PMP:058 Triggering the Brain with Wonder

The other day I was talking to our high school choir teacher, when she told me about a fascinating brain study involving music.

Photo by AmandaD_TX – Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

MIT neuroscientists have discovered that music triggers an auditory cortex of the brain that doesn’t appear to respond to other basic auditory sounds like speech.

If our brains have portions that only react to sounds recognized as music, this leads to an important question: Are we really engaging the brain most effectively if we aren’t exposing it to both left brain (facts, patterns, figures, and information) and right brain activities (creative, imaginative, inspiring ideas)?

The Power of Music Memory

A few years ago when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she slowly began losing the ability to track time. Ironically, when I sit down with her at the piano, she can almost perfectly recall the tunes and verses of her favorite hymns. Her short-term and long-term memories often get jumbled, but her music memory is so much more precise.

As an amateur musician, I remember many times when playing the piano has prompted my own creativity in solving problems. In fact, after decades of playing, I can sometimes move along the keys almost instinctively—often feeling like I’m playing with one part of my brain while thinking about something else with another part.

The Art of What You Do

For a long time, we have heard that visual artists engage the right side of their brains more than their left sides when creating, like lessons taught in Betty Edwards’ famous drawing book. The left side of the brain seems more engaged when you are reasoning or problem solving. The discovery of how music triggers a specific part of the brain reinforces how engaging both sides of the brain may help us with teaching and learning.

I often remind new teachers that good teaching involves both science and art. On the one hand, you implement the processes, strategies, and steps necessary to accomplish a task (best practices). On the other hand, you exercise the passion or connection necessary to inspire (creativity). Music may be one other way teachers can engage learners in stimulating understanding, but highly effective teachers always find ways to teach with both sides of the brain.

I believe it’s what you observe in master teachers but can’t always put your finger on–the mix of process and passion often described as “the gift of teaching” or “magic in the classroom” or “light-bulb moments.”

It happens when a math teacher is so entranced in the wonder of the Fibonacci sequence, she not only explains the predictable patterns found in nature but also inspires questions and discussions over the possibilities of intelligent design.

It happens when a teacher of Shakespeare not only helps his students decipher Elizabethan verse until they begin to understand the language but also enthralls them with captivating plots and unavoidable drama so that they keep turning the pages.

It happens when a music teacher trains her students in sight-reading and scales but also teaches them to listen and blend harmonies until they’ve combined sounds into something beautiful that triggers unique parts of the brain.

The Art of Storytelling

One of my favorite pedagogies for engaging both sides of the brain is storytelling. One evening my wife and I had dinner at a restaurant in Tulsa that is run by a local culinary school. The dinner was a gift from when I spoke at their December graduation commencement. After we finished a great meal, we chatted with the head chef who is also an instructor at the school.

He said, “Oh, you are the principal who wrote a book and tells stories. I remember the stories you told.” And then he began telling back to me the very stories and points I had made so many months before.

Then he asked me something no one has ever asked before. “Can you tell me a story right now that is inspiring? Like one that would help someone not give up on a student they’re working with, for instance?”

I was surprised by the question, and thought for a few seconds. Then I told him a story about a student I once worked with who was an orphan–how discovering the joy of reading had given her something tangible to hold onto in a world that was often lonely and troubled. He listened intently, and finally said, “That was exactly what I needed to hear.“

On the way home, I told my wife that I felt uncomfortable and encouraged at the same time. It was a little disconcerting being asked to deliver inspiration on the spot, but it was also obvious that the power of storytelling is something that helps others grasp the deeper meaning in their own work with others.

The “art” in our lessons often causes the information we are sharing to become memorable.

Choir With Ms. Meyer

This idea came home to me again the other day when I was observing my choir teacher, Ms. Meyer, in action. She has announced her upcoming retirement, so when I came into the classroom for a formal observation, she announced to her students that this was her last formal visit. She had tears in her eyes as she told them how much she would miss teaching.

As I was observing, I decided to give her some feedback other than through the evaluation instrument we use for our teachers. Instead, I wanted to try to capture the moment so that she could she her work from someone else’s eyes.

Here’s what I wrote and sent her later:

“It’s hard to describe what it’s like to walk into a classroom when Ms. Meyer’s students are singing. Thirty voices of blending notes, pitches, harmonies–such a stark contrast from the quiet hallway outside her room. Students who may struggle in other settings flourish here; their faces lifted high and voices projecting with confidence.

And standing up front is Ms. Meyer, sleeves rolled up to her elbows, glasses perched on top of her head, lanyard of keys hung around her neck, and blond hair bouncing as she waves her hands. As her assistant Ms. Edens adds notes from the keyboard, Ms. Meyer dances in rhythm with the music and sings along.

Slowly, she is transforming a room full of students into a symphony of sound. She points, comments, and directs.  She closes her eyes and is caught in the wave of voices–like a child riding a wave at the ocean; she seems to be floating higher with each note.

Or like a rider leading her horse into a canter or gallop, she opens the reins and prompts them into a full run. Now they are moving at full speed, sopranos hitting higher, altos blending, tenors and basses adding layers. And Ms. Meyer is over them all, her hair flying back as she feels the rumble, lifts the sound, and leads them higher and higher. She is soaring. She is transported.

And just as suddenly, she stops them all. “All right,” she says, “We have three minutes. Watch your “e” vowels. Don’t pinch off the notes.” Like a coach to a team, she explains where they need to improve. And she makes them run the play again.”

Let’s Wrap This Up

If brain research has shown parts of the brain are triggered by music, then it makes sense that when we couple information with music, art, storytelling, or imagination, we are conveying more than just facts, we are also creating deeper understanding or even moments of awe.

If you sometimes wonder why your work is important, remember that education is more than just sharing information; as teachers or school leaders it is also creating or facilitating environments for learning moments that can become amazing moments–ones that reach into parts of the brain that none of us really understands but that can be stirred and triggered by something wonderful or awe-inspiring.

Now It’s Your Turn

What are ways you can encourage brain triggers in the lessons you share with others? How can you learn to recognize both the process and the inspiration that happen simultaneously in learning? How can we recognize and celebrate moments in our schools when good teaching inspires both sides of the brain?

Book Recommendation

If you want a great book recommendation on how to “hook” students with creative stories or scenarios, check out Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker