My left-field lesson - Plant ideas with music

How karaoke in science can aid understanding of photosynthesis

"As homework, Miss? Are you for real?" said James, his eyes opening wide.

"Yes," I replied, with a smile that was even wider. "I want you to learn this song at home. Next Monday, we will have a karaoke session and I want the class to sing the song with me."

My students left with puzzled looks on their faces. It was, after all, a biology lesson.

The reason for my request was that during my teacher training, I had developed an interest in Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences theory. Gardner challenges the traditional idea that intelligence is about cognitive or mental ability, resulting from a single factor that can be measured by IQ tests.

Instead, he argues that the human brain has a set of talents or mental skills that all individuals can access to a greater or lesser extent. He divides these intelligences into discrete categories including linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily kinaesthetic and musical.

In this context, musical intelligence is described as being central to human experience. Working from this assumption, I decided to focus on the promotion of musical intelligence to teach part of the biology curriculum. And so began a series of music-based lessons on photosynthesis.

For their first task, my students had to learn an introductory rap about the topic. At the beginning of the next lesson, I waited for them at the classroom door. As soon as they began to arrive, I launched into a spot of karaoke. They looked at me incredulously when I started to sing - and as I had expected, none of them joined in.

However, the smiles on my students' faces were satisfying and the atmosphere in class was relaxed. The lesson then proceeded as normal. After 20 minutes, my student James stood up and interjected, saying: "Miss, I know the name of the enzyme involved in carbon fixation. It's RuBisCO, just like in the song." He smiled proudly.

In the second lesson, I grouped students at four stations around the classroom and asked them to compose a song on "the fate of glucose" by selecting information from several resources I had provided. They all shared their songs and, to my surprise, the best performer was Ryan, one of the shyest boys in the class.

"I would never ask you to do something that I wouldn't be keen to do myself," I said when I introduced the third lesson. The pupils were silent as I performed the song I had composed about the rate of photosynthesis. But as soon as I had finished, applause and laughter erupted. The lesson continued in a relaxed and cheerful mood.

At the end of the topic, I once again asked students to learn a song for homework, summarising the main points they had learned. Then the class took the same test on photosynthesis that all the other biology groups in their year were sitting. The results were far more positive for those who had been taught with music.

The pupils also completed a survey about the lessons: they all agreed that the use of music had helped to increase their understanding of difficult concepts, promote information retention and make learning more enjoyable. A recurring theme in the survey answers was best summarised by one student's comment: "I find it easier to remember songs than to remember big bits of information."

Gabriella Gibson teaches at Holyrood Secondary School in Glasgow

10 ways to use rap to boost learning

1. Rap mechanics

Discussing the poetic devices used within rap music is an accessible introduction to the study of poetry.

2. Cell spectacular

This rap-based resource acts as a memory aid for students learning about the different parts of a cell.

3. Memory MC

Inspire enthusiasm for the perfect tense in French lessons and challenge students to write raps that will give them a head start on remembering tenses.

4. PEEs and Qs

Introduce point-evidence-explain (PEE) paragraphs using a simple rap that will help students get to grips with the technique.

5. Battle rap

Test students' knowledge and understanding of the First World War by asking them to write raps that explore the causes of the conflict.

6. Sesame songs

Sesame Street's Elmo sings a rocking rap that will help small children to remember the letters of the alphabet.

7. Beats and bonds

These posters use rhythm, rhyme and actions to provide a fun and interactive reminder of number bonds for younger pupils.

8. That's a rap

Support students to reach their writing targets in English by creating mini raps, which act as memory aids for types of punctuation.

9. Rhyme time

Get the creative juices flowing in your class with this Teachers TV clip on rapping about school meals.

10. Rapper's delight

This rap is designed for younger students and introduces ideas about dressing appropriately for cold weather.

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