Thursday, May 31, 2012

Improving School Performance through Musical Training

 Does Musical Training Improve School Performance?  This was a research question posed by Wetter, Koerner & Schwaninger, and they published a report of their findings in Instructional Science: An International Journal Of The Learning Sciences (2009).  Yet, as a composer/playwright, and prior to my PhD coursework in Psychology, I had always thought the answer to this question was a resounding “YES!” because from what I have observed in the last thirty years of my life as an artist, it just seems like people who study the arts “know” more, or “think” more.  Yet, until scientific evidence is collected, The Arts in education have very little to stand on, and, in general, I find that education systems neither respect nor believe the voice of the artist.
During the last two years of my PhD coursework, I have focused my discussion posts around The Arts and how necessary and beneficial they are to human development.  For my most recent discussion post, I could not find an article with the right research methodology (multiple regression) that could contribute to a potential dissertation topic about lullabies, so I typed in multiple regression (the topic of the discussion) and music into the database search engine, and up popped a very interesting article that drew correlations between musical training and school performance (Wetter, Koerner  & Schwaninger, 2009). 
In a retrospective study, Wetter, Koerner & Schwaninger (2009) compared three groups of students (Grades 3 through 6): those who practiced music and those who did not, and those who participated in learning handicrafts.  They were careful to test all subjects (except sports) and took great care to consider socio-economic status (SES).  Using a multiple regression analysis, they found a positive correlation between continuous musical training and school performance, and that continuous musical training appears to help a student achieve and maintain high levels over time. 
Since the researchers were interested in the duration of musical training, they concentrated their study to participants from third through sixth grade.  They hypothesized that students who have studied longer would show greater strength than students who recently begin musical practice.  They present several sound options for the interpretation of their results by first offering the explanation that “there are no significant pre-existing or initial neural, cognitive, motor, or musical differences” (p. 371) between children before they choose to learn an instrument.  Secondly, they explain how more affluent parents can afford extra-curricular musical activities that enhance a child’s academic success, and third, they offer evidence that music activates cerebral regions of the brain involved in the processing of language.  By considering and addressing these elements in the design, the researchers were able to argue their points effectively.  The average scores reflected the advancement of student academic performance when paired with music instruction.
The article offers evidence to support reasons why we must keep and increase a child’s exposure to The Arts and encourage arts-based instruction in our classrooms.  If music and/or arts education is not provided to children, and especially to those in lower SES, where and when will these children have an opportunity to learn?   Won’t they be left behind? 
Based on this study, if musical instruction boosts academic performance as Wetter, Koerner & Schwaninger  (2009) suggest, then why is music the first to go when budgets are tight?  Wouldn’t tax dollars be better spent on arts instruction?  It certainly would seem be a more efficient (and responsible) approach.  So I challenge policy makers, parents and education administrators--everyone--with this question:  What would happen if our education systems made The Arts central in the design of its curriculum?  After all, isn’t one of the primary goals of education to increase academic achievement?  Without The Arts, it seems education will only be working ‘hard instead of smart’.

Wetter, O., Koerner, F., & Schwaninger, A. (2009). Does Musical Training Improve School Performance?. Instructional Science: An International Journal Of The Learning Sciences, 37(4), 365-374.