Why Teaching With Music Is So Effective

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Why Teaching With Music Is So Effective

by Terry Heick

You can teach with hip-hop.

I love hip-hop, and it plays a central role in my ELA curriculum whether I’m teaching in rural or urban districts.

Many of you do as well, but it may not always make sense on a cognitive level why it works. The low-hanging fruit is that it’s about student engagement. Students like hip-hop, and so they’ll ‘pay attention’ in a lesson with hip-hop and learn more. But it’s not that simple.

Chris Emdin is Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University and author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (affiliate link), and he’s been getting some press recently bringing hip-hop into the classroom.

In the video below, Emdin explains “What happens if a song is just not poppin’ anymore? Then you won’t select it to be in your new playlist. If an attribute of an organism–if it’s not needed anymore, then it won’t get passed on to the next generation. In other words, it wouldn’t make the new playlist.”

The video Songs For Biology: Students Write Hip-Hop To Learn Science by PBS NewsHour explains, “In a New York City classroom, teachers use rap songs to teach complex science. Playlists are used as a metaphor to convey natural selection, and students compose raps songs to reinforce concepts. Ray Suarez reports on the effectiveness of this strategy and interviews hip-hop legend (and science geek) GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.”

Yes, playlists are used as metaphors, but there’s a larger lesson to be had for why teaching with music can be so effective.

How Teaching With Music Works

So what’s the lesson? Why isn’t it as simple as engagement?

Well first, not all students like the same kinds of music. Not all students like hip-hop, for example, but (as with most music genres) they understand how it works.

And though the video below jumps on ‘hip-hop’ as the talking point–complete with an interviewer arching one eyebrow and saying “Yeah, but come on, are they reaaaaaaaally learning anything?”–it’s not about teaching with hip-hop. It’s about teaching with music–i.e., music providing a framework for understanding anything else.

Ultimately, it’s about schema and relationships–the same reasons teaching with analogies can be so powerful. In the example from the video used by Emdin, consider the following analogies where: genetic attribute:organism::song::playlist    insofaras    poppin’:song::success:genetic attribute.

In other words, because students understand how and why playlists work, they can understand how and why certain attributes are passed from one generation to the next. The cognitive load is reduced because students extrapolate relationships from one known thing and apply it to a unknown thing.

There’s still some figuring left to do, but they now have a foothold to make sense of the idea even if they’re not inherently motivated to do so. Maybe you don’t care how an engine in a car works, but if I tell you it works like giant air pump, it makes sense. You can then take that concept–engine =- air pump, and start working backwards from there.

How are the cylinders like and unlike lungs?

Is the air intake like a throat, or the mouth?

And so on. Magic.

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