causeway School in Eastbourne could involve all stakeholders in a process of digitalisation – taking the big steps into the 21st Century of digital learning and embedding technology fully into a forward thinking school. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljwIRw1tul0 The idea of involving students in their creation opens all sorts of possibilities – short snippets of eloquence joined together and animated. Suddenly revision got interesting. Learning times tables gets easier because the visual stimulation multiplies any impact the ears might provide by ten times. Learning pronunciation in Spanish, French or Mandarin switches from monotone to full technicolour. Telling the story of the rise of Hitler or the fall of the Roman Empire can be created, nurtured and retold in a hundred different ways depending on the storyteller and the animator. My favourite site for doing this was VideoScribe http://www.videoscribe.co/ There is a basic package and a pretty reasonable subscription pricing scheme for teachers and class groups. There others available but I tried to set them up and the time taken to ‘have a play’ and come up with something half decent was beyond viable certainly in terms of sanity. So try it. You can record a voice of your own or take some else’s using http://keepvid.com/ and keeping the audio. You can use songs, speeches, stories and much more. Then animate for your life.