Seanad debates

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

7:00 pm

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to raise this important and evolving issue. Recently there have been a number of reports on parents spending money on sending their children for mathematics grinds. However, the success of this action has not been very positive. I wish to extol the virtues of considering another approach which is not as effective if attempted from the age of 15 as it is from birth to six years.

It has long been felt that music plays a pivotal role in the development of children. As a musician, I am aware that performing music has an effect on social skills. Music teaches discipline because one is obliged to practise, and appreciation of others, especially when one plays in a group. It also leads to physical improvements such as those relating to hand-eye co-ordination and language development. Rhythm is the basis of all music and rhythmic patterns are the basis of speech. One need only consider the number of processes that are in train when a person sits down to play the piano and follow a score. His or her hands, eyes and feet are all active at once and music is produced.

Merely feeling that music is good for a child's developing brain has not been good enough to win the hearts of officials from the Departments of Finance and Education and Science. It is for this reason that I raised this matter. More information is emerging from research projects. Images have been taken of professional musicians' brain structures and this work has uncovered actual enlargement in the corpus callosum — the element that links the two hemispheres of the brain — and other specific anatomical phenomena relating to the auditory cortex, including increased volumes of grey matter. The latter was something to which Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot used to refer. Music develops elements of the brain which, for example, support the development of reasoning. Researchers have experimented on how this transcends into educational opportunities.

Experiences from an early age determine which brain cells will connect with other brain cells and which ones will die. Music training generates the neural connections used for abstract reasoning. By exposing children as young as possible, but preferably before the age of seven, to music, it develops their ability to understand and solve mathematical and scientific concepts, thus reaping long-term benefits for their future studies.

Neurological research has been extensive over the last decade in linking music to the development of the left hemisphere of the brain. According to Dr. Rauscher and Dr. Shaw of the universities of Wisconsin and California, respectively, music involves ratios, regularity and patterns, all of which parallel mathematical concepts. I could go into the details of a number of studies but I do not have enough time to do so. I will say, however, that in controlled situations, young children exposed to piano tuition realised that if they had 16 beats of music, they then had four sets of four beats. Music, therefore, enables students to learn multiplication tables and mathematical formulae more easily. They do not even realise they are learning in this way because it is part of the process of learning the piece. Rhythm students learn the concept of fractions more easily.

In the test carried out, students who learned rhythms were 100% more successful in fraction tests compared with those who had received no musical education. The results of the study found that children who had received private piano and singing lessons had performed 34% higher on tests measuring spatial-temporal ability. In a study carried out in Canada involving three to five year olds taking an academically appointed mathematical ability test which assessed concepts of relative magnitude, counting skills, calculation skills, knowledge of conventions and number facts, it was discovered that after six months the three year olds had higher test scores than four and five year olds who were not exposed to musical tuition.

Many people have disputed much of this research, which is sometimes called the Mozart effect. It is not specifically the Mozart effect but one of the greatest sceptics, along with Takako Fujioka, carried out a study in 2006 involving 12 children aged four to six. In this study, half the children were taught Suzuki violin for one year and the other half were not. Fujioka studied the brain activity of the children by measuring the magnetic fields in their brains. Analysis showed that across all children, larger responses were seen to violin tones than to white noise. This indicates that more brain resources were put into processing meaningful sounds. Testing continued for the year and concluded that the time that it took for the brain to respond to the sounds decreased over the 12 months. The latter means that as the children matured, the electrical conduction between neurons in their brains worked faster. It concluded that the memory capacity of children engaged in musical training also improved when compared with that of those who received no such training.

The older children get without exercising their musical aptitude, the more that will be lost and never regained. The reason for this is neurological. By the time a child reaches 11, the neuron circuits that permit perceptual and sensory discrimination, such as identifying pitch and rhythm, become closed off. In my view, this is why people who try to learn languages in later life find it difficult to do so.

Music will not suddenly turn all our children into masterminds. However, if musical education were made accessible to all young children it would enhance their overall learning capabilities, especially as the developmental brain is open to the lessons that music alone can teach in respect of subjects other than mathematics. Third level institutions continually complain that not enough children are interested in science and research. The research carried out proves that giving young children access to music will not only benefit their future but also ours because it might help form them into well-rounded individuals. In addition, it might also produce a few musicians.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter and for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on this matter.

I am aware of the importance of using teaching approaches designed to stimulate both sides of the brain and which meet the needs of children with different learning styles. Music helps children to respond creatively, to express feelings and attitudes and to interact with others, as well as inculcating an appreciation of beauty and art. It supports the development of communication, co-ordination, numeracy, creative skills, social skills, team work and leadership skills as well as promoting children's self-esteem and an enjoyment of learning. It is also an important vehicle for personal enrichment and cultural expression. Further, it creates awareness and respect for other cultures. I am aware of the research which shows that exposure to music at an early age can result in improvement in general cognitive skills. I am also aware of its role in promoting long and short-term memory and spatial reasoning.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is finalising a national framework to support early learning among children from birth to six years. This work highlights the role of music as part of the physical and creative development of the child. The framework is aimed at early learning provided in crèches, early childhood education settings, infant classes in primary schools and by parents in the home.

Music is a core part of the arts curriculum in all primary schools and comprises listening, responding, performing and composing activities. In infant classes, songs, nursery rhymes, clapping, movement and singing games and activities are important in language development and literacy as well as in promoting co-ordination, rhythm, self-esteem, self-expression and creativity. Music is also a recommended part of language development in infant classes. Listening and responding to stories, rhymes, poems and songs forms part of the curriculum in the infant classes.

The Senator will be aware that a revised primary curriculum in music, supported by a national programme of in-service training for teachers, was introduced in 2005. In May of that year the Minister for Education and Science announced a national tin whistles for teachers initiative. The latter is supported by IRMA and the Corrs in collaboration with the primary curriculum support service. Under this initiative, free tin whistles were made available to all teachers to support the implementation of the revised syllabus in music. In addition, an intensive first notes programme offered to teachers through the network of education centres has attracted high levels of participation. This investment is supplemented through a series of summer programmes in the arts in disadvantaged schools and a music initiative under which schools in disadvantaged areas are given once-off funds to purchase or replace musical instruments.

At post-primary level, music is an optional subject offered at ordinary and higher levels in the junior and leaving certificate programmes, and the curriculum continues the themes of performing, composing and listening skills, the development of music literacy and aural perception and the regular practice of vocal and or instrumental music. The leaving certificate syllabus allows students to specialise in the component of the course best suited to their needs and abilities, and the broad range of performance options has increased accessibility to the subject, allowing for students from diverse music backgrounds to participate.

In addition to the above, the equivalent of 93 whole-time teaching posts are allocated to a range of vocational education committees to support music education. This takes the form of individual tuition in instrumental and vocal music education and the provision of supports for choirs, orchestras and ensembles. Through this, approximately 68,000 hours of music tuition are provided annually. The Department of Education and Science also funds two pilot programmes in the City of Dublin and County Donegal VECs which promote music education partnerships along the lines recommended in the music network report.

The Department also provides for substantial levels of investment in music education at further and higher level. Overall, significant resources are invested in the provision of music education. Of necessity, the demands on the system require that we prioritise the actions to support the curriculum in schools. The Department is working closely with the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism to explore how best a synergy can be promoted within school activity and the work of other agencies and how best our combined investment can be used to optimum effect. In this context, the artists in schools guidelines issued to schools are an important resource in informing schools of how best to plan, implement and evaluate partnerships with local artists and organisations which will provide stimulating and interesting learning experiences for children.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. Will he continue to monitor this issue? It is fundamental not to the creation of the musicians of the future but to the overall development of our young people. Given that the Minister mentioned the funding by the Department of Education and Science of the two pilot programmes in Donegal and Dublin, will he examine both programmes and consider mainstreaming and expanding them nationally? Recently, I met the City of Dublin VEC group and it has a good pack which it wants to distribute to the entire country. This links into the in-service training required for primary schools which the Minister of State mentioned. I do not want to use the term "idiot-proof" but mainstreaming and supporting the idiot-proof pack for people who are not musically inclined which exists under the pilot programme will give impetus to the good work mentioned by the Minister of State in his response.