What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Sensing

Author’s note: This post is based on the ideas from the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay.

Teachers across the country are hard at work getting their classroom spaces set up for another start to the school year. While going through this annual ritual I wonder how many are stopping to consider the impact that sound has on learning in their spaces. Chapter 8 on sensing from the book Two Beats Ahead provides educators with a lot to consider about the role of music can have on learning.

The chapter begins by looking at how sound can impact our experiences in hospitals. Musician Yoko Sen examined this through the lens of the following question–”What is the last sound you want to hear before you die?”. Using this provocation and her own experience in a hospital, she interviewed nurses and medical practitioners. Through this process, she discovered that the typical sounds found in hospitals–machines, beeping, monitor rings, etc… contributed to stress and negative well-being for patients.

In reading this I thought about the sounds that we expose students to in our learning spaces. In schools, students are vulnerable to the startling ring of clock bells, the hum of fluorescent lights, the squeak of shoes on floors, loud voices echoing off of narrow hallways, and even the loud-speaking voice of teachers. All of these can negatively impact our students’ ability to engage in learning in a healthy and safe manner.

My hope is that Sen Sound, the enterprise created by Yoko to transfer the soundscape of medical facilities, can be applied to schools as well. There is ample medical evidence that noise can cause stress. As we shift conversations in our school around well-being and mental health, I would like to see healthy audio environments be part of this conversation.

In closing the section about Yoko the authors mention the idea of “democratizing sound design”. In imagining how we can implement audio solutions to support healthy learning spaces we should involve students, teachers, and families in the process. By putting them at the center of this conversation we can ensure that those who are impacted by sound in their learning spaces have input.

In considering this, reflect on the following passage from the book about the relationship between how our body senses and communication: “Think about a time you were frustrated and your hands clenched, almost involuntarily. Or you were scared, and your ears seemed dialed into every tiny sound. Or you felt happy, and suddenly the day seemed brighter, and smells seemed crisper. Our bodies follow their own kind of truth: the way we physically interact with the world shapes our feelings and vice versa.”

In the next part of the chapter, the authors cover some of the ways that music can impact our bodily senses. How pop songs at 120 BPMs align with the natural rhythm of our 60 BPM heartbeats. Hearing songs like Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” or Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” can get our blood to rise, our head bobbing, and put us in the groove. Or on the opposite end, how the guitar sounds of My Bloody Valentine can feel disorienting through their use of frequency boosting.

Failing to consider how sound can impact our students, we are allowing them to be unknowingly influenced by the ambient sounds around them. Instead, we can design our spaces to have a positive impact on students’ learning by intentionally incorporating sound into how we design our spaces.

Due to their location in the Boston area, both authors have access to people interested in examining the relationship between music, body, and mind. In the section titled “Science of Sensing,” they review some of the emerging fields of study in this area. They summarize a series of questions that are being explored by these scientists: Does music help fire neurons that go otherwise dominant? Is music medicine? Can it be prescribed? Might doctors someday recommend a personalized diet of music based on a person’s biometrics? How might virtual immersive experiences aid in unlocking the power of music on the mind?

I believe that exploring these questions it will result in a much deeper understanding of the role that music and sensing can have in learning. As we shift our focus on education to creative and collaborative learning spaces, we also need to invest in things that will create an environment to support this type of learning.

The authors point us back to a previous chapter with Bjork and Audur Capital in which they explored “emotional due diligence”. The following quote is so impactful–”And now that there is wisdom in letting out actual, literal notes guide our creativity and our communication, it’s time to bring in the science.” Wow!

One final thing discussed in this section is research done by George Lakoff at the University of California–Berkeley as well as a study conducted at Yale. Lakoff’s research looked at how metaphors are a reflection of our human experience. The studies at Yale built upon this by examining how these metaphors actually can shape our reality. Through these studies, we can see how warmth can be associated with happiness, or as Lakoff called it “a metaphor we can live by”.

Are we creating “warm” spaces in our schools for children to learn in? Or do they feel more cold, distant, and sterile? Are we best supporting students by creating spaces where they feel welcomed, safe, and inspired? What is the role of music in creating this sense of warmth that we know humans associate with a happy and soothing sensation?

At this point, we have more questions than answers. But as an educator, I believe that these are important areas for us to explore as we look at how we can innovate learning in our schools.

The last part of the chapter summarizes the work of musician and producer Brain Eno. The authors explain how his Oblique Strategies* cards have a number of prompts that focus on physical recommendations–Breathe more deeply, Mute and continue, and Put in earplugs.

Eno shares “We’re used to the idea that the great triumph of humans is their ability to control. What we’re not so used to is the idea that another great gift we have is the talent to surrender. To be able to surrender is to know when to stop trying to control.”

This leads to the gardening versus architecture metaphor. As creative individuals, we need to be thinking of our works as an act of gardening, not an act of architecture. Yoko Sen builds on this metaphor with her own thinking: “I think the joy of my work was removing me out of the picture. It’s about other people and it’s OK that I don’t yet know what the answer will be. My role is to bridge the divide so people get to have voice.”

I can think of no better way to summarize my approach to teaching and learning! This chapter has really forced me to rethink and consider more deeply the role that music and sound can play in an innovative learning environment. As I move more and more into the background and increase student agency, music will enter as an important element of this paradigm shift.

This was truly a transformative chapter for me as I think about what musical minds can teach us about innovation in education. Too often we focus on the details of the curriculum, policy, learning targets and goals, and not enough on the actual spaces the learning will happen in. This chapter is an invitation to further explore how we design our learning spaces and the role of music in designing that space.

There is some literature on the role of music in learning. Much of it focuses on how to use music to improve learning, not on how music can improve the environment to support learning. I am hopeful that new advances in brain science and a renewed interest in sound can help push this research to a new frontier that can transform what learning looks like for the next generation.

*The Oblique Strategies cards are a series of 3- by 3.5-inch cards containing a prompt to be used as a way to explore a dilemma in a working situation.

This is the eighth part in a series connecting the ideas from Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Pano A. Panay to education. To read part 1 on listening go here, part 2 on experimenting go here, part 3 on collaborating go here, part 4 on demoing go here, part 5 on producing go here, part 6 on connecting go here, and part 7 on remixing go here.