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Good vibrations: sound and silence in education

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Good vibrations: sound and silence in education

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In this edition of Learning World we explore how what we hear – and sometimes what we don’t hear – affects our ability to learn as well as our overall educational progress

We look at the effect of rhythm in Jerusalem, and hundreds of kilometres away in Hong Kong we drop in on a special drumming session.

But first we visited Scotland, to see how the ‘sound of silence’ can bring peace and calm to school children.

The sound of silence

Some people say silence is golden, others prefer the “whistle while you work” approach. But could a combination of both actually be the best bet? We explore how sound can make a difference to learning outcomes.

Silence is often used to help concentration and meditation. In Buddhism, for example, it is thought to quiet the mind and purify the soul and Buddha is reputed to have stayed silent for an entire week. We look at what happened in one Scottish classroom when the teacher imposed periods of mindful, calming silence.

Noise is emerging as the largest environmental nuisance in Europe according to the World Health Organisation. Studies show that exposure to excessive levels can impair cognitive performance in children.

Schools in the UK are responding with silence. At Fettes College in Edinburgh, the pupils swap pads and pens for pillows and blankets as part of their mindfulness exercises.

Flora, who takes part in the exercises, says school can sometimes be overwhelming: “You can find yourself going and not really realising what’s happening in the day, you’re on autopilot but it makes you stop and think and feel ‘Is there anything wrong with you’ – how do you feel and stuff.”

Another pupil, Catherine, seems convinced it is having an effect: “My parents think it’s really good because they know that I’m kind of a stressed out person, I’m a big stress pot, I get myself really worked up about small things, so I think they have actually noticed a big change in me after using them”.

Originating from Buddhist teachings, mindfulness is just one type of silence technique which has won favour in British schools.

Teacher Debbie Spens, who leads the exercises, told euronews: “It’s focusing their attention on the here and now. So they’re very much thinking about their breathing and calming themselves down – and knowing the moments where they are under stress and the stress points in their bodies. They can recognise when they are under stress, and recognise when they might need to just calm down and take time out, and they have the wherewithal to do it with the different exercises they learn through the course”.

Research shows that silence practices can improve exam results, self-esteem and even combat bad behaviour.

For the advocates of silence, it is an absence with a function, providing an antidote to the strong culture of assessment found in many UK schools.

Rhythm revolution

Many people suffer from war traumas and music is one way to help them recover. But could using music also improve teaching technique? And what about using music to help students with their studies? Learning World headed to Shuafat Palestinian camp in East Jerusalem, home to about 35,000 refugees, to find out.

Afaf Titi is a teacher and has lived in the camp for the past 15 years. Over a period of two weeks, she attended a music workshop where she learnt how to use music and sounds in the classroom.

“It changed me a lot,” she said of the experience. “I was very shy. When it was my turn to move my body in the workshop, I didn’t know what to do, because I wasn’t used to it. But now I can create a few moves and I’ve become a leader with my students.”

Three times a week, Afaf attends the music workshop in Bethlehem with other teachers. For the last six years the NGO Musicians without Borders has been teaching in this part of the world how music and sounds can act as an aid to teaching and learning.

The trainers give teachers and social workers new activities and tools that they can use in their daily work. They use a combination of song, dance, body percussion and musical games.

Liz Coombes, from Musicians without Borders, told euronews about what the workshops can achieve: “I think it’s a fantastic way to become confident. It’s a way to experiment and explore and be really creative. And as we know, being able to be creative in things is a great way to learn.”

And her colleague Fabienne Van Eck believes it is not just the students who can benefit: “Some activities we do also help the teachers to relax, to take care of themselves, because especially here in Palestine, it’s not easy to work in schools. There are many issues, there are many problems, so, also the teachers need to take care of themselves, or the social workers.”

Palestinian women learn how to move, to use their voice and their body as an instrument to create music. This workshop helped Afaf to express herself better.

Asaf Titi expressed the freedom the workshops bring: “In our tradition, speaking in a raised voice is forbidden. As females, we also can not move however we want to. This is down to our education in conservative Palestinian society. But when you are with the kids at school, you can use movement in the way you want, you forget it’s forbidden. In fact, I realise that it’s not forbidden, it’s only our education that makes everything forbidden.”

Afaf teaches a primary class in a school in East Jerusalem. This morning she taught the children to count and write letters by using a number of musical activities. Afaf notices that the kids have more focus and greater concentration. All of them participate.

She has started up a revolution in her school. Due to the success of this musical education approach, her workmates also want to attend the next music workshop in leadership training.

Drumming it in

Danish researchers say that polyrhythms can stimulate parts of the brain which help us concentrate. So can learning to drum be a good way of developing your academic abilities? We met one drummer who was convinced that drumming expands the brain. Learning World dropped in to Hong Kong to find out more.

When a rock and roll drummer walked into the classroom, drumming was suddenly thrown into the spotlight. In one particular music school in Hong Kong, drumming is a serious business.

Chris Brien teaches drumming with a dedicated aim. He says that learning to play one rhythm with the left hand, while simultaneously playing a different one with the other, develops the brain’s capacity to think clearly. And this spills over into other subjects, meaning that accomplished drummers often do well in other subjects.

More and more educational experts agree.

Chris gave euronews his views on how drumming expands learning: “When you play the drums, particularly if you play polyrhythmic rhythms, when you’re playing, what is does, is it engages many of the brain systems, more than any other activity known to science. And in saying this, the drum set is obviously a beneficial form of education which music schools and schools in general around the world, most of them have overlooked.”

Educational experts worldwide agree that developing learning abilities in one area enables people to learn other subjects better too.

“Because of what is happening in the brain; so many things happening with the body, which engages so many of the brain’s systems simultaneously, they become more aware, they become much more confident, and they start to see that because they’re doing something that is difficult and a lot of fun, they see the world very differently and they develop what I call “creative maturity” and it passes onto all aspects of their lives. So, it’s particularly good for younger people who are going through school who are being bogged down with a lot of homework or peer pressure and it’s a wonderful thing, and it happens with all of my students who do well,” Chris explained.

He outlined the case for the link between drumming and success: “All of my students who do well on drums – which is many of my students – they’re all on top of their grades, they’re very confident, they keep away from drugs and alcohol, they know what they want to do with their lives, they don’t waste their time on video games. They excel in their lives, and this is all due to drums. It can’t be a coincidence, because they all do it.”

Research conducted by scientists at the University of Toronto shows that when a child’s brain is engaged in playing different rhythms with their two hands and their feet, it improves concentration and even IQ.

Thanks for your comments on our social media pages. Lots of you say that “Wisdom, knowledge, and patience” can be learned from silence and Farida Meriem says silence can also improve critical thinking. Do you agree?

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