Music for Learning: Where Sound Waves Make Brain Waves

After reflecting on our previous post on Wilmslow High School’s crowd sourced classroom marginal gains, a theme that ran strongly throughout was the use of music as a learning tool in our lessons.  (In one particular case, it was the use of one artist’s music in certain lessons – a little prize will go to the first person who guesses the artist and the teacher who contributed this particular marginal gain!).

With this in mind, I could think of no better person than Nina Jackson, an expert in this area, to ask for another world class guest post on Wilmslow High School’s ‘Lookout for Learning’:

  • For the past 18 years, Nina Jackson has used her enthusiasm and experience as a musician, Head of Music and Leader of Learning to raise achievement in the classroom through the effective use of music as a learning tool
  • Nina has written her own book on the importance of using music for learning called The Little Book of Music for the Classroom, which will be available in the staff library at Wilmslow High School shortly.

It was a dark and drizzly morning and the pupils, mainly boys, with various learning difficulties, were uncontrollable. They refused to settle for the start of the lesson. It was my NQT year and, as an inexperienced teacher, I tried every trick in my rather limited book to get them to be quiet: ‘The Stare’, ‘The Wait’, ‘The Raising of the Voice’, ‘The Individual Coaxing of the Ring Leaders to Be Quiet’. But the panic was rising. How was I going to get their attention? I could feel my heart pounding in my chest.

My career as a music teacher was disappearing before it had even started. This was the end, I thought – teaching was not for me because I couldn’t get them quiet, let alone teach them.

Then inspiration struck.

Hoping that no one would notice how I was shaking inside, I projected my voice as far as it would reach: ‘Put your heads on the desks and close your eyes! We are going on a journey.’

Amazingly, the class fell silent. But there was no cause for celebration yet. ‘Now what?’, I thought to myself. Reaching over to my collection of CDs on the shelf, I blindly took one down without even registering which it was, put it in the machine and pressed Track 4. I can still see the display all these years later, flashing at me, ‘Track4’. My future career hinged on this one track and I didn’t even know what it was. I could hear myself praying silently, ‘Not the Mr Blobby Songbook. Not the Mr Blobby Songbook.’

Obediently – or out of fear for a teacher who had quite clearly lost the plot – my unruly class lay their heads on their desks, closed their eyes and waited. My prayer was answered, for when the music started playing the room was filled with the most beautiful tones and musical colours I ever imagined. I had chosen ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ by Ennio Morricone. And they were all listening. When the track finished, I asked them all to raise their heads slowly so that we could share our musical journeys.

It was at this point, when all pupils were silent, both willing and wanting to share their experiences, that I began to learn how to teach. The music had allowed me to learn about the pupils I was teaching and to share some intimate and emotional responses from each and everyone in that class. For the remainder of the lesson I learnt about the troubles and triumphs of each of those young people and discovered that teaching is about sharing and respect, tears and smiles, openness and privacy, the knowing and the unknown and, most of all, an understanding of each other. This was the power that music in the classroom could have, and I was hooked!

Now is neither the time nor the place to share with you the full nature of my research. (Go to Independent Thinking Ltd if you would like that, or take a look at my chapter in The Big Book of Independent Thinking.)

From this research was borne ‘The Little Book of Music for the Classroom’  which has a step-by-step guide for using the right music for the right reasons at the right time to  improve memory, motivation, learning & creativity.

Caution! The Right Music at the Right Time for the Right Reasons

When choosing the right music it is essential that you consider many factors. You must make sure your choices fit the right criteria for using music as a learning tool. Remember: the right type of music for the right type of reasons. You may not find the perfect music every time but experience and application is the key.

Here are five important questions to consider when it comes to making the right choices:

1. What type of emotional state do you want to create?

2. What is the right volume for the occasion?

3. Have you got music with the right instrumentation?

4. Do you need a piece with soloist, jazz group, choir, electronic music, orchestral, songs, rock or pop music?

5. Consider the age range of your learners and bear in mind the generation gap. Music that might appeal to you might not always appeal to them.

Much of the music suggested in ‘The Little Book…… ‘ fits a specific learning process: it’s not about using any type of music. This is an essential consideration when choosing music for your lessons. And take into account the cultural influences, background and heritage of all your students.

Beware of working to the ‘wrong’ music! Do not let yourself or the learners fall into the trap of using any type of music which, in the long run, could have an adverse effect on what you are trying to create in your learning environment. Follow the suggestions in ‘The Little Book….’ for music that stimulates your mind. Feel your neurons fire up as the first sweet strains of musically generated electrical energy flow through your cortex. Remember, you can also use your musical repertoire for other mental tasks and activities in your life:

• Add a soundtrack to your social preparations by blasting uplifting selections while you get dressed for an occasion. Think of it as dressing up your mind.

• Socialise your ears with speakers rather than headphones, to get accustomed to the environment of shared sound waves in the air.

• Take your show on the road. Listen to uplifting music in the car on the way to work or a special event, so you arrive full of life and confidence.

• Associate these sounds with your mind’s finest moments, and all the natural neurological benefits of music will be yours. Remember, Sound Waves Make Brain Waves.

Here are some suggested extracts of music to use but there are hundreds more in The Little Book of Music for the Classroom.

Music for Learning, Memory & Focus:

Mozart – Divertimento in D Major

Adolph Adam – ‘Valse’ from Giselle

Music for Relaxation & Calm:

Music to Motivate, Stimulate & Energise:

Music for Personal Reflection & Realisation:

Do let me know how you get on won’t you ? 

 Nina Jackson

Twitter: @musicmind

If you have any other music you have trialled and you think they would work in the right learning situations please let me know by commenting on this post or by emailing me or tweeting me at:


(Nearly) 150 Classroom Marginal Gains

Dave Brailsford, the mastermind behind the GB cycling and Bradley Wiggin’s Tour de France success this summer, has long been an exponent of what he has called marginal gains.

In Brailsford’s own words, taken from the interview above with the BBC, he explains the marginal gains concept:

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of what goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” 

“There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places.”

“Do you really know how to clean your hands? Without leaving the bits between your fingers?”

“If you do things like that properly, you will get ill a little bit less (and therefore be able to train more)”

“They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

With marginal gains on the brain, and with further inspiration from thought provoking posts from David Didau and Zoe Elder’s Learning Cycle: The Aggregation of Marginal Gains (full document below), we decided to ask our teachers at Wilmslow High School the following question:

What small strategies do you use in the classroom, that when combined together, have a significant effect on the students’ learning performance and your teaching performance?

This question was posed to our teachers as a starter activity at the WHS Learning Conference 2012 in the main hall.  Our teachers had five minutes to scribble any personal classroom marginal gains that were then collected, collated and finally, circulated.

Please feel free to add your own classroom marginal gains in the comment thread below.  Any little tips, no matter how small, could be a marginal gain that when combined with a few others, could transform your class into a learning tour de force!

So, here are Wilmslow High School’s crowd sourced marginal gains in full.  You will find some common themes throughout:

  1. Meet and greet at the start of a lesson
  2. Use of achievement points for extended answers or good questions
  3. Clean, safe furniture and enough of it
  4. C3B4ME – before asking the teacher for help, check your brain, ask a buddy, look in a book / research on the internet
  5. Being enthusiastic – if you love what you do, they are more likely to as well
  6. Extensive use of pair / group work
  7. Always revisit the plan – what are we doing now / next / in the weeks to come?
  8. Project the enthusiastic attitude you hope to receive
  9. Tell the students how much you believe in them and their abilities on a daily basis
  10. Use of music to set the learning ‘mood’ for the lesson format.  Club / dance music for timed workshop activities and classical music for more focused work concentrating on the finer details
  11. Play Bob Dylan at certain points during the lesson
  12. ‘Culture Corner’ – presentations to the class
  13. Plenary games
  14. Short burst activities – aim for 7-8 minutes before transition (which may be a brief teacher input or 3 minute motivator)
  15. Share WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) – make sure students can see there is a point and purpose to each activity
  16. Register question – test all of the class
  17. Mini reviews at the half way point in the lesson
  18. Build learning confidence – praise, praise, praise
  19. Peer learning and assessment
  20. Create an atmosphere where no student is afraid to get something wrong
  21. Random name selector
  22. Anecdotes – teacher or students.  Breaks up the pattern of a lesson and is personal
  23. Don’t settle for first answer.  Ask ‘why’ and ‘how do you know?’
  24. Don’t talk for very long.  Get the students to do the work
  25. Opportunity for questioning throughout the lesson
  26. Starter activities – sometimes related to the topic, sometimes not
  27. Relaxed atmosphere – students feel they can ask anything
  28. Use post it notes for new ideas to share
  29. Use post it notes for non-intrusive feedback on learning behaviours (stolen from Zoe Elder)
  30. Brain teaser – I use the same one with all lessons on one day
  31. Moviemaker – movie introductions to lessons
  32. Apply learning to the real world
  33. Chunk their learning
  34. Excellent exemplar work – Ron Berger, Ethic of Excellence
  35. Talk about the sport from the weekend
  36. Have practical / physical elements to lessons (not just PE / DT!)
  37. Any late students – get them learning promptly and discuss reasons for lateness at the end to prevent disruptions
  38. Incorporate a random interesting fact that is somehow related to the topic you are teaching
  39. Tell jokes! Always try to make my class laugh = great rapport!
  40. Brain Gym to freshen up
  41. Fresh air in the classroom
  42. Get ‘em learning outside
  43. Use PLTS explicitly
  44. Review objectives at appropriate times during the lesson
  45. Model good manners
  46. Student coaching – giving them the tools to lead and to take responsibility
  47. Ask students in pairs to explain to each other how they are meeting their most recent subject targets and ask them to annotate their work to show this
  48. ‘Thinking Music’ – played during individual work along with Countdown Timers
  49. Enter the classroom in role play
  50. Mix up seating plan regularly to encourage working with other students to create a team atmosphere
  51. Individual target setting
  52. Traffic light learning
  53. Don’t take yourself too seriously – make them laugh every lesson
  54. Friendly, happy atmosphere
  55. Create displays of outstanding work to use during lessons
  56. Teaching resources on walls = key words etc…
  57. All answers are praised even if they are wrong…praise the idea
  58. Sense of humour
  59. Share the success criteria
  60. Review – what have we learnt? Why have we learnt it?
  61. In pairs, students agree on the most important 2/3 points from the last lesson and share with the group
  62. Video clips to generate discussion
  63. Use simple writing framework to help with analysis
  64. Bring up a recent article on science from the news part way through the lesson.  Acts as a positive break and generates awareness and starts discussion
  65. Start lessons with reading – calming and individual encouragement to read.  Hugely important skill and develops a love of reading
  66. Lots of praise for good ideas but also using questioning to draw out and improve responses
  67. Develop rapport via a multitude of classroom banter, exchanges and witticisms
  68. Praise the basics – book out, work started
  69. Clear expectations – quality learning behaviours
  70. Take the time to know something about your students and make that connection
  71. Thinking Points / Question Time – whole class or post it notes at the end of the lesson
  72. Mutual respect – listening to students’ needs, knowledge and feelings
  73. Ask often – how can we make this harder? What would be the next step or level?
  74. Students create own learning material on the topic we have studied
  75. Lollipop stick name selector
  76. Quizdom
  77. Use a bell / whistle to get the students attention quickly!
  78. Hand out the starter activity (or have it in the board) as students walk in to the classroom
  79. Get the students to turn their PC monitor off when you are talking / giving instructions – students more focused
  80. Treat every student as an individual
  81. Lots of small, manageable tasks, for bottom sets.  Don’t introduce too much new information
  82. Singing instructions rather than saying them
  83. Act out the concept
  84. Humour for behaviour
  85. Know their names!
  86. Aim to demonstrate interest in them as individuals – build a sense of them
  87. Personalise the content – make it relevant to their world / student friendly examples
  88. Incorporate competition
  89. Choices / democracy in their learning
  90. Regular verbal Q & A, interactive, conversational
  91. Posters – keeps minds active / stimulating
  92. Use names – lots
  93. Extra facts / interesting info / make it relevant
  94. Set standards
  95. Welcome all students to come in after lessons to use equipment and gain 1 to 1 help.
  96. Where possible and appropriate, turn the classroom into a “real life” environment eg:  when completing “Sports Writing” transform the room into BBC offices or a newsroom.  If looking at assessment criteria, turn it into AQA Headquarters
  97. Seating arrangements
  98. Silly games
  99. Different ways of calling the register
  100. Mixture of learning styles planned for
  101. Personal touch / personal side
  102. Register theme:  linked to lesson objective / activity – immediate engagement / stimulation rather than “yes miss”
  103. Routine:  students know what to expect when they walk in
  104. Use clips of random interest to keep pupils on their toes
  105. Develop good transition between activities to maintain pace
  106. Use pressurised situations to add challenge to learning
  107. “Super-evil” extension questions for top sets.  Ask them to write their own questions
  108. Choice of resources so students can take responsibility for their own learning
  109. Ensure room is litter free
  110. Have book “giver-outers” and “collectors” to speed up the process
  111. Half way through the lesson, ask everyone to stop what they are doing, and ask a “sideball” question  relating to the task, but they may not see the connection straight away
  112. Try to start a lesson a different way each time, try not to allow predictability into lessons
  113. I will tell each class they are my favourite group and expect great work from them
  114. Personalise the content eg: make it represent their world / student friendly examples
  115. Share any new developments that have occurred in my subject with Monday’s class (similar to having a thinking question on the board at the start). Will work even they aren’t relevant to the lesson
  116. Room at right temperature.  Light but no sun in eyes
  117. Swapping work and sharing ideas on how to improve
  118. Challenge the teacher
  119. Asking students questions to let them determine / lead the aims and objectives of the lesson
  120. “Bonus Questions” throughout the lesson to win prizes / achievement points
  121. Sense of a team ethic
  122. Optical illusion on the board as students enter –grabs attention
  123. Countdown clock (from board game) play for last 30 seconds of a task
  124. Prizes for asking questions on topic that I can’t answer – encourages higher order thinking and helps review
  125. Incorporate competition
  126. Chairs and tables in 4s not rows – enables discussion and easier to move
  127. Develop good routines
  128. Relate concepts to our own lives / field of reference
  129. Walk away from the person answering a question or making a point – this opens the question or answer up to the whole class
  130. Praise to reprimand ratio of at least 5:1
  131. Start with a couple of images on the board that they will see during the lesson. Do they know what they mean now?  Do they know later on?
  132. Time checks
  133. Smiling
  134. Know individual student’s targets and prior achievement
  135. The “big question” runs throughout the lesson and a series of lessons
  136. Thinking time and discussion time.  eg:  shout “10 Seconds” to think then discussion follows
  137. Clear expectations
  138. Variety of practical activities to demonstrate theoretical perspectives
  139. If this is the answer, what is the question?
  140. Opportunity to negotiate when things don’t go to plan – homework not handed in, change of working method
  141. Team work – Kagan Co-operative and Jigsaw learning
  142. Every lesson is different
  143. Consistent application of rewards and sanctions

David Didau’s ‘Perfect’ Lesson Checklist

In this guest post, adapted from his book, ‘The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson’, David provides some little question prompts for when you are designing an outstanding learning experience for our students.

I visited David a few months ago way back in June at his new school, Clevedon Community School.  Upon leaving it was clear that he left an impressionable mark on my teaching and learning philosophies and practises, including upskilling me in the ways of SOLO taxonomy, the Learning Loop and Triple Impact Marking.

David’s approach when working with teachers is that they not only leave with an armful of exciting new ideas to try out in their classrooms combined with an understanding of what underpins those ideas but also a sound understanding of why they should use them.

David is also an Independent Thinking associate, where he is described as a ‘Thinking Teacher’s Teacher’.  Here is his perfect lesson checklist…

The Perfect Lesson Checklist

  • Does the lesson plan relate to the sequence of teaching?
  • Does the planning demonstrate high expectations and challenge?
  • Is the plan appropriate for the learning needs of all groups of students?
  • Is there a safe learning environment?

Start of the lesson:

  • Does the lesson get off to a flying start?
  • Is there a recap of previous learning
  • Are the learning objectives (LO) clear and appropriate in number?
  • Are the LO shared?
  • Are the success criteria clear?
  • Is the learning real?

During the lesson:

  • Is the teaching well paced?
  • Does the teaching hold the learner’s interests?
  • Does the teaching meet a range of learning styles?
  • Does the teaching meet a range of abilities?
  • Does the teaching actively engage learners in the learning process?
  • Are the learners given clear information and guidance throughout?
  • Is there paired or collaborative work?
  • Is questioning used effectively?
  • Are all learners actively involved?
  • Is ther clear feedback given on progress?
  • Is student knowledge and understanding increased?
  • Is there an opportunity for students to demonstrate increased knowledge and understanding?
  • Are reading and writing skills developed?

End of lesson:

  • Are the LO reviewed?
  • Are questions used to check what learning has taken place?
  • Is there feedback? 1. teacher to students, 2. Self assessment, 3. peer assessment
  • Is the next lesson previewed?
  • Is the lesson brought to a clear close?

Phil Beadle’s 14 Steps for a Perfect Lesson

Phil Beadle has kindly offered ‘Lookout for Learning’ his irreverrent and hilarious thoughts on how to design the ‘perfect’ lesson in 14 easy steps.  Do any of these ring true with you?

Phil is both an internationally recognised expert on teaching and learning and an inner city English teacher.  Specialising in working with students in challenging circumstances, his contextual value added scores are year-on-year amongst the highest of any teacher in the country.

He has won national awards for both teaching and broadcasting and been nominated for a European Commission award for his journalism.  His books on teaching and learning have been translated into five different languages:  his ‘How To Teach’ book was awarded 10/10 by the Times Educational Supplement and his latest publication ‘Dancing About Architecture’ lifts the lid on how to implement a little bit of creativity into your teaching.

Phil’s 14 steps:

  1. Don’t have a full time job. If you are to teach a perfect lesson, then the first thing you must ensure is that you are not a full time teacher. Full time teachers haven’t got the time to teach perfect lessons. It’s only gurus who can do this because gurus don’t have pigeonholes to check.
  2. Identify the technical part of the subject that everyone avoids because they are scared of it. What is it about this particular subject that you don’t know? If you don’t know it there’s little chance that your students already know it.
  3. Cut and paste the Wikipedia entry about it onto your lesson plan.
  4. Print it out, and take it with you as you go and have a cup of tea. Enjoy the process of making the tea, and do make sure that you leave      the bag in for a little longer than normal, as then the tea will really revive you. (You may also want to make yourself a bit of bread and jam.  Perhaps even toast it).
  5. When drinking your tea sit with the printed Wikipedia entry and a red pen. Read it, and take notes as to what you understand about the knowledge. Don’t stress.
  6. Go back to your computer and type up your notes – noting any ideas you have for lesson activities
  7. Go onto Google and do an image search on “Name of subject + cartoon.”  If there’s anything funny stick it in a Powerpoint.
  8. Stay on Google and do a further image search on “Name of subject.” Harvest any images that resonate and stick ‘em in the Powerpoint.
  9. You now have the key parts of a narrative, but they are not in the correct order. Reorder them.
  10. Using the Powerpoint as the narrative of the lesson, insert three activities that the kids do themselves.
  11. Check if there is any way of making the learning physical. If there is, bung this in.
  12. Make the first activity paired, the second in fours and the third individual.
  13. Fill in your lesson plan, asking yourself what you are going to  do that is special for 1. The underachieving kid, 2. The bright kid, 3. Lukasz (who has just arrived from Poland).
  14. Rehearse what could go wrong.

The First 5 Minutes: Getting students hooked in early

In this insightful and inspirational guest post, Hywel Roberts , a teacher, author and creative educational consultant, talks about the vital importance of the first 5 minutes of any lesson and getting the students ‘hooked in early’.

Hywel is also an associate of Independent Thinking and his excellent book Oops! Helping Children Learn Accidentally  is available on Amazon now.

Gone are the days of children sitting uniformly in rows hanging on the teacher’s every word. Hooking children into the content of your lesson is now part and parcel of the job, and we need to ensure that we have a repertoire of resources at hand to support us…and that can often be easier said than done. In the same way the uniformed rows of automon-like children may be a thing of the past, so has our expectation that every child loves our subject, or the particular topic we’re hoping to fire them up with. A lot of children experience school as learning being ‘done to them’ – they feel a disconnect from it – often school can say nothing to a child about their day to day experience of the world that they live in. It is our job to alter that; to bring the world into the learning – to help some children shift from being streetwise to worldwise.

The best place to start hooking children into learning is to begin with your greatest resource and take look in the mirror. Who do the children see when they walk into your room? Teachers need to have some basics which they often forget to mention at teacher-training institutions. I call them specific teacher acts:

  • Smiling
  • Laughter
  • Enthusiasm
  • Patience
  • Time

A neat acronym here maybe, but there’s more to it than that. I know I had to work really hard at these five things especially on a wet Friday afternoon teaching Year Nine Drama. There’s the spirit of inductive practice embodied in these acts – please don’t be fooled into thinking that these are soft skills. They are, in fact, sometimes very hard to muster. On Fridays I had to switch these specific teacher acts on. What are you switching on?

We can obviously help ourselves by ensuring that our rooms are places children don’t mind being. You don’t have to go far to find lots of advice about this sort of thing and these particular considerations work for me:

  • Rights (both of child and teacher)
  • Rules (and expectations)
  • Responsibilities
  • Routines

…and in big fat letters, underpinning everything: RELATIONSHIPS.

This list may well be familiar to you. If it is, what do these elements look like in your classroom? Something I had to do with some children in my classes was plan (and I do mean write down) how I was going to attempt to build positive relationships when it appeared all they wanted to do was dismiss the work – sometimes aggressively. I considered this to be differentiation by support.

There’s another R that perhaps we could add to the list: RAPPORT

Can you define rapport?

Julie Starr, in her great book The Coaching Manual, defines rapport as the ‘dance that happens behind communication’. I like that. And I get it. So, what dance do you do with your Year 7s? I imagine it will be different to the dance you do with your Year 12s? Or when you’re talking to an Ofsted inspector?

So you’ve got your own behaviour sorted. How then, do we make lessons worth behaving for? For me, it is the first few minutes. Following the meet and greet, we are in. What’s happening then? Do you have a settler (a task to settle) or do you let them talk whilst you figure out the register? What about :

  • A fat (open) question on the whiteboard – a new one everyday – 2 minutes to think, 2 minutes with talk partners, then feedback responses e.g. Why do we have bones? How can we reduce poverty? What are we going to do about the Big Bad Wolf?
  • A fascinating photograph – type rich poor contrast into an image search engine and you’ll see what I mean. This image stimulus can invite the same process as with the fat question.
  • On a pen drive, build up a collection of powerful images and questions that you can access quickly no matter what room you are in – this is particularly good for colleagues who supply or are on cover supervision
  • Have an appropriate piece of music playing e.g. in a recent Y7 project around PROTEST, I used songs by Billy Bragg, The Special AKA, Billie Holliday to name a few.

Stuck for ideas? Get on Twitter for starters.

It’s those first five minutes that show who you are as a teacher and what you expect from your children. Don’t waste them.