Posted by: unlikelygrad | September 12, 2013

Education: on singing loud and sounding good

This is going to be a kind of rambly post, so I beg your pardon in advance.

A number of years ago–maybe 2006? I was at a homeschool conference as a speaker.  Every time I did this I ended up meeting the most amazing people; this time, I ended up having a long conversation on the neuropsychology of learning with Joy Sikowski of SingBabySing.

As you might guess, most of the research she’d done had to do with learning to sing.  She talked about how important it was, when learning to sing, to sing LOUDLY.  Because, you see, when you sing loudly, the air in your sinuses vibrate, and that provides sensory input to your brain through channels other than just your aural nerve.  Also, you tend to sound better when you sing loud.  (I mentioned to her how my eldest son, Al, had a talent for singing that he’d cultivated by singing in the shower.  She said this frequently had the same effect.)

I forgot all about this conversation until a couple of weeks ago, when a good friend posted on Facebook that she’d bought her eldest (age 10) a violin.  See, I played the violin when I was a kid–I think I was 9 when I started.  At first I was OK, but at some point I started to be fairly good (to the point of being the concert mistress in the school orchestra–I was never Sarah Chang).

Anyway, during my conversation with Joy she mentioned that the same phenomenon held true with playing an instrument–that if you had a really, really good instrument, you usually played better, because it resonated better.   You’d learn to play just right, rich and full, because you learned to feel and seek for that resonance.

And so I related to her how I’d been OK on the violin until I outgrew the 3/4 size violin I started on.  Then, in 7th grade, my parents bought me a full-sized violin, and since it was clear I was going to be playing for a while, they didn’t skimp.  What I got was not a Stradivarius, but it had a beautiful, rich tone.  (Even my violin teacher, who’d been around the block a few times, commented on what a lovely instrument it was.)  From that point on, my talent grew a lot faster.

Alas, when I went to college, my parents asked me to leave my violin behind–I had a younger sister who was playing the violin as well and they couldn’t afford another violin so nice.  So I haven’t played for 24 years.  I miss it sometimes.

So here’s where this gets a bit disjointed.  I was thinking about this (the violin and singing loud and whatever) due to my friend’s Facebook post, but I was also thinking about teaching (because I’d just taught Dr. Hand-Waver’s class).  So I was wondering, what we can do to encourage science students to “sing loud” or “play a good violin,” so to speak?  I think part of this is making sure that students can succeed early on–helping them gain enough confidence in their abilities that they’re willing to tackle harder stuff.

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’re probably aware that I’m not fond in any way, shape, or form of giving people praise they don’t deserve.  So what do I mean by this?

(1) Don’t overwhelm them at first.  Break things into bite-sized chunks and make sure they can tackle those before doing a big complicated problem.  This makes sense for writing: make sure they can write a good sentence before tackling a paragraph; make sure that they can write a good paragraph before tackling an essay.  But yet we don’t do this nearly as much in science.

Students need to have the confidence to “sing loud” before they’ll actually do it.

(2) Help them develop an understanding of what a polished product should look like.

I think another reason that I became concert mistress was because I knew what a good violinist should sound like.  My parents listened almost entirely to classical music when I was a kid, and there were plenty of times when my dad would disparage a version of a song being played on the radio as ‘inferior quality.’  (I still like good violin music.  In recent years I’ve become rather fond of Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg.) So I knew what I was supposed to sound like, and I was given a tool that would help me do it.

I like to give students tools to estimate what the right answer is before we actually dive into a huge calculation.  That way we can look at the process as we’re going along (and the final answer when we get there) to see if we’re on the right track.

For example, I was supposed to teachDr. HW’s students acid-base chemistry, starting with monoprotic acids and then going into gory detail about polyprotic acids (since carbonate chemistry is important in natural waters).  We went through the math of monoprotic acids and used that to generate a log C-pH diagram using math.  I talked about how to create such a diagram without lots of arduous calculations.

Then I went on to polyprotic acids. But I only talked about the theory at first, and we used this to generate a log C-pH diagram for carbonate before getting to any math.

Before we dived into the serious calculations I had them estimate approximately what the answer should be…and, after we worked the math, we compared our answers with the estimates we’d come up with earlier.

(3) Let them play.  I used to tell my parents that I hated practicing my violin, but I loved playing.  Of course, they made me practice.  But they also let me play–just play around, experimenting with the tone and whatnot.  In a way, this is kind of like singing in the shower–you sing whatever you like, jump from one song to another, experiment to see what sounds good.

When I was working for SL he used to tell me to feel free play around in lab on occasion.  So I would, usually while waiting for a big simulation to finish running.  I crossed what he was doing with bioinformatics and one day I showed the results to him. From what I’ve heard, he’s been trying to incorporate that sort of stuff into his work since then.

How do you “let students play” in introductory science classes?  I’m not sure, but I’m giving it some serious thought.

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