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Sing when you're winning

A tuneful approach to learning is helping pupils to retain knowledge. Beth Noakes reports

When maths teacher Nick Windsor heard sixth-formers at a Woking comprehensive singing a familiar song that he had taught them in Year 10, he was delighted.

"I use tunes to remember facts, and I'd taught them this song about calculating the area of the trapezium," says Mr Windsor. "The cheesier the song the more it sticks in their heads. They were taking the mickey - but they had remembered it."

Pupils at St John the Baptist Catholic comprehensive are used to walking into a classroom to the sound of the William Tell overture or learning French accompanied by Pink Panther theme music. The school uses music to enhance learning in many areas of the curriculum.

"It started on an in-service training day when a tutor, Alistair Smith, mentioned that using music was very effective for accelerated learning," says Stella Gavriel, head of music. "He said it can really connect learners to lessons. I thought it would be a good thing to share with other staff how music could be used."

The school puts a high priority on learning as opposed to teaching, and on meeting the needs of pupils with different learning styles. Staff are keen to investigate alternative approaches that will engage more children, while making learning exciting and fun.

"I use music in most lessons to a varying extent," says Mr Windsor. "Every two weeks we tend to move on to a new maths topic, and I'll often make up a song to summarise what they've learned about the topic."

The school uses music for two specific purposes: to get students in the right mood for learning, and to help them learn by connecting familiar tunes to new concepts.

All the classrooms have interactive whiteboards linked up to speakers, and Miss Gavriel produces CDs of music for different moods. Inspirational music, such as the Mission Impossible theme, can energise pupils and make them ready for action, while relaxing classical music such as Pachelbel's Canon can calm them down.

"It can become a tool for positive behaviour management," says Miss Gavriel.

The Benny Hill theme tune gives the message that a brisk, fun session is about to begin. Successful test results might be given out with Queen's We are the Champions as inspirational background music.

"I often use music they don't recognise," says assistant head Rob Carter.

"It can be more effective that way. I've found very quickly that they don't ask questions but just respond to the music.

"At this school we're always open to innovative ideas. We're constantly thinking of ideas for accelerating learning. At staff meetings 'learning and teaching' always takes up 40 minutes of the hour. This is how we have time to think of things like this and share ideas.

"We're finding that using music like this taps into one of the areas of the brain you don't usually make use of. It's been well rehearsed that listening to Mozart can develop the brain: if you like, we are moving on from Mozart."

It is not an instant process for either staff or students.

"You have to educate students to respond to music appropriately," says Mr Carter. "The best teachers can get them from an excited to a calm state very quickly. But there's a risk that staff could misunderstand it and turn into a glorified DJ."

So Miss Gavriel has run Inset sessions with heads of departments on how music can enhance learning, and staff have responded with enthusiasm.

They teach songs to help pupils remember key words or formulas, and students create raps to display their knowledge. SoYear 7 pupils can be heard singing German songs they have learned, while Year 9s compose their own raps to demonstrate their vocabulary.

Historians compose slavery raps and geographers sing about rainforests.

Pupils studying the war poets listen to their teacher singing protest songs to a guitar accompaniment.

"In music lessons, when pupils are composing a song, they could make up lyrics related to another subject, such as maths," says Ms Gavriel. "If they've written the words and the music they really remember it."

Music has an important part to play in kinaesthetic learning. In science, for example, students may learn about the difference between the behaviour of molecules in solid, liquid and gaseous form by moving about in groups.

Slow background music represents solids. It quickens as the groups become liquids, and becomes more manic as groups representing gas molecules bounce off each other. The students are having a great time, and they remember what they have learned.

"I often use a visual stimulus as well as music, such as a movie clip," says Mr Windsor. "It's a powerful way of recalling what you've learned.

We're competing for the attention of the MTV generation.

"They're used to dozens of TV channels plus the internet. Children can talk on the phone, watch TV and do their homework at the same time."

It is early days yet. There are plans for a questionnaire asking all the staff how they use music, and a week where teachers can observe each other in action. Over the next year, says Mr Carter, they expect the use of music to take off in the school.

"Hearing people talking about what they have done really makes you want to try it," says Miss Gavriel.

Name: St John the Baptist school, Woking, Surrey. School type: Catholic comprehensive and specialist language college. Results: 2000 - 68 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSE A*-C grades.

2005 - 80 per cent gained five or more A*-C grades

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