Music, Emotion, & Learning

I heard a story on U2 X-Radio (SiriusXM) about a 6th grade geography teacher framing an Ireland geography lesson, and then eventually a whole unit on European geography, with U2 songs. He starting simply with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from the Joshua Tree Album – the greatest rock/pop album ever – and I’ll fight you on this. After this initial experiment, it has evolved into a whole unit using multiple U2 songs.

He didn’t even really use the song, just the title stating, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…the capital of Ireland.” And then using a lyric from the song, “I’m cold as a stone and I’m floating in the sea off the north coast of Ireland.” I may not be remembering the second one exactly right, and he gave other examples I can’t recall but you get the point. It’s not exactly deep thinking he’s after here. He’s teaching geography facts with these examples, which, let’s be honest can be pretty boring and is often the kind of information students rent long enough to pass a test, but then soon forget.

The first time he did this was with just one class out of multiple as a little experiment. In one he used the U2 song as the starting point and really just as a clever way to word questions and frame tasks, and taught as he always had in his other sections. Students in the “U2” class did much better on the assessments of these geography facts than their peers in other sections.

Let’s talk about what’s happening here and why a song (and then eventually many songs) that I’m guessing 6th graders don’t really care about might impact learning. I’m not sure when he first began doing this, but even if it was 35 years ago, I don’t think 6th graders were big U2 fans, but that’s actually unimportant as we’ll see.

He made it interesting and fun, or at least novel as compared to how a geography class probably normally looked for students. Even if the students didn’t know the song, they know music and they can see when a teacher is being playful with learning.

He created an inviting atmosphere and utilized both positive emotions and prior experience as a starting point. When we do this, the amygdala creates a file folder of sorts or like a desktop shortcut on a computer leading to the new file or information. The human brain needs to do this to store the information and later retrieve it. It does this by connecting the new input to existing experiences or emotions. This serves to organize it in the brain instead of it being like a box of unorganized files. The more modalities used to take in the information–auditory, visual, etc., the more “shortcuts” on the brain’s desktop made, making it easier to find that “file” later and use that information.

On a side note, learning styles (“I’m an auditory learning” or a “visual learner”) isn’t really a thing like so many teachers and students think it is. By allowing students to pigeonhole themselves to one modality of taking in information they actually limit how many “shortcuts” the brain makes to that information. Individuals may have a preference for one over the other, but the more variety a teacher can provide a student to learn something, the more enduring the learning will be.

This teacher was using something he loved and using that, and that enthusiasm to make learning playful with his students. Mammals learn by play and play creates positive emotions and a release of corresponding endorphins. He tapped into this, building on those positive emotions, creating a safe space to learn.

So, we’ve got two things happening here. Connecting new learning to a positive emotion and experience and creating an inviting, playful space in which to learn. The novelty of this brings up something troubling for me. The teachers I work with often describe students by the end of the day “downshifting” or shifting even into fight or flight mode as they essentially shut down due to stress and pressure of the school day. This leaves them operating in a kind of safe mode to make it to the end of the day.

This brings us back to the amygdala and how the human brain learns and takes in information. The first thing the brain does when getting new stimuli is assess risk. Actually the brain is always assessing risk first and foremost. If the stress hormones are elevated the reticular activating system and amygdala set aside anything not having to do with survival and funnel all remaining stimuli to the lower brain which is only concerned about survival. It doesn’t take actual risk, just perception of risk to cause the brain to shift to fight or flight mode and for then the RAS to hijack any stimuli not deemed necessary for survival and essentially shut down the higher order thinking and focus solely on lower brain survival instincts. So, us adults minimizing it or telling kids to just toughen up does no good. Once in that mode, nothing is learned, no matter how cleverly taught.

What are we doing in our schools and in society resulting in kids operating in survival mode by the end of the school day?

And if you are needing now to hear the song, Here’s the original music video from 1987 with all its glorious Edge guitar echo and reverb and Bono’s over the top emotion and showmanship. Fabulous.

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