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We Need More Music for Brains!

“So many cuts to music education are particularly ironic given the growing body of research that underscores how music engages many of same areas of the brain involved in language processing, memory, and other critical thinking skills essential for academic success. Music also appears to benefit kids socially and emotionally.” (GreatSchools.org)

Here are seven areas where studies have shown the benefits of music to kids’ education and development:

  1. Language processing

    Multiple studies indicate that the brain processes music and language in similar ways, and that music training benefits the development of a variety of language-related skills, from vocabulary building to phoneme processing. The Neurosciences Institute reports that its research has “revealed a significant degree of overlap between music and language processing,” and in a 2005 study, researchers at Stanford University found that mastering a musical instrument improves the way the human brain processes parts of spoken language. The findings suggested that students who are struggling with language and reading skills could especially benefit from musical training.

  2. Memory

    The benefits of music training appear to extend to memory, too. A study by researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong found that children with musical training showed better verbal memory than their peers. “When these children were followed up after a year,” the study’s authors wrote, “those who had begun or continued music training demonstrated significant verbal memory improvement.” In other words, memorizing music pieces correlated with improvements in non-musical memory, too. The enhancement of working memory in young adults via music training was further validated in a 2018 study by researchers at York University.

    The correlation may stem from particular ways that music “challenges” young minds. Takako Fujioka, a scientist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and co-author of a study that found musically trained children showed greater improvement on memory tests throughout the course of a year than their non-musically trained peers, explains that playing music “requires the brain to solve the problems of how to allocate attention and memory toward complex tasks.”

  3. Math

    If you’ve ever tried to read even a simple piece of music — or bang a drum in time to a beat, you know that music requires you to preform mathematical processes (like division) on the fly. But research has also shown a link between music education and success in school math. A study by The Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada, for example, concentrated on the effects of arts education on elementary school students, and found that students in the arts program “scored significantly higher on mathematical tests of computation and estimation” than did students in a control group.

  4. Self-Awareness

    Dr. Frank Wilson, a neurologist and an authority on the relationship of hand use to human cognitive development, explains that the study of music teaches children to “self assess,” rather than to rely on external rewards. While much of our schooling focuses on grades and prizes, music can foster an internal motivation. The precision and attention required to play an instrument — the instant feedback loop that requires you to adjust your own performance — encourages an “ongoing surveillance of yourself,” Wilson says. “It leads you to become a critic of your own work, to not be satisfied with anything less than achieving what it was you intended to do.”

  5. Social skills

    Takako Fujioka, of the Rotman Research Institute, points out that the benefits of playing music go beyond academic applications: “When you participate in music in a community or a school, you develop shared memories during musical activities. It’s a bonding experience.”

    That bonding can also develop kids’ ability to work together. A recent study by researchers at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina, found that at-risk elementary school kids who had music instruction in an after-school program showed a significant decrease in behavior problems. Sharon Burch, an elementary school music teacher who developed the “Freddy the Frog” series of books and activities to teach the fundamentals of music to children, has also seen the effects of music on students’ social well-being. “I teach 450 kids per year,” she says, “and I notice that the kids involved in music are the most well-behaved, have the most confidence, and are doing well in their academic classes.”

  6. Academic success

    With all the benefits that music brings to kids’ language, math, memory and self-assessment, it’s little surprise that there is a strong correlation between music and general academic success. Studies have shown that students in music programs scored higher in English and math than students who had no music at all, and high school students with music training scored higher than their non-musical peers on the SAT, according to the College Board. A 1994 survey even found that music majors, as a group, had the highest acceptance rate to medical school.

  7. Long-term success

    Students with music training tend to rank higher in common measures of long-term success such as educational attainment and income: a 2007 poll by Harris Interactive found that nearly nine out of ten people with post -graduate education had participated in music while in school, and 83 percent of those with incomes of $150,000 or more had had music education. The College Board’s 2006 study also found that high school students who participated in band or orchestra reported the lowest lifetime and current use of drugs and alcohol.

Bringing music back to schools

Marion Atherton efforts to integrate music into the early grades at her child’s school were ultimately successful. She applied and received a grant from the California Arts Council to bring in a music teacher for regular instruction. The schools’ teachers who would be adding music to their classrooms initially were wary. After all, already they had more lesson plans and requirements than they could cover in a given school day.

But, like Atherton, they came to see that music was not an “extra” activity, but one that was integral to education in general.

“The teachers were a little resistant at first,” Atherton recalls, “but over time they actually became hugely supportive of it. They saw how it gave certain kids a confidence or a joy they didn’t see in other ways. And it was a great way for a classroom to feel a sense of community — and that carried over into the other things their classroom did.”

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How is your Attitude?

Duane Morris


ATTITUDE = 100%   When you number each letter of the alphabet (A=1, B=2. C=3 etc)


A = 1

T =20

T =20

I =  9

T  =20

U =21

D = 4

E = 5


= 100%

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Educate the Right Way!

August 1, 2018

Play is vital.

Credit: @hannitary via Twenty20

Are We Doing Recess Right? A New Tool Can Help

An analysis of nearly 500 playgrounds finds that recess can be optimized to build social skills and relationships.

PBL engages students in hands-on, real-world problems.

Credit: ©iStock/South_agency

Summer Planning for PBL

Low-stress ideas for revising your project-based learning curriculum before you head back to the classroom.

Practices that support introverts

Credit: ©Shutterstock/aldarinho

Creating Paths to Participation for Introverts

These tools and strategies can help introverts show what they know and participate in class in ways that are comfortable for them.

Reluctant adopters have wisdom to share.

Credit: ©iStock/pixelfit

Reluctant Adopters and Technology Initiatives

Addressing the valid concerns teachers have about new tech tools helps them accept change and builds positive relationships.

Helping bilingual students build literacy skills in their home language

Credit: ©Shutterstock/santypan

Starting a Heritage Language Book Club

A book club can help students who mainly use English but speak another language at home gain valuable literacy skills in the home language.

George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Project-Based Learning Engages All!

Boosting Student Engagement Through Project-Based Learning

A researcher-practitioner partnership in San Francisco shows promising results for middle school science students.

Taji Allen-Sanchez, a sixth- and seventh-grade science teacher at San Francisco’s Aptos Middle School, is one of a growing number of teachers who believe that traditional methods of teaching aren’t preparing students for life beyond school. Lectures and direct instruction can be used to convey information to students, but they don’t enhance skills like teamwork, problem solving, and curiosity that employers are increasingly looking for.

“If you just give students answers, they’re not going to understand [the science],” he explains. “Really, any kid can memorize information, but can they apply it to an actual real-world application?”

George Lucas Educational Foundation

2013 survey of over 700 business leaders bears out Allen-Sanchez’s point: Half of the respondents reported that many job applicants who were technically proficient lacked the communication, decision-making, and problem-solving skills necessary to do the jobs they applied for. Far too many college graduates touted high grades and test scores, but lacked key skills to be successful in the workplace.

“It’s not a matter of technical skill,” explained one employer in the survey, “but of knowing how to think.”

Aptos Middle School

Public, Urban
Grades 6-8
San Francisco, CA


In an attempt to foster those necessary skills, Allen-Sanchez uses a combination of project-based learning (PBL) and performance assessments to encourage his students to gain a deeper understanding of science. The curriculum he uses came out of a Stanford project looking at how PBL, paired with performance assessments, can boost student learning. The results so far have been promising: The three-year project revealed significant growth in state standardized English language arts (ELA) and math tests for students in the program. Significantly, teachers also reported seeing higher rates of participation and engagement for their students.

The program’s focus on academic discourse was especially helpful for English language learners, who outperformed their peers on the state’s measure of language proficiency.

Research shows that by organizing learning around meaningful goals, PBL can be an effective way to cultivate a “need to know” attitude in students—students are motivated to deepen their understanding in order to solve a problem that is meaningful to them. Concepts are better understood when students see a need for their use because that need encourages them to apply what they’re learning to relevant situations, leading to a better sense of understanding.

In schools participating in the study, students took an active role in their classrooms, asking questions, solving problems, conducting experiments, and participating in group discussions. The students felt that their assignments were more interesting, challenging, worthwhile, and enjoyable than did students in classrooms with a traditional science curriculum. Researchers also observed higher rates of students staying on task and paying close attention to the teacher and their peers.


Project-based learning can be a catalyst for transforming science learning, helping students move from asking “what?” to also asking “why?” and “how?” In a traditional classroom, students often focus on memorizing facts to pass a test. At Aptos Middle School and other schools across San Francisco, PBL is being used to encourage scientific inquiry, putting students in the shoes of scientists applying authentic reasoning practices—such as experimentation and trial and error—in the classroom. While students still learn facts, they also learn to apply those facts in open-ended projects that they help design.

This transformation is driven by the 5E model, which eschews a traditional “scope and sequence” approach in which students progress along a fixed path of concepts and skills throughout the school year. Instead, instruction is organized around five phases:

  • Engage: Students’ interest is piqued with novel ideas.
  • Explore: Hands-on activities deepen understanding.
  • Explain: Students describe ideas in their own words.
  • Elaborate: Ideas are applied to a broader context.
  • Evaluate: Students provide a rich picture of their understanding.

Allen-Sanchez explains that this model “really pushes kids to take an experience, really get immersed in it, learn about it through articles, and conversation, and discussion, and then get into more of it through the Elaborate by pushing what they already know to give more answers.”

Students in Allen-Sanchez’s science classes do more than just recite correct answers—they develop projects that utilize the 5Es. For example, students may work in groups to solve real-life engineering challenges such as working with a restaurant to design an energy-efficient kitchen. These students learn STEM concepts like the impact that windows and doorways have on thermal insulation, and they apply those concepts in complex situations: working with clients, managing projects, and executing the design cycle of prototyping, testing, and revising solutions to solve problems.

“We knew that we wanted to create a science environment in our classrooms that would disrupt the way that it had become: a course in which facts were learned and memorized,” said Jim Ryan, the former STEM executive director for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).


Despite the importance of team problem-solving in today’s workplaces, only 8 percent of students could meet the demands of a highly collaborative environment, while 28 percent would struggle because they have only basic levels of important skills. Schools largely aren’t addressing this skills mismatch—highlighting the need for more opportunities for students to work together to solve the complex problems that do foster the necessary skills.

At the beginning of every school year, teachers in SFUSD emphasize the need for students to work together, not just to complete challenging projects but also to help change beliefs and stereotypes about science identity.

“We recognize that students walk in the door of this classroom with issues of status behind them, that they recognize themselves as being a science person or a non-science person,” said Ryan. “It’s through student discourse and group work that they will start to dispel those beliefs about not only themselves but about their peers, and recognize that each of those students is bringing an aspect of smarts into the problem that they’re trying to solve around science.”

Throughout the year, teachers use group work to address the myth that scientists work in isolation. For Eric Lewis, the district’s science content specialist, science “requires lots of people with lots of different specializations to work together to explain an idea and to come up with solutions for the big problems that we have today.”


To improve student learning, start with teachers—that’s the philosophy driving project-based learning in SFUSD. In a landmark study, John Hattie found that teachers account for 30 percent of the variance in student achievement, beating other factors like quality of curriculum, class size, and school funding. So after Stanford developed the new science curriculum (which can be downloaded for free), SFUSD educators worked with the researchers to improve it, playing a key role as co-designers.

“In developing this curriculum, it was absolutely critical that it was a true partnership. One, not only between Stanford and San Francisco, but between teachers, designers, administrators, etc.,” said Nicole Holthuis, a Stanford researcher and one of the creators of the curriculum. Teachers took the curriculum into their classrooms to test out and then gave each other feedback on what worked and what didn’t.

The partnership seems to be effective: Lewis says that with the 5E model and PBL, “We’re seeing more students getting their hands wet. We’re seeing more students contribute ideas. We’re seeing more students participate in many different ways.”

The Learning Through Performance study was supported by Edutopia’s sister division, Lucas Education Research. Both organizations are funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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