Scientific knowledge is best developed in a context of free speech. Arguing for free debate, where being mistaken or wrong is integral to scientific discovery, Rovelli, in his wonderful book, ‘Anaximander’ charts the link between the history of the Greek alphabet and the beginnings of scientific thinking.
The earliest writing
The first form of writing, known as cuneiform was invented in 3400 BCE in southern Iraq, as described by art historian, Zaineb Bahrani. According to Bahrani, the earliest writing was pictographic, which was straightforward enough to decipher, but expanded when the signs for ox and fish and so on came to be used for unrelated objects and ideas, based on a system of association via similar sounds and meanings. This partly phonetic and partly pictographic code became abbreviated into cursively written wedge-shaped signs on tablets of clay, which were systematised and adopted throughout the ancient Near East.
The oldest script to be discovered was written in Uruk, in the Sumerian language, - a language unrelated to Semitic, Indo-European, Turkie or other language groups of that era. The script was quickly adopted into the Akkadian language, which was an early Semitic language, a relation of modern-day Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac-Aramaic. The first word lists and directories for interpreting the script were compiled in the third millennium BCE as the Mesopotamians became the first translators. The adoption of the script for diplomatic purposes spread widely across the region, including kingdoms of Babylonia, Syria and Egypt.
The first professional writers
According to Bahrani, the importance of connecting words with things, connecting writing with reality, was that it generated intellectual thought and scientific reasoning. The script offered a representational system with the capacity to signify the physical world as well as abstract concepts. The standardisation of the script provided a reliable means of communication and had implications for the Mesopotamian world view. However, detailed knowledge of the script’s 800 characters was protected by the scribes and mainly used for political ends, to reinforce the legitimacy of the semi-divine dynastic rulers, claiming a lineage apparently descended from heaven. The illustration here, shows a cuneiform inscription on a stone tablet dedicated to the god Haldi at a temple built by Menua, King of Urartu, in east Turkey dating from about 700 BCE.
Rovelli described a similar situation in Greece in the second millennium BCE. During this era, the Mycenaean period, the Greeks dominated Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, Troy, Phonecia, Byblos and Palestine. The Mycenaean civilisation had inherited the well-known script, Linear B from the ancient Cretans. Linear B was used intensively in Crete during a period when the court possessed a highly organised administrative system of taxation, military enlistment and record keeping of ownership of property and slaves, all of which was managed by the professional scribes of the central palace. Here too, we see scribes enforcing political control through the power of the written word.
Greek trade with neighbouring nations resumed in the seventh and eighth centuries BCE, following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation in 1000 BCE and a period of economic and social difficulty. A new style of writing was inherited from the Phoenicians and Caananites at about 750 BCE. The Phoenician alphabet contained only consonants, whereas the Canaanites had developed a simplified system in which vowel sounds were used and this reduced the number characters to 24. As an Indo-European language, Greek was phonetically simpler than the Semitic languages and the new alphabet, was used to directly represent the utterances of the human voice - a system that did not require word lists, but could be deciphered without an arduous apprenticeship.
So when writing became accessible for Greek citizens in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, knowledge was no longer exclusively for the privileged, the scribes and the autocratic kings. Rather, writing was widely shared by the emerging ruling class at the birth of democracy, which relied upon forthright public criticism and open debate.
Public debate among the ruling class replaced the absolute power of semi-divine kings and traditional wisdom of priests. Weak ideas and theories were dismissed through this new system of shared power. Rovelli urges us to consider that it is through sharing, criticising and scrutinising knowledge, that we uphold scientific values. Sharing, criticising and scrutinising ideas and theories is the most rigorous way to test knowledge. Weaker theories and ideas can be rejected, and stronger ones can be refined in this way. We must guard against the desire for complete knowledge or definitive knowledge. This would involve closed-mindedness. Rather, science produces the best available knowledge at the time from an open-minded, questioning perspective.
Rovelli makes an important point: From the perspective of scientific thinking, knowledge expands because of a lack of certainty, and is driven by an awareness of the immensity of human ignorance. A lack of certainty is a strength rather than a weakness. It is a strength fuelled by important traits that are cultivated by scientists: the confidence to ask questions, the courage to observe and to critique, and the persistence to challenge with a readiness to radically rock the boat.
Bahrani, Z. (2017) Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture, Thames & Hudson, London
Rovelli, C. (2011) Anaximander, (Trans. Marion Lignana Rosenberg), Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pennsylvania
1. Let Schools be Schools
Many schools in the UK are also food banks; their classrooms are filled with donated clothes and toys. The generosity is heart-warming, but growing child poverty is a crisis of grim-realities and long-term consequences.
4.5 million children are living in poverty in the UK (trusselltrust.org) and teachers have had no choice, but to feed hungry pupils. They are constantly buying food for children to take home because the fridge and food cupboard are empty. Hungry children cannot concentrate for a single minute - I have seen young people in school faint from hunger.
For economically disadvantaged children and young people to gain the qualifications that will secure a prosperous future, a great deal of educational impetus is required. Teachers play a vital role in nurturing children’s capacity for learning and building trajectories for academic achievement, but at present, this role is diluted by having to think about hunger day after day.
Schools are highly responsive in tailoring their resources to meet the needs of their communities. However, school budgets have had to stretch to feed the growing numbers of children living in poverty. It is a matter of grave concern that resources are being diverted away from education to meet the children’s most basic survival needs.
2. Take action to prevent exclusions
A wave of redundancies due to cuts to school budgets, has been mirrored by an increase in the rate of school exclusions, undermining inclusivity and equality in the education system. Pupils who have benefited from close support and mentoring from teaching assistants in mainstream classrooms, but have been unable to manage unaided, have found themselves removed from school or placed in alternative provision. These disruptions have compromised not only their access to the curriculum, but also their chances of gaining qualifications.
3. Schools need modern educational values and larger budgets in 2020
Modern educational values and larger budgets are needed to inspire the learning of all children and young people. These should be delivered across complementary disciplines, and through effective systems that:
Do you have friends that have recently admitted to holding views that are anti-semitic or anti-islamic or both? This has happened to me on several occasions since the 2016 referendum.
There have been heated debates in the media and in everyday life - sometimes sidestepping awkward conversations has seemed to be the most diplomatic option. Avoiding the issue of racism however, aggravates a pernicious problem. We are soon to cast our votes in an election in which the two main parties are overtly struggling to deal with racism.
Yesterday, a good friend said this to me: “We can always respect other people’s opinions, even if they are different to our own”. Do you agree with this seemingly reasonable statement?
Of course I agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I challenge stereotyped points of view. So, I strongly disagreed with the idea that I would always respect another person’s opinion. If an opinion is in any way racist for example, it cannot win my respect.
Stereotypes are dangerous because they are sloppy thought patterns, which travel like wildfire, igniting and infecting many people at once. A stereotype is just like a rumour because it is not based on fact. In conversation, it should be treated like toxic gossip and challenged for its lack of substance.
My stereotype radar starts bleeping when people start to say: “The trouble is, they are all…” (fill in the blank)
Or to make ridiculous predictions: “You can’t trust them. All they want is….”
Or to make sweeping generalisations: “Most normal people don’t .…
Or to sound preachy: “People like us…”
A reasonable follow-up question to statements using ‘always’, ‘all’ or ‘never’ might be - “Oh really? How can you be certain?”
On the other hand, whenever there’s a healthy balanced range of opinions, of voices, of faces on mainstream media I inwardly cheer in celebration of our country’s rich diversity, knowing that deep down all is well. With so much at stake, we must work together to resist discrimination of all kinds and call out stereotypes as soon as they they arise in conversation. Even if this feels awkward and embarrassing, it’s better than walking away or brushing the stereotype under the rug.
‘Groupthink’ (a term coined by Irvin Janis) is the unremarkable ability that we all have to hang out with like-minded folk who echo and reinforce our thoughts. Group loyalty is dangerous when it inhibits healthy debate and ‘groupthink’ is an unhealthy inbreeding of ideas that arises in politics in particular (Janis, 1972).
Research done in 1970s showed that in roles where one group of people dominates another group, the behaviour of both groups needs to be carefully monitored. The notorious Stanford Prison Experiments explored human behaviour in role-play. Undergraduate psychology students volunteered as participants and were randomly assigned to roles either as prison guards, or as inmates in a specially constructed jail in the university campus. After only six days the treatment of the prisoners became so abusive that the project, which should have run for fourteen days had to be abandoned. In this experiment, Zimbado showed that undergraduate students with no previous history of cruelty (ie they were educated, reasonable people) had the capacity to treat prisoners sadistically, particularly when following orders.
Clearly, in our social groups, we humans have a dark side - a capacity to behave together in ways that would be unthinkable at an individual level.
This matters in everyday life, but particularly in political leadership. We must ensure that we are governed by politicians who engage in healthy debate, and who can truly represent the diversity of Britain. We need to call out stereotypes for everyone’s sake so that together we cultivate an atmosphere of happiness, balance and peace in our society.
Janis, I (1972) Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos (2nd Edition) Boston, MA. Houghton Mifflin.
Zimbado, P.G. (1999) Stanford Prison Experiment: A Stimulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University http://www.prisonexp.org [accessed 1/12/19]
Last year, I went through a major rethink about my approach to the Rhythm for Reading blog. To ‘incubate’ the new outlook I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring new themes and scoping out a broader awareness of rhythm in everyday life.
The shift started unexpectedly twelve months ago. I happened to be working in the San Francisco Bay Area in November, as the State of California braced for the driest month of the year, which typically generates a high fire risk. You may remember the wildfires that blazed out of control at that time. More than 80 people tragically lost their lives in the deadly ‘Camp Fire’ that completely destroyed the town of Paradise. For eight days, the Bay Area lay under a thick blanket of smoke. From my hotel window and when travelling to work I could see that the condors had stopped riding the thermals high in the sky. There was hardly any sunlight, and the air quickly became the filthiest on the planet. Nature seemingly had shutdown, but we humans had stayed calm and carried on regardless. The freeways were absolutely crammed with vehicles, pumping fumes into the already saturated air.
Although I was lucky enough to be staying in air-conditioned accommodation during the worst days of pollution, I worked with people who were not so fortunate. They told me about the dreadful effects of the smoke on their young children and elderly neighbours. Given that an hour of exposure to the Camp Fire smog was judged to be the equivalent of chain-smoking ten cigarettes, it was unsurprising that poorer people in the Bay Area, those without air-conditioning living some four hundred miles from the wildfires, were struggling with their breathing, feeling nauseous and even collapsing. This situation made me realise the extent to which I have taken clean air for granted. I have always gratefully acknowledged the work done by trees to reduce carbon dioxide during the night, but naively, I have assumed that this natural recycling process was sustainable. Following the Camp Fire, I no longer presume that forests will continue to maintain the fragile balance of gases that sustain life on our planet.
In California last year, deadly particulate matter from the burning of the forest caused the toxicity in the air. In other words, we were inhaling carbon particles from the very trees that we need in the long term to recycle the air. In the same twelve month period, it has been heart-breaking to see fires started deliberately, that have caused enormous devastation in the Amazon Forest, the ‘Lungs of the Earth’, and tragically, huge areas of New South Wales, Australia are ablaze as I write this.
Like me, you may have been shaken recently into a new awareness of our responsibility for Earth’s atmosphere. Is this the beginning of the end? Historically, seasonal rhythms have driven the cyclical flooding of rivers, as seen in the beautiful hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. The predictability of dry seasons and rainy seasons has supported the cultivation of food crops for twelve thousand years. Going back even deeper into pre-history, when an alternating rhythm of warmer and cooler periods caused the ice-sheets of North America and Scandinavia to advance and retreat, hunter-gatherer peoples became highly adaptive and innovative.
According to anthropologist Professor Brian Fagan, Cro-Magnon humans, Neanderthals and many of the larger mammals proved to be temperature tolerant, demonstrating ample capacity to adapt during climactic shifts of the rhythmic, ‘Dansgaard-Oeschger (D/O) oscillation’ (Fagan, 2010, p.55). There was also a remarkable explosion of creativity that followed warmer periods of climate change, marked by magnificent art in the caves of South Africa, Spain, Germany, Austria and France.
Unlike the hunter-gatherers, who breathed pristine unpolluted air in conditions that were on average considerably cooler than those of today, we inhabit a rapidly warming planet, in which unprotected forests as well as coral reefs are lost every year. The situation that we face is pushing us towards the upper limit of our temperature tolerance. Unfortunately, industrial technologies and economic models have encouraged a false perception of our independence of nature, which has led to widespread abuse of the natural world.
Earth’s indigenous peoples on the other hand, have maintained values and technologies that are closely aligned with nature (Fagan, 2011). Living and breathing in harmony with nature, they have maintained sustainable cultural traditions, that offer a balance between ideals of freedom and security. Now, we must all work together to restore rhythm and balance, to protect and nurture higher values of respect and appreciation for Earth’s resources.
Fagan, B. (2010) Cro-Magnon: How the ice-age gave birth to the first modern humans, Bloomsbury Press.
Fagan, B. (2011) The First North Americans: An archeological journey, Thames and Hudson
I had no idea that I would be writing a post on computation whilst working in Silicon Valley – I am amazed by the coincidences that life delivers. It seems that music and technology go together here and I look forward to exploring some of the ideas behind the Rhythm for Reading programme in relation to the principles of computational thinking.
Historically, the word compute derives from Latin roots: com (together) and putare (to settle an account). In the French language of the 17th century, the verb ‘computer’ meant to reckon or to calculate the amount. As we know only too well from the reporting of negotiations between the UK and EU, it is important to attend to the broad principles as well as the details. From the perspective of computer science, a systematic approach is used to align the broad principles and the fine details by following a process involving four cornerstones of computational thinking: decomposition, pattern matching, abstraction and algorithms.
Decomposition: In general, music is associated with ‘composition’ rather than decomposition. However, playing any piece of music involves decomposition. Before performing, musicians are faced with a problem: how should the music sound and feel? They answer this question by considering musical elements such as, form and tempo (overall layout and speed), harmonic structure (organisation of key changes in relation to the form), rhythmic and melodic features (beats, riffs, tunes, patterns and repetitions), as well as the texture - the distribution of the sounds in relation to each other. Each musical style has a fairly typical blueprint consisting of certain types of form, harmonies, textures, rhythms and melodies which musicians constantly refine with experience.
Pattern recognition: For many people, the appeal of music lies in its attention grabbing patterns, the hypnotic qualities of repeating beats and the deeply satisfying musical feel of certain riffs and grooves. This is not surprising because like other mammal species, our early development took place surrounded by the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat, respiration and digestion patterns. New born infants can detect changes in rhythmic patterns of language and music with remarkable sensitivity. It seems that pattern recognition begins very early on in our development and continues throughout life.
In computational thinking, the extraction of general information from a recognised pattern (e.g. all dogs have four legs) involves looking for similarities and disregarding everything else. Well, when we listen to music and extract the beat from the complete musical sound – (just before we begin nodding or tapping along with it), we have extracted the constantly recurring ‘generalised’ information and brought this to the front of our awareness. In this way, the beat becomes useful as an organisational device because we naturally perceive the other more varied and changeable sounds in relation to it.
Abstraction: The process of abstraction, knowing what to retain and what to ignore as part of pattern recognition is an acquired discipline that becomes second nature with practice. For example, finding the beat and focusing on it (perhaps whist taking exercise) is a powerful form of orientation in musical sound that most people naturally adopt. The process of recognising rhythmic patterns via the extraction and abstraction of the beat often happens spontaneously and extremely quickly – in a matter of a few seconds, depending rather on the quality of the musical sounds.
Algorithms: An algorithm is a sequence of steps required to build a model of a solution to a problem, such as a series of instructions or rules to make a cup of tea. To programme a robot to make a cup of tea would be complex because the single instruction ‘pour’ for example would need to be broken down into all the tiny action pieces (involving angles, weight, resistance, timing etc). Returning to music, having abstracted the beat from musical sounds, it is possible to rebuild a sense of the organisation of the music in relation to the beat. For example, there may be recurring catchy tunes or rhythmic patterns that make the music instantly recognisable. The beat is the organisational principle in our brain’s perception of musical sounds. Similarly, the beat is also the organisational principle of musical sounds as represented in musical notation. The representation of music in music notation involves a framework called a musical staff, consisting of five horizontal lines. The system of notation is rule-based and the information it contains is extremely precise. However, like an algorithm, only the necessary details are included; all other musical information is inferred by (stylistically aware) musicians.
In Rhythm for Reading sessions, there is a strong emphasis on beats, riffs, patterns and repetitions, as well as on an awareness of the form and structure of a piece of music. After a couple of sessions, even very young children spontaneously apply the principles of decomposition and pattern recognition. Their innate awareness of sound prompts them to extract and abstract the beat and to feel the organisation of melodic and rhythmic patterns around the beat. They love to discover the patterns in musical notation and can use these to explain the overall organisation of simple pieces of music.
It’s been fun to play a little with the idea of explaining musical processes in terms of computational thinking – there is certainly plenty of common ground. However, there is also an important difference. While computational thinking occurs in a sequence, which is later integrated by a computer, the musical equivalents of decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction and algorithms are integrated by the human brain’s capacity to read musical notation, to elaborate the notation and produce musical sounds in time with others. Not only do we integrate all of these processes naturally, we find it highly rewarding to do this <in sync>.
Contribution is a tremendously positive aspect of human nature. At this time of year in many schools, it’s possible to detect a special sense of dignity emerging from a collective sense of contribution. Central to the season of Harvest Festival, contribution is a natural response to our awareness of our of abundance and supply. We pause to appreciate the hard work of the farmers and the benefits of a favourable climate, essential for the long-term sustainability of crops and livestock. It is a time to reflect and give thanks for the magnificent, vibrant beauty of our planet. Sharing the gifts of our abundance with the wider community reminds us that the gift of contribution is also the gift of belonging.
In classrooms, a quite different notion of contribution exists. Students’ contribution in the classroom is evaluated by teachers. Yet at the same time, contribution is restricted by the limited amount of time teachers are able to allocate each unit of work. Tension around contribution in the classroom arises between the need to cover the curriculum and the time students may need to assimilate concepts before they feel ready to reflect and engage via questions or discussion. A possible solution is to allow more time. Expanding the time allowed for students’ contribution seems to slow the whole process of learning down. However, this may be time well spent, particularly for lower attaining students, who may learn differently or simply need more time to process the information, as argued by Rowe, (1986).
Contribution is also a form of social action. In the context of Harvest Festival, there is a sense that everybody contributes what they can, but in a classroom the act of contributing to a curriculum that may or may not seem relevant and relatable can be stressful for some students. Accordingly, ‘children tend to feel vulnerable in school’ (Pollard, 1987, p.4), where they are subject to a process of assessment and rules. Children learn to adapt, to cope with power and discipline of the teacher, to avoid situations that may lead to humiliation or disrespect, particularly in front of peers in the classroom. Seen through this lens, contribution can be complex, troubling for students, and very different to the contribution that takes place in the school hall during a Harvest Festival.
In Rhythm for Reading sessions, contribution is extremely important. Each session lasts only ten minutes in length, so the students need to commit themselves to tasks from the very beginning of the session. Every second is dedicated to contribution. The main difference between students’ contribution in Rhythm for Reading sessions and the classroom is that they contribute simultaneously as a group rather than as individuals. This reduces the sense of vulnerability considerably. The contribution that they make as a group involves consideration of others; for example in the way that they blend their voices together so that no one is louder or quieter than anyone else. This achieves a true sense of group cooperation in which everyone can feel that the energies of contributing and belonging are truly symbiotic.
Although the pressures on teachers and students are seemingly increasingly difficult to resolve, Rhythm for Reading by its nature is non-competitive, harmonious and inclusive. As such, it bridges the chasm between the starkly contrasting forms of contribution occurring in the classroom and the school hall. Rhythm for Reading makes use of rhythmic patterns rather than words to develop reading skills, yet builds fluency, cognitive control and confidence, while cementing group cohesion and commitment to learning.
Pollard, A. (1987). Introduction: New Perspectives on Children, In A. Pollard (Ed.) Children and their primary schools: A new perspective, (p. 1- 11), The Falmer Press, taylor & Francis Inc., London, New York & Philadelphia
Rowe, M. (1986). Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education, 37, 43-50.
The new school year is about to start and for the young people transferring to secondary school, September will bring new friendships, new relationships with teachers as well as new journeys to and from school. A few years ago I worked on a fascinating research project about secondary school transfer across England, interviewing 24 young people at four points in time. The young adolescents left their primary schools full of positivity and high expectations, anticipating with relish many new friendships and exciting opportunities.
I heard about novelty, new ideas, a fresh perspective, a change of environment, hope, excitement and fulfilment. Moving beyond the limits of primary school was a very strong theme - though the young people stressed the importance of maintaining strong connections with their ‘old’ friends, meeting them at weekends to enjoy ‘messing about’ (dancing and singing to their favourite songs), whereas socialising with their ‘new’ friends after school involved talking and listening to one another’s music. Isn’t this contrast interesting? Music appears incredibly important for building deeper social connections.
Looking at everyday social behaviour, music is woven into our lives at a personal level as well as at the level of musical experiences in the wider community. For example, personal musical preferences are important at an individual level, such as when singing and dancing with infants and children, sustaining attention on tasks and work, forming romantic relationships and even in resolving problems with health. However, music is also used more publicly for celebrations in families, social groups, workplaces and communities.
Broadly speaking, it seems that music that we are exposed to via mass media may help to relax vigilance, inhibition, scepticism and caution. Film makers for example regard music as essential in helping their audience to suspend their disbelief, to relax their critical judgement, to be more easily persuaded by the special effects as well as being captivated by the fiction, the drama and characters. What might explain this?
Humans are mammals and to some extent tend to revert to socially instinctive behaviour when socially uninhibited. Studies of other mammals such as rats and mice have shown that social signals related to mating, nurturing or protecting young are processed in the mid-brain.Remarkably, tiny mice pups produce ultra-sonic squeaks when separated from the rest of the litter and scientists have shown that only mother mice actually hear these high frequencies (Liu et al, 2006; Liu et al., 2007). Since, many mammal species commit infanticide, this specialised form of social signal is highly advantageous, ensuring that the vulnerable pups have a greater chance of survival.
Mythical tales of abandonment, involving fear of the jaws of death followed by the joy of reunion are familiar themes in stories from all around the world. Sound is a primal medium of connection and communication via mid brain processes that are rapid, subjective, subtle and subconscious. Similarly, the telling of stories, the recitation of poems and songs are also examples of how auditory signals are woven together to communicate for example fear, distress and joyful reunion, or other emotions. Telling a story involves a particular style of social engagement known as entrainment, drawing people in, encouraging them to lean into the tale using a particular blend of structure and rhythm and emotional processing. The auditory structures allow listeners to suspend their disbelief, to step inside the story with the narrator creating a state of seeming emotional safety. The use of descriptive language to convey the affect (emotional content) of the narrative may help individuals and communities to process disturbing feelings within a structure, a contextual framework of time and space. The structure allows the tale to be retold and remembered for future social gatherings.
In Rhythm for Reading, the entrainment process involves the sharing of motion, affect, the chanting of rhythmic patterns within musical structures. The specially composed musical resources create the time and space for this type of social engagement. Although this is a reading intervention that doesn’t use words, here are some case studies, demonstrating changes in reading after taking part in our rhythm-based group entrainment exercises.
Liu RC, Linden JF, Schreiner CE. 2006. Improved cortical entrainment to infant communication calls in mothers compared with virgin mice. Eur J Neurosci 23:3087–3097.
Liu RC, Schreiner CE. 2007. Auditory cortical detection and discrimination correlates with communicative significance. PLoS Biol 5:e173.
When a child is able to focus its attention, it is able to learn. When attention is fragmented or fades too quickly, little learning takes place. In this post I will explain why rhythm has a strong role to play in strengthening working memory, self-regulation and cognitive switching. These three aspects of cognitive control influence the way that attention supports learning. A weak working memory is frequently described as an invisible ‘barrier’ to learning and is prevalent in specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia. Working memory is the blackboard of the mind - the mental space upon which mental calculations, tasks, plans or lists can be reordered, manipulated and stored for a short period of time. Children with a weak working memory are able to manipulate and recall a span of only three information units, whereas those with a stronger than average working memory have a span of nine or more information units. However, the ability to manipulate and store information need not be limited by working memory span.
Infants acquire their mother tongue by detecting the rhythmical patterns in the overall stream of speech utterances (Saffran et al., 1996). Sensitivity to rhythm expands working memory by ‘chunking’ the information into rhythmical groups, which is why it is often easier to recite a phone number by clustering the digits together in threes or fours. This chunking strategy probably extends way back through thousands of generations. Preliterate societies have transmitted and conserved cultural practices through singing and storytelling, but also via rhythmical chanting and reciting of verses.
Now that we are a predominantly literate society, we are a little out of touch with the ancient tradition of rhythmically chanting of large amounts of information. However, memory experts show that it is possible to extend the natural span of working memory substantially and to recall information reliably by using chunking strategies (Mathy et al., 2016). For example, Rajan Mahadevan memorised at least 30,000 digits of pi by chunking the digits into groups of ten, he practised recalling the digits and extending the list further day after day (Ericsson & Moxley, 2014).
In classrooms, some children struggle to concentrate. Their attention is scattered rather than focused, or may fade before they can engage with learning. Failed attempts to focus are frustrating for them and often spark a negative spiral, which leads to low self-esteem. Mindfulness training has shown that focussing on the rhythm of the breath is an effective way to overcome distracting, negative thoughts (Siegel, 2007). However, teachers of children who have completed the Rhythm for Reading programme comment on visible improvements in concentration, which indicates that a ten-minute burst of rhythmic activity per week reinforces focussed attention and strengthens cognitive control.
Children lacking cognitive control are usually impulsive and struggle with interpersonal skills. They are low in self-regulation, a form of cognitive control that involves willpower and the perseverance to resist distractions and inhibit impulses, particularly while working towards a particular goal or target (Zimmerman, 2000) and usually emerges in very young children prior to starting school (Rothbart et al., 1992). The rhythm-based activities of the Rhythm for Reading programme, which were first designed for a group of children with little or no inhibition or self-regulation, are immensely effective in cultivating self-awareness and self-regulation in line with increased sensitivity to rhythm. There is also a deeper engagement with reading towards the middle of the programme. Being better able to detect the rhythmic ebb and flow in the text, the focus of attention narrows during the process of reading, effectively blocking out distractions. Self-regulation becomes a form of metacognition as the children monitor their awareness of their reading experience. Their information processing becomes sharper, enabling a natural ease to emerge in both self-awareness and cognitive control of the reading process (Long, 2014).
While self-regulation filters out distractions during reading, cognitive switching builds flexibility into reading behaviour. An obvious example would be that if the reader detected an error, they would need to be sufficiently flexible to stop the flow of information, backtrack in the text and then restart without losing the overall thread of the passage. A less obvious example might involve the reader in alternating their awareness between different points of view in a dialogue. A degree of cognitive switching would be involved until these points of view had been securely assimilated and integrated into the overall comprehension of the text. Sensitivity to rhythm assists flexibility during reading by supporting the overall security, stability and assimilation of the text, however demanding it may be.
Cognitive control supports focussed attention and improved sensitivity to rhythm contributes to cognitive control in several ways: (i) organisation of information in working memory, (ii) inhibition of distracting thoughts and (iii) security during cognitive switching. Taken together, these functions support focussed attention, the development of skilled reading and independence as a learner, all of which are required to mitigate the effects of disadvantage (Heckman, 2006).
A newly published paper on a randomised controlled trial shows the statistically significant effect of rhythmic training on disadvantaged children’s reading comprehension. Read more here.
Ericsson, K. A., & Moxley, J. H. (2014). Experts’ superior memory: From accumulation of chunks to building memory skills that mediate improved performance and learning. In T. J. Perfect & D. S. Lindsay (Eds.), SAGE handbook of applied memory (pp. 404-420). London, UK: Sage Publishing
Heckman, J.J. (2006) Skill formation and economics of investing in disadvantaged children, Science, 312, 1900-1902.
Long, M (2014) “‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading.” Research Studies in Music Education 36.1: 107-124.
Mathy, Fabien, et al. (2016)Developmental abilities to form chunks in immediate memory and its non-relationship to span development.” Frontiers in psychology 7: 201.
Rothbart, Mary K., Hasan Ziaie, and Cherie G. O’Boyle. (1992) Self‐regulation and emotion in infancy.New directions for child and adolescent development 55: 7-23.
Saffran, Jenny R., Richard N. Aslin, and Elissa L. Newport. (1996) Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants.” Science 274.5294: 1926-1928.
Siegel, D. (2007) The Mindful Brain New York: Norton
Zimmerman, B.J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In M. Boekaerts, P.R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds) Handbook of self regulation (pp. 13-39). San Diego: Academic Press