The arts of better learning

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Can the creative arts really unlock brain-power? The organisers of the Creativity, Music and the Mind conference being held in Glasgow today believe they can. Douglas Blane reports

Sitting beneath a large picture of Winnie the Pooh in an office at Strathclyde University, Katrina Bowes and Brian Boyd talk about Tapestry, an organisation that is telling teachers how to apply the latest research on the brain and learning in Scotland's classrooms.

At first sight, the two seem to personify a key aspect of the brain: the power gained when left and right halves co-operate. Ms Bowes, radiating enthusiasm, shows signs that the right half of her brain - the centre of intuition, creativity and artistic thought - is in control. On the other hand, Dr Boyd's neat, uncluttered office in the education faculty speaks plainly of a man in whom the left half of the brain - where maths, language and organisation skills reside - is dominant. However, the colourful picture of Pooh is a reminder that few things about people are as simple as they seem.

Tapestry was founded two years ago, following work on thinking skills that both lecturers did together in the faculty of education. Ms Bowes had the idea to set up an organisation that could bring to Scotland some of the biggest names in education and pass on the latest research into learning.

While other organisations are engaged in similar areas of continuing professional development, Tapestry has won a reputation for the range and scope of its international links.

"Tony Buzan (the originator of Mind Maps to unlock the brain's potential) has been here working with schoolchildren. He and Howard Gardner (Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University) are taking part in our conference, Creativity, Music and the Mind, as are Nigel Osborne, Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, Carla Hannaford, who wrote the book Smart Moves, Paul Robertson, who's done work on music and learning for Channel 4, and Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and author of The Art of the Possible.

"It is an incredible array of talent persuaded to come to Scotland to give presentations and workshops and work with us to produce training materials and modules for the chartered teacher programme."

What these internationally-renowned experts share is a belief in the power of the arts in general, and music in particular, to enrich education and enhance learning right across the curriculum.

The Mozart Effect has earned widespread publicity in the 10 years since California scientists first played a sonata to students and found their mathematical reasoning temporarily enhanced. That gave rise to the idea that music is not just immensely satisfying, but also a powerful path to better learning.

Various studies since then have seemed to show that classical music encourages the development of young brains, enhancing mathematical and verbal abilities.

Musicians with an interest in education welcome the Mozart Effect's recognition of the importance of music, while deprecating music's role of handmaiden to other subjects.

"I have no doubt there is a Mozart Effect," says Professor Osborne, "but it isolates a rather small area of effect in an art form that delivers its riches and rewards if you fully embrace it."

As a composer and teacher who has worked for many years with young people in war-ravaged Bosnia, Professor Osborne is delighted to be collaborating with Tapestry and taking part in the conference.

"We believe music and the creative arts, which have been a bit marginalised in the past couple of decades, have an important role to play in helping children with some of the problems they face today," he says. "Music can develop their self-confidence, their ability to communicate, their self-expression, their physical skills, their cognitive skills."

"In recent years, the pressures to bureaucratise, to take away education's flexibilities, have been considerable. We believe it is time to reclaim them, because that's where inspiration lies.

"Whatever has happened to Scottish education, her teaching profession has always retained a conscience and a sense of mission. That is what we are trying to stimulate with Tapestry."

Music is only one of several strands to improve learning ability that Tapestry is promoting. "Another is brain-based learning, what the latest research says about how to use our brains to their full potential," says Ms Bowes. "The third strand is health and well-being, which is about the effects on the brain of diet, exercise and what goes on in the body."

Tapestry aims to grab educators' imaginations through high-profile events and then turn principles into practice through workshops, accredited professional development training and in-school demonstrations.

At Tapestry's last conference, held at Jordanhill in March, Professor Gardner gave a presentation about multiple intelligences. "I had been reading about these for years," says Dr Boyd, a former English teacher, "but it wasn't until I heard him that I realised how I could use multiple intelligences in the classroom.

"Gardner's suggestion was that they can be entry points to learning. If a child is unable to learn despite our best efforts, we should use one of these intelligences - music, movement, group working and so on - as an entry point.

"He has produced a simple questionnaire that gives a profile of a person's intelligences, and it is fascinating what it shows."

For the majority of primary teachers, interpersonal intelligence is dominant, says Dr Boyd, while linguistic and logical, mathematical intelligences - traditionally those needed to do well in school - are not particularly strong in any group, whether teachers, pupils or parents.

"Interpersonal or music or kinaesthetic intelligences are far more likely to be dominant. Which means that the Scottish curriculum - in fact, most school curriculums - are actually geared to a minority of learners."

Tapestry's long term aspirations are to weave together a rich variety of new and existing learning threads.

"We have a proposal to set up an institute for creativity and learning which would focus all these efforts and ensure the latest research gets into the classroom where it can change people's lives," says Ms Bowes.

"The Scottish Executive is very interested. So too are directors of education and we are now working with 18 education authorities.

"In East Ayrshire, for example, we are collaborating with teachers to develop a family learning pack that will implement all these ideas about creativity and the brain in lessons for pre-five kids. I believe family-centred, rather than child-centred, learning is the way ahead."

Dr Boyd points out that a large number of schools are already employing some of the principles Tapestry promotes.

"There is a bit of scepticism about creativity and better learning among teachers and schools, who are told, on the one hand, to be flexible and, on the other, that they're not a good school if they don't hit their targets.

"I believe teachers will come on board when they feel they are trusted but we are not there yet. Right now, the messages they are getting from inspectors are mixed."

So where does Winnie the Pooh fit in to all of this?

"When I'm doing in-service training, I like to quote the first lines of the book," explains Dr Boyd. " 'Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.'

"Education is like that. As teachers, we often know there is another way, a better way, but we can't stop bumping long enough to think of it."


In 1993, scientists played a Mozart sonata to college students at the University of California and measured a temporary increase in their spatial-temporal reasoning. This was the called the Mozart Effect.

Tens of thousands of parents, keen to improve their children's life chances, have since played classical music to infants, toddlers and unborn children.

Evidence for the effectiveness of the Mozart Effect remains scanty and inconclusive, but what is undisputed is that music is a life-enhancing pursuit that rewards those who play, those who create and those who merely listen.


Youngsters once came in three types: those of high intelligence, those of low intelligence, and an undistinguished mass in the middle. The science behind this was deeply flawed but the conviction that it must be true was pervasive and persistent.

Doubts had been growing for some time when Howard Gardner in 1983 proposed that humans have not one intelligence but seven, and that they are not fixed from birth but can increase or diminish in response to a wide range of influences.

Since then, the number of intelligences has changed but the basic idea that each of us possesses many has not. At the last count, the intelligences were: verbal, mathematical, musical, kinaesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist and existential.

www.thirteen.orgedonlineconcept2classmonth1 THE TWO SIDES OF THE BRAIN

Until the 1970s, neuroscientists believed only the left half of the brain, the home of verbal and mathematical skills, was intelligent, while the right half was mute, illiterate and mentally retarded.

The discovery by Roger Sperry, the Nobel Prize-winning American psychobiologist, that the right hemisphere of the brain was as smart as the left but in totally different ways came as a revelation. It was a vital step in raising appreciation of non-verbal, non-analytic skills and a big influence on the multiple intelligences theory.

Tony Buzan, with his idea of Mind Maps, has done more than anyone to popularise the theory that we can all unlock the hidden power of our brains by playing to the strengths of both halves and nurturing the bonds between them.


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