This year I had the pleasure of working with a student with significant learning difficulties. Over a period of several weeks I noticed something peculiar about the way she approached her classwork. When faced with a task that required more than one or two simple steps, she would become flustered. She was unable to simultaneously remain aware of the entire task and the set of steps into which it could be divided. Instead she would jump to the step that for whatever reason remained in her memory, either forgetting the others altogether or approaching them in an illogical order. And always with impatience; racing over the steps until they became a jumbled mess, presumably to avoid the consternation and frustration of repeated failures to understand.
Observing the pattern got me thinking about thinking. Many of the tasks set in schools demand the application of methodical reasoning on the part of students. In fact before the task has even begun the student must decode the instructions given into a set of logical steps that can then be followed. But what if the student is unable to do so? Unable to separate the big picture into smaller parts and hold each one in the mind simultaneously?
What we need is a way to train the mind to separate ideas into parts but to simultaneously retain the link that connects each of those parts. What we need is MUSIC!
In fact rational thinking has a lot in common with music. In music the notes are separated in time. Each note in each bar stands alone, but is also connected by the narrative of the piece. Without the separation of notes their would be no logic, no rhythm. It would become a jumbled mess. Separating the notes creates order from chaos, music from noise. It goes; 1 and 2 and 3 and 4; or this and that and this and that. We might call this kind of thinking, 'rhythmic thinking'.
So, armed with this hypothesis I took a marimba (xylophone) to school with me every day for three weeks. I soon discovered (to my great and grateful surprise) that the student loved being musical, but of course lacked timing altogether. Thus began our training in rhythmic thinking. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 - repeat. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. All the while banging away on the keys in whatever order she liked, so long as it remained in time.
At first she couldn't separate each count by the same distance every time. But with practice, patience, encouragement and inclusion, she eventually began counting in fours!
Music is a great teacher. It helps us to communicate, express ourselves, learn about the world and make sense of our thoughts. It may also hold some of the keys to assisting with the learning and reasoning process. To that end I continue to observe and document the effects of this kind of music play.
I will continue to explore teaching possibilities in combining musical experience with mathematics and reason, if you have any stories or comments, please share!