How a British School Improved Its Math Scores without Teaching a Single Math Lesson More

Feversham Academy in Bradford, England has profoundly improved its students’ performance by adding a lot more music to their curriculum.

Kids sing
(MARCO SAROLDI via SHUTTERSTOCK)

“Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There's not some trick involved with it. It's pure and it's real. And it moves and it heals and it communicates and does all these incredible things." — Tom Petty

Maybe it's just something about the way music exercises our brains, but its effect can be pretty amazing, as Feversham Primary Academy in Bradford, England has recently found. “We were in special measures," headmaster Naveed Indrees tells The Guardian. “We could have gone down the route where we said we need to get results up, we're going to do more English, more maths, more booster classes, but we didn't." Instead, they took a gamble: They added two hours a week of music for every student, and the results have been stunning:

  • The school is now in the 90th percentile of British schools for student progress.
  • 74% of its kids met the nation's reading standard, higher than the national average of 53%.
  • Feversham's students are 7.1 points ahead of the national average for reading and 3.4 for writing.
  • Feversham's students are 7.1 points ahead of the national average for math.
  • The school's approach to music is based on the method developed by the British Kodály Academy, which develop kids' overall ability to learn through “singing, rhythm work, Solfa [solfege] and hand-sign work, stick-notation, memory development, part work, and improvisation," according to the Kodály website. At Feversham, each student has at least the two hours of music per week, including a 30-minute music lesson, a half-hour followup, and a one-hour assembly with a guest artist and group singing.


    YouTube star Ahmad Hussain comes to sing at Feversham (IQRA PROMOTIONS)

    Another factor at Feversham that makes their achievement even more striking is that the community it serves is unusually challenging. It's a poor and densely populated area in which three-quarters of the population is of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Indian heritage. 99% of Fevershams students speak a language other than English at home — half of them first learn it at school.

    But Feversham is sensitive to the conflicting cultural differences and takes proactive advantage of them to build a cohesive student population, with students singing, for example, both Beatles songs and Nasheeds, Muslim worship songs sometimes accompanied by percussion.

    The staff has found that sharing music helps the kids overcome community-based tensions and get along, says Indrees, since “A lot of these quiet kids, they don't know how to deal with emotions, they don't know how to deal with negativity."

    Bradford (TIM GREEN)

    Music's capabilities as a learning aid may lie in its ability to fine-tune the brain's ability to recognize meaningful patterns and information. According to Nina Kraus of Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Brain Volts, “The brain is unable to process all of the available sensory information from second to second, and thus must selectively enhance what is relevant. A musician's brain selectively enhances information-bearing elements in sound. In a beautiful interrelationship between sensory and cognitive processes, the nervous system makes associations between complex sounds and what they mean." In a piece just published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Kraus writes, “the auditory brainstem is not a 'set it and forget it' device," and that, “experience with 'good' sound tunes the auditory brain through the integration of sensorimotor, cognitive and reward circuitry." Kraus's research suggests this has “especially important implications for battling the deficit that low-SES [socioeconomic status] individuals contend with."

    (DWAYNE)

    U.S. educators are currently infatuated with STEM education, which de-emphasizes creative areas of study such as music, and many worry that STEM may be inhibiting students' overall development. Feversham's impressive success suggests that this may just be part of the problem, since STEM also overlooks the promising opportunity to enhance students' capacity for learning Feversham's success demonstrates. As Indress tells The Guardian, “My hope is that headteachers and people holding purse strings, possibly even the people who make important decisions in the government, will read about our school and realize that creative subjects are not mere add-ons but essential for the progress of all pupils."

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