If music be the food of education, play on?…

2012-02-13 00:00

IN 1993 Gordon Shaw and Francis Raucher did an experiment where they studied the effect of listening to 10 minutes of Mozart on a couple of dozen college students. The result fabricated a whole industry because, somehow, for a brief while, the spatio temporal IQ of these students improved.

Shaw and Raucher hit the magical crossover between science and popular faith in the jugular and quickly brought out books and CDs promising parents transformation of their children into little Einsteins by listening to Mozart. Some American states even went as far as starting programmes to give a Mozart CD to mothers as they gave birth. The only problem was that no one else was able to replicate the results. It did not matter, the Mozart effect had already become a scientific myth. Sadly, if something like a general IQ exists, it’s going to take more than 10 minutes of Mozart to improve it. We don’t see Nobel Prize winners standing up one by one declaring how they owe their success to listening to Mozart, or our top matriculants all with Mozart on their iPods. Easy as it is to ridicule our own scientific credulity, there is a grain of truth in the Mozart effect, and it is a grain that is standing up to rigorous critique. The grain is that it is not so much listening to Mozart as being able to play him that is key, and it’s not necessarily music or Mozart, but the arts in general that has this effect.

The main person driving this research is Michael Posner and his is certainly more robust than that of Shaw and Raucher. Posner shows that focused training in music, dance or theatre strengthens the brain’s attention system and therefore improves cognitive performance in general. For anyone who has seriously engaged in learning to play an instrument, done some form of organised dancing, or acted in a play, there will be a forceful recognition that it took hours on hours of intense concentration involving body and mind. Something about this intensive focus of engaged attention lies at the heart of cognitive improvement, but up until recently, scientists have not been able to point explicitly to a causal connection and, even now, the connections are difficult to pin down. The reason for this is that, although we can now definitively point to how music training structurally alters brain circuitry, it is hard to prove that these specific changes translate into a more general effect on cognition as a whole.

In neuroscience this is referred to as the problem of far transfer, where the improvements only relate to musically specific areas (near transfer) and do not spread out to cognitive improvement in general. But Posner is cracking through this wall by showing how increased diligence in practising for long periods of time results in stronger and more efficient attention networks as a whole. It’s not the arts per se that produce cognitive improvement, but how they facilitate and encourage whole body and mind absorption over sustained periods of time.

This raises the question of the impact of computer games on attention networks. We all know just how absorbed our kids can get in a game, whether this be Jump Start, Super Mario, Just Dance, Just Sing, Guitar Hero or Super Moshi. Posner randomly assigned four to six-year-old kids into two groups, one of which watched and responded to interactive videos (like Dora the Explorer that gets kids to answer questions and do things), the other which did computer exercises using a joystick designed to engage attention through motivation and reward. The computer group showed improved capacity in attention that transferred over to higher IQ test scores, the other group watching interactive TV, well … nothing.

It’s a little ironic that research using scientific protocols is pointing to the importance of the arts and games, but in a world that takes science so seriously this is an important development. The more we can point to scientific studies showing that children who train in music display improvements in phonological awareness resulting in improved reading fluency, or improved mathematical ability, or improved control over their mood and will, the more arts education will be seen not as the opposite of a scientific education, but as its sister in arms, and the more computer games will be seen for what they can be, a breakthrough in how education happens.

So, it’s not listening to Mozart that does the trick, it’s engaging in long-term focused activities you lose yourself in. Music, art, dance and acting (as well as computer games) do exactly this, as do days spent watching insects and birds going about their daily lives, or ferociously devouring a book in one big gulp. The advantage of the arts, however, is that they demand full body and mind engagement in a self-produced complex aesthetic whole that is immediate and tangible. It’s not enough to expose our children to life, we need to get them to do it with attention.

• Professor Wayne Hugo teaches in the School of Education and Development, UKZN. “Education Matters” is a monthly series focusing on education by staff at UKZN.

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