The power of music

Many people have written about the power of music to move us. For example, George Eliot wrote “there is no feeling that does not find relief in music”, whilst Martin Luther is reputed to have said “my heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been so laced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.” My personal Headteacher hero, Albus Dumbledore, reflecting on a performance of the Hogwarts school song, was moved to tears in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes, “A magic beyond all which we do here!

Lucy, Joe and Reuben at the Christmas Concert

At the Churchill Music! Young Musician of the Year competition at St John’s Church on Monday evening, I was moved beyond measure by the performances I heard. At the event, I shared my thoughts about the power of music in other ways. Firstly, playing a musical instrument actually improves your brain. A recent study by Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in America, for example, showed that “music training changes the course of adolescent brain development” leading to significant gains in literacy. The theory is that in learning an instrument, you are training your brain to hear subtle differences in sound, which reinforces and strengthens your ability to process language. An earlier study from Harvard University showed the “links between musical training and enhanced cognitive skills” – in particular the executive functions of our brain’s frontal lobe which “allow for planned, controlled behaviour” according to the study’s author, Nadine Gaab. There is a wealth of research that shows that learning and playing a musical instrument has a raft of benefits for brain function, learning and intelligence.

Another benefit to playing a musical instrument is that it teaches us the power of collaboration. Of course, we can sing and play alone, and solos can be hugely powerful, but music is meant to be shared. Even a soloist is usually accompanied, and anyone who has sung in a choir or played in a band or orchestra will tell you that the shared experience of making music together is unrivalled. The discipline of listening to one another, adjusting what you are doing to match those around you, shifting your own performance to contribute to the whole, teaches us so much about selflessness and teamwork, and how we are so much more together than the sum or our parts.

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Playing together unleashes the power of music

The other great bonus to playing an instrument is the practice. I’m not sure if the performers will agree as they attempt three octaves of a C# minor arpeggio for the tenth time, but to get good – really good – at a musical instrument takes hours and hours of practice, day after day, week after week. The famous concert pianist Artur Rubenstein said “don’t tell me how talented you are; tell me how hard you work.” This was his way of articulating Stephen King’s notion that “the difference between a talented individual and a successful one is a lot of hard work.” The work ethic of learning a music instrument teaches discipline, dedication and determination which transfer to all other aspects of your life. It takes a lot of all three to get through those early, squeaky, scratchy stages to the bit where it starts to sound like music!

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Practice makes perfect

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, making music teaches you to feel. The wonder of a performance is that it brings the wood and metal of the instruments, and the space of the venue to life in an experience that only that audience and that performer will ever share. Musicians interpret dots and lines on a page, often written down hundreds of years ago in countries far from our own, and channel the emotions that those composers felt though themselves in a way which is unique, and all the more powerful for it.

In St John’s Church on Monday I was struck by the skill with which these talented young people were able to make an emotional connection through their instruments to the audience, transporting them through centuries and over miles to different places, different times. It was a privilege to be there and a lesson to us all to pick up an instrument and stick with it. It’s worth it.

The power of praise

I’ve really enjoyed meeting parents and families of students at the Academy over the past fortnight, and it’s been great to get such positive feedback about the work we do. It’s a real privilege to work with such an engaged, interested support from home and it makes all the difference!

One thing that I shared at the “Meet the Headteacher” evenings was a summary of a study completed by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, into the impact of praise on children. She had a theory that the type of praise you gave a child had a big impact on their achievement. The study is summarized in this video from the United States:

In the study, Dweck gave students an IQ test and praised the students in two ways. The first group was praised for their intelligence: “well done, you must be really smart at this.” The second group was praised for their effort: “well done, you must have worked really hard at this.” What she found was remarkable. The students who were praised for their intelligence were less likely to take on a more challenging test afterwards, more likely to lie about their scores, more likely to give up easily, and actually ended up doing worse on a final IQ test. In contrast, the group who were praised for their effort were much more likely to take on a more challenging task, less likely to give up, and ended up improving their scores on the final test. Why should this be?

Dweck’s theory is that praise for intelligence can create what she calls a “fixed mindset” where learners create an image of themselves – I am really smart at this. This self-image works against learning because the students don’t want to jeopardise that image, the thing that has gained them praise, because they perceive that it is the thing that adults value about them. Therefore they are less likely to push themselves to a more challenging task because, if they fail, they will no longer be “really smart at this” and therefore they will be a failure. 

Contrast this with the group praised for their effort. Dweck’s theory suggests that this type of praise can create a “growth mindset” where learners see that effort is what is valued by the adults – their strategies, approaches and attitudes – rather than the outcome. Therefore taking on a difficult task is more likely to get them praise because they will need to try hard. If they fail, they will have failed the task, but they will not be a failure, because they will still have done what got them the praise in the first place – tried hard.

It’s a really thought-provoking study! How often have I said to my own children, either at home or in my classrooms, “you’re so brilliant at this!” or “you’re so clever!” Have I actually been undermining them in my attempts to build them up? I want them to take on difficult challenges, to persevere, and not to be put off when things get difficult. That’s why, now, I’m very careful to praise the strategies and the effort that I see – the process – rather than the person. By ensuring that students understand that it was their approach and their attitude that made them successful, rather than some innate quality that is part of them, it means that they can transfer that approach and attitude to other situations and be successful there, too. Why not try it?

Growth vs Fixed Mindsets

You can learn anything

In my introductory assemblies with students I have begun to explain what I believe about learning. Much of what I believe is summed up in this video from the Khan Academy:

What I like about this video is that it reminds us about the learning process: “nobody’s born smart; we all start at zero.” It can be off-putting to see experts who find what we are beginning to learn easy, but they were once beginners too – “there was a time when Einstein couldn’t count to ten, and Shakespeare had to learn his A, B, Cs just like the rest of us.” When we are struggling with a concept, a new idea or a skill that we are finding challenging, it can be comforting to remember that others – who find it easy now – struggled when they were first starting out. Struggling, finding it difficult, and having to try really hard are all signs that we are learning. If we don’t have to struggle, chances are we already knew how to do it.

The other thing I really like about this video is the way that it emphasises how important the attitude of the learner is. If a learner is put off by difficulties and mistakes, or gives up if they don’t understand things straight away, they will not succeed. However, a learner who understands that mistakes, difficulties and struggles are helpful in the learning process is more likely to grow: “each wrong answer [is] making your brain a little bit stronger. Failing is just another word for growing, and you keep going. This is learning, knowing that you’ll get it even if you haven’t got it yet.” The truth is, you only fail when you’ve given up. Until then, everything is learning.

Young boy reading book in a ruined bookshop in London devastated by an air raid - 1940

You’ve only fail when you’ve given up. Until then, everything is learning.

The final reason that this video resonates with me is that lightbulb moment: “one day, you walk.” For a teacher, watching the moment when a student gets it is what makes the job worthwhile. And the most important thing is that the learning process is completed by the learner themselves. It’s our job as teachers to create the right conditions for learning – the resources, the culture, the climate – but it’s the students who do the work. When a learner puts the effort in, struggles, fails, keeps going, tries again, tries a different way, then stops, thinks…and it clicks…that’s the moment we teach for.

For students at Churchill Academy, having the right attitude to learning is vital. We expect students to make mistakes, to get things wrong, and to find it hard – that’s the sign that they’re learning. The mark of a successful learner is one who keeps going, keeps trying, keeps putting the effort in until they’ve got it. I’ve seen evidence of this across the Academy again and again this week, and long may it continue.

Meet the Headteacher evenings

All families should have received an invitation to my “Meet the Headteacher” evenings which start this week. I am holding these events to introduce myself to you in person, so you can find out a bit more about me, what I stand for and my plans for the Academy going forward. I am also very interested to hear the views of families about the current strengths and areas for development for the Academy, and ideas about our future priorities. The evenings take place as follows:

  • Wednesday 13th January: Hanover
  • Thursday 14th January: Stuart
  • Wednesday 20th January: Tudor
  • Thursday 21st January: Windsor
  • Sixth Form parents – any of the above evenings (please let us know which one!)

Each meeting will begin at 6pm in the Hall. There will be a presentation from me of about half an hour, followed by an opportunity to feedback your views and for more informal discussions to take place. Please reply to the email invitation if you are planning to attend, so we have an idea of numbers. If you wish to attend a different evening to the one allocated to your House, please let us know. I look forward to meeting you.

Welcome from Mr Hildrew

Happy New Year! I’m delighted to have joined the Academy as Headteacher, and I’ve been hugely impressed by the warm welcome, hard work, dedication and commitment shown by the students and staff in this first week.

Chris Hildrew

One of my first projects as Headteacher is to review home-school communication. With this in mind we are re-developing our newsletter – you can see the first edition here! We’re also redesigning our website and looking at how we use social media to communicate. Much more on this to follow – watch this space!