Learning music can increase thinking skills, enrich strategies for learning and creativity, and enhance connections across subjects. We keep discovering more reasons to foreground music education in our schools. So why haven’t state governments acted to support music education and reform?
As I see it, music education has now been in the ‘too hard basket’ for at least a generation of Australian students. We continue to suffer a malaise in long-term governmental policy direction.
Lack of funding – heads in the sand
It’s been 14 years since the 2005 National review of school music education “recommended placing a priority on improving and sustaining the quality and status of music education in schools and providing sufficient funding to support effective music education”.
The 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into the extent, benefits and potential of music education in Victorian schools made 17 recommendations to improve music education in Victoria. A future direction of the inquiry was for the “Victorian Government needing to develop a music education strategy to ensure that all Victorian students can have the opportunity to experience a quality school music education program.” This too remains patently neglected.
The South Australian government is acting on compelling benefits by committing to a four-year strategy of investment and impact for long-term outcomes to lift music education in early-years classes, teacher upskilling and resource development in that state.
Yet, most states endure cuts to music education, and in Victoria government funding of instrumental music education has not improved in over 20 years. The number of schools and students in Australia with no instrumental music tuition available continues to increase.
Many Victorian students in government schools, along with students in other government schools around the country, do not receive a continuous, sequential and developmental music education.
When it comes to music education, there are stark differences in equity between public and private schools, and urban and rural centres nationally.
How music impacts wider domain learning
A growing body of evidence supports the developmental benefits of music learning. Findings from recent neuroscientific research have highlighted the benefits music making has on learners’ brains. It helps develop:
- their capacity to work faster and more efficiently
- ability to tap into multiple skill sets,
- creativity, as well as
- linguistic neural connections between language and music that prime neural networks for learning.
A recent 2019 Canadian study of over 112,000 secondary students found that students who participate in music-related activities – particularly instrumental music between years 7-12 achieved significantly higher scores on science, math, and English exams in high school than non-musical classmates.
So parents’ growing concern with maths and science education, instead of music, may be an ill-considered approach to their child’s schooling. Responding to parental urge to encourage a maths/science or music learning, the study asserted:
the irony that music education—multiple years of high-quality instrumental learning and playing in a band or orchestra or singing in a choir at an advanced level—can be the very thing that improves all-around academic achievement and an ideal way to have students learn more holistically in schools.
How does music enhance learning?
- Learning an instrument and playing in a band enhances diverse modes of thinking and cognition. Music tuition is replete with formative feedback and assessment, where teachers continually assess and give feedback during the learning process. Consistent expert demonstration, feedback and dialogue develops a powerful learning relationship that promotes self-efficacy and motivation to learn. Research behind the Australian Teachers Toolkit asserts formative assessment can advance a students’ learning by 8 months over their high school life.
- The learning environment and teacher dynamic greatly support metacognition, where students ‘learn how to learn’. They develop reflective skills (thinking about what they have learned) and reflexive skills (responding immediately to feedback), behaviours and specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning to get better. Additionally, this cultivation of personal impulses and self-regulation of learning nuanced socially by band/ensemble activity can additionally advance learning by 7 months.
- It immerses learners in authentic interdisciplinary learning by integrating languages, maths, science and other arts in a sequential, creative, reflective and purposeful learning adventure.
- Music tuition offers a way for students to grapple with emotions and learn how to express them as they mature. They experience teamwork and an understanding of collective good and how to develop it, including goal-setting, motivation and ambition and how to attain it, and artistic creation for its intrinsic value.
- The “neurological benefits of music education and its contribution to personal and skills development” were showcased in the ABC TV series ‘Don’t Stop the Music’. The support and development of this production was assisted by the Australian Society for Music Education (ASME), the peak body supporting music education and advocacy nationwide.
- Further, my research on the learning processes involved in acquiring improvisational musical skills shows how effective music education develops layered metacognitive capacities for learning and creativities across individual, teacher-to-student and group/ensemble activities.
Start purposefully and early
The late Richard Gill, renowned artistic director of the Sydney Symphony education program, asserted that music holds the key to providing a quality education system. General education can be greatly enhanced by music education, but impactful and habitual learning of music needs to start early.
Most Australian primary school Initial Teacher Education (ITE) courses include an average of 28 hours of music learning - this pales in comparison to training in music education in South Korea with 160 hours and Finland with 270 hours. In Finland music learning starts in kindergarten as an essential part of early childhood learning.
An increased allocation of funding together with a more equitable outreach to primary and secondary schools for instrumental music can start to turn the tide in government/private school inequity. The significance of music departments in private schools highlights their awareness to the benefits. Yet government attitudes seem to be that music, and the arts in general, are a luxury for the financially able – perpetuating a societal cognitive poverty.
Considerable research now asserts that a significant factor in improving student academic outcomes is a holistic approach to schooling where students are engaged and enjoying their learning. Music and the arts are central to such improvement and engagement with school and in wider society.
Much work needs to be done in developing innovative teaching skills and strategies in Initial Teacher Education, supporting teacher professional development, providing time in the curriculum and funding public school music programs towards sustainable and impactful music education.
Two decades of government inaction must end. Our students – the workforces of the future deserve better.
Leon R. de Bruin is an educator, performer and researcher in music education, creativity, cognition, collaborative learning, creative pedagogies, and improvisation, and works in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. He is ASME National Vice-President and co-editor of the Brill Publication: Creativities in Arts Education, Research and Practice: International Perspectives for the Future of Learning and Teaching, and co-author of Creativity in Education in the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Education