Saturday, April 25, 2015

How Music Can Improve Schools

There are a lot of disquieting trends in education these days--at least if you read the stories in the American press. The amount of spending keeps increasing inexorably while the educational results seem either frozen or in decline. Here is a graph of the numbers for Wisconsin that illustrates this:

Click to enlarge

A lot of solutions have been proposed, most of them, extremely ironically, arguing for increased spending! Of course increased spending benefits all the stakeholders in the system, teachers, administrators, textbook publishers, creators of educational software, food service companies and anyone else supplying goods and services. The only people left out, it seems, are the students. They are obviously not seeing any benefits here. For them, school remains, as Dawn so memorably averred in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a "big square building full of boredom and despair."

Therefore, it was with extreme interest that I read this story from Germany about how an underperforming school in a poor neighborhood was transformed due to the mere presence of classical musicians. Here is the story in a nutshell:
Eight years ago, one of Europe's best-known orchestras moved their rehearsal rooms to a secondary school on this housing estate and pupils from Tenever found themselves sharing their corridors and lunch tables with professional musicians.
Since then the school's results have improved, its drop-out rates have fallen to less than 1% and the atmosphere in the wider neighbourhood has been "transformed", according to Joachim Barloschky, a local official
No, the orchestral members are not engaged in teaching the students, but they interact on a daily basis:
what makes the partnership unique is the sheer volume of interactions between musicians and pupils. Whenever they are not playing, the musicians are based in the school.
They sit with pupils over lunch and talk to them about their lives. Pupils are allowed to watch the orchestra rehearse, sitting between the musicians rather than in front of them as an audience.
Stephan Schrader, a cellist, says:
"We do not try to be music teachers, but we let them see that we are normal people," says Mr Schrader. "I ask students about their families and tell them about mine.
"When they have a problem, I know about it. I am not the one who will find the solution, but I am one more adult person they have contact with." 
I imagine this story might be puzzling to many people, especially those involved with education. What exactly is going on here? Obviously the orchestral musicians have had a powerful positive influence on the school even though they are not professionally involved as teachers. So how does this work? I suspect that the best way to understand this is through the ancient concept of virtue. Virtue ethics, ultimately deriving from Aristotle, has seen a great revival in recent decades, but it is still far from being widely understood. The basic idea is that humans should lead a virtuous life which means to flourish according to their nature. Excelling at something, if it is a human good, is virtuous. Classical musicians then, with their combination of strict discipline and aesthetic sensitivity (all of which insulates them from shallow narcissism) are particularly good models of virtue. We learn virtue from people who exhibit it.

So it is entirely unsurprising to me that just being around orchestral musicians would exert a surprisingly large positive influence on schoolchildren. If they are constantly observing people working together in disciplined ways to achieve aesthetic goals, how can this not be positive? On the other hand, watching television, with its modeling of irrational, Dionysian excess will have the opposite effect, will it not? The classroom environment can also be positive or negative from a virtue ethics point of view.

Here is the orchestra in question, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, conducted by Paavo Jarvi:


Rickard Dahl said...

Well, specifically in the case of America (but probably other countries also) there is a problem with regards to bias against boys in education. Christina Hoff Sommers (who calls herself a feminist despite being far more of a MRA (Men's Rights Activist)) describes it shortly in this video: . I believe she also has a book on the subject. There is a certain number of things going on here:

1. Normal boy behavior is viewed as defective or problematic. Masculinity is viewed as something toxic rather than completely healthy. Boys are often (at least in America) put on drugs (such as Ritalin) to make them calmer and more obeying. These drugs not only suppress their normal behavior but also lead to brain damage through prolonged usage.

2. The school system has been tailored to girl's needs and most "boyish" things have been greatly reduced or removed.

3. The school system has a large number of female teachers. It has actually been shown in studies that female teachers tend to give girls better grades based on that they are girls.

4. Nowadays many boys lack male/masculine role models. Obviously a boy raised by a single mother lacks a male role model in the house. However there is also a clear lack of male teachers in the lower grades of education. One of the reasons is that there is a anti-male climate in schools. A completely normal male teacher is looked at with suspicion and there are in fact sometimes false accusations of child abuse leveraged against male teachers (think of the prejudice that a male teacher at a daycare is somehow a pedophile). These sort of things are obviously discouraging to any man who wants to pursue a line of work in education. Either way, the actual statistics show that 1/4 of all pedophiles are females. There are cases where a female teacher commits statutory rape on a student but receives a light sentence or even goes unpunished. In fact in one case the woman got pregnant and the boy was forced to pay child support. On a slightly different note it has been shown that for students of non-native ethnicities it actually is beneficial to have non-native teachers, it gives them role models and they perform better. I believe the same can be applied to boys and male role models. I'm not saying that there should be any quotas implemented (obviously the best people should do the work) but getting rid of this toxic anti-male climate would a good step in the right direction.

Maybe, just maybe, we should have specific schools for girls and specific schools for boys, given how boys and girls learn in different ways.

Anyways, it makes a lot of sense that the professional musicians were a positive influence in that school. They act after all like positive role models, both male and female in this case.

As for virtue ethics, yes, that is something to strive for. TV as a platform is obsolete (or soon will be) but there is nothing inherently wrong with movies, TV-series or documentaries etc. When striving for virtue it is however important to not indulge in these activities in excess. Rather they should be a reward for a successful day of striving for excellence. Basically: Don't procrastinate, achieve your daily goals and then you can indulge in various more frivolous activities.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well yes, in some places, not just the US, boys have special challenges in school because, as you say, the deck tends to be stacked against them. Perhaps this might be a reason to have separate schools. But that to one side, in the school that is the focus of the link, it is really not a gender issue as such.

Reading over what I wrote, I realize I should have said that no, musicians are certainly not perfect. But because of the demands of their profession, it tends to attract fairly serious people who also have certain talents and who undergo long and arduous training. But hey, they are still human with all the normal flaws. Someday I will tell the story of the orchestra with a principal French horn player and principal trumpet player who refused to tune to one another because of a bad breakup!

But to support your comment, I recently saw something in The Chronicle of Higher Education that is so viciously biased against men that you might think it is a satire:

Marc Puckett said...

Am sorry I have been so long in getting to read this. Whoever was responsible for taking the chance in Bremen and at the DKP should have the Bundesverdienstkreuz! The DKP's website says that they find on their own two thirds of their budget, which is phenomenonal in view of the truism that the Europeans rely on state support to maintain their cultural institutions. My own experience in the public schools system has equipped me with the ability to hear the teachers and bureaucrats hissing in outrage at us even thinking about this and similar possibilities.

That essay in CHE is amusing, intentionally serious or not, or would be if you didn't know that there are real people out there who think technologically manipulating the human person to achieve the goal of parthenogenesis is a great idea.