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Posts Tagged ‘Research’

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TRACING LINKS BETWEEN MUSICAL TRAINING AND EXECUTIVE FUNCTION — AND BOLSTERING THE CASE FOR MUSIC IN SCHOOLS

 

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If educators want to develop critical, creative thinkers who can set and accomplish their own goals — and who can use those skills to strengthen their math and reading skills — they may want to take another look inside the music room.

For a child to play an instrument, she needs to stick to her goals, pay sustained attention, and be flexible enough to switch back and forth between tempos and styles. These habits draw heavily on executive function (EF) skills, cognitive processes that include problem-solving, goal setting, and flexible thinking. A number of studies have found that EF skills contribute hugely to students’ success in math and reading.

But music doesn’t just require EF skills; it may be a pathway to building them. That’s according to findings by developmental psychologist Nadine Gaab, whose work shows that people who play a musical instrument regularly have higher executive function skills than non-musicians — a significant finding for educators.

THE RESEARCH

In a 2014 study, Gaab and her research team, including Jennifer Zuk, Ed.M.’10; Christopher Benjamin; and Arnold Kenyon, examined 30 adults between 18 and 35, and 27 children between 9 and 12. Half the participants were “musical”: The adult musicians either were seeking or had obtained a performance degree and practiced at least eight hours a week, and the children had been taking private instrumental lessons for an average of 5.2 years.

The researchers examined the participants as they performed various tasks measuring EF skills. In a “verbal fluency” test, for example, the participants had to name in one minute as many words as possible starting with an assigned letter, excluding people, places, or numbers. In a “trail making” test, they had to draw straight lines as quickly as possible connecting numbers and letters in numerical and chronological order, while switching between numbers and letters.

The children in the study also performed several “set shifting” tasks under an fMRI, in which they had to press different buttons depending on audio and visual stimuli.

The results?

Overall, the musical participants performed better on several, although not all, of the executive function tests.

  • Both adult and children musicians exhibited higher cognitive flexibility than non-musicians.
  • The adult musicians showed a more proficient working memory, and the child musicians exhibited faster processing speed, than their non-musician peers.
  • Most significant, the researchers found differences in brain activation between child musicians and non-musicians. “We had more activation in areas of the brain I often call the ‘CEO regions’” — the frontal regions associated with executive function — “in the children who had musical training compared to others,” says Gaab.

IMPLICATIONS FOR FAMILIES AND SCHOOLS

Practicing a musical instrument, it seems, is directly correlated with increased executive function. So should parents rush to sign up their children for private lessons? Should schools redouble their focus on music?

Possibly, says Gaab. Their study was not a longitudinal one, in which researchers would have analyzed a group of children before beginning their musical training and then again after they had been regularly practicing. Consequently, she cannot say with certainty if practicing music increases EF, or if it’s the other way around. “Kids and adults who have really good executive function skills might stick longer with music or might be more drawn toward music,” explains Gaab.

However, this research does answer a crucial question left open by other studies that have found a link between music and cognitive function. A child musician might have strong EF skills because a family that can afford private instrument lessons is likely providing other forms of enrichment too, such as a language-rich household or stimulating summer camps. Gaab’s study controlled for IQ and socioeconomic status, however, showing that musical training, not other experiences, is the factor linked to EF.

So while the exact causal connection between executive function and music remains unclear, the researchers still advise schools to take note. “Replacing music programs with reading or math instruction in our nation’s school curricula in order to boost standardized test scores,” they write, “may actually lead to deficient skills in other cognitive areas.”

Written By Leah Shafer

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gazette-logoHand-raising is a quick, cost-effective, time-tested technique for gauging student knowledge and progress, but it may not give an accurate picture of students’ grasp of a subject. A new Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) faculty working paper co-authored by Senior Lecturer Dan Levy, doctoral student Joshua Yardley and Professor Richard Zeckhauser examines the biases and challenges that result from hand-raising and the potential solutions offered by the use of “clickers” in the classroom.

“Since student satisfaction often correlates imperfectly with student learning, it is important to explore the ways in which clickers may impact learning specifically, in addition to the positive reviews they are getting from users,” the authors explain in the paper’s introduction.

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Richard Zeckhauser, Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy (L) and Dan Levy, Senior Lecturer (R) Clickers, the researchers argue, may be beneficial in allowing students to complete the learning process (thinking through their own independent responses to a question) and thus giving teachers a clearer picture of their students’ learning

 

The paper examines the possible benefits of clickers, chief among them anonymity – eliminating the usual “herding” behavior that can result when students are asked to raise their hands. Using a clicker, students are denied the opportunity to mimic other students, and are freed from the embarrassment or peer pressures that would promote certain choices. They can only choose independently.

The researchers conducted experiments in 22 different university classrooms, working with more than 1100 total respondents. Each classroom was divided into two groups: one with hand raising and the other with clickers. The response results differed significantly between the two groups. The hand-raising results were generally more clustered, consistent with the researchers’ theories on herding behavior.

“Those providing erroneous answers love company,” the authors note. But students may also “cluster” toward the responses of their classmates who are known to be knowledgeable about a topic, even if those answers are in the minority. For certain types of questions, the authors found that “clustering with others may also be helpful when there is no single right answer.”

While herding does sometimes push more students toward the correct answer to a question, the students may simply be following the crowd instead of arriving at the correct answer on their own. Clickers, the researchers argue, may be beneficial in allowing students to complete the learning process (thinking through their own independent responses to a question) and thus giving teachers a clearer picture of their students’ learning. Clickers also enable students to comfortably express minority or unpopular political views.

Besides allowing students to engage with questions on their own, clicked responses “can be an important source of feedback for teachers,” the authors explain. Yardley adds, “Clicker data that more accurately reflect student knowledge can help teachers make better informed real-time decisions regarding pacing and focus.” For example, Yardley says, “If clicker data suggest that students understand a particular concept, the teacher moves on, whereas if the data reveal student confusion, the teacher may decide to stay with the topic longer.”

“It seems likely that clicker responses give the teacher a better picture of where the students actually are in understanding a given concept or question,” the authors conclude. The study provides compelling evidence that hand-raising and clicker responses differ significantly from one another, and raises interesting questions about the potential use of both techniques in classrooms of the future.

Dan Levy is senior lecturer in public policy and Faculty Chair of the Kennedy School’s SLATE (Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence) Initiative. He teaches courses in quantitative methods and program evaluation. He recently directed impact evaluations of girl-friendly school construction programs in Burkina Faso and Niger.

Joshua Yardley is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at Harvard University, with a focus on research in development economics and education.

Richard Zeckhauser is the Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at Harvard Kennedy School. His contributions to decision theory and behavioral economics include the concepts of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), status quo bias, betrayal aversion, and ignorance (states of the world unknown) as a complement to the categories of risk and uncertainty. Many of his policy investigations explore ways to promote the health of human beings, to help markets work more effectively, and to foster informed and appropriate choices by individuals and government agencies.

 

Written By Katie Gibson