I’m April Greenan, the creator and custodian of this website and blog. I’m a musicologist. This website is education-centered and designed to inform, to spark questions, and to guide visitors to valuable resources on a variety of subjects that, in my view, are linked to music, sound, thinking, and sound thinking.
The For Students pages are intended to extend my classroom into a space my students can explore as corollary to our course material.
I invite observations and discussion about how to improve higher education, especially in the United States.
SoundThinking will provide a pivot point for access to current research on how our brains process music and how music affects our brains. I suggest that the demonstrated and irrefutable fact that music improves brain function might be a thread in discussions of how to improve education. (It seems obvious to me but somehow the music-brain connection is lost on those who determine mandatory curriculum in the United States.)
I had the honor and delight of working with the late Kim Peek, the extraordinary person who inspired the title character of the movie “Rain Man” and the world’s first and only person to be designated a mega-savant. His brain was powered by music, so details of my work with him will be posted here along with video footage that has never before been made public.
Welcome to SoundThinking. Please share your ideas with us.
For a long time now, I’ve been teaching college students about music and culture and history and other topics and ideas that fascinate me and that I think will in some fashion enrich and expand how my students think and how they perceive the world. I can’t (or don’t want to) imagine not spending most of my time either in a classroom with students or preparing to be there. Because I enjoy research and teaching so much, I used to think it almost criminal to accept remuneration for doing what I do professionally–but I got over that.
My point is that I feel extremely fortunate to have the job I do and have always worked very hard to design courses and coursework according to the best pedagogy I can practice. My learning and teaching paradigm has always reflected the liberal arts concept of education, and I found the late 20th-century wave of interdisciplinarianism highly gratifying because it was, in my view, simply a modern return to the venerable liberal arts tradition, which, if you think about it, actually is more relevant today than ever before: our “millennial learners” must enter their adult lives with a larger knowledge base than that required of (and available to) earlier generations; all indications are that 21st-century careers will require multiple, flexible skills and the ability to grasp disparate concepts. In its breadth and depth, the liberal arts education–contrary to pithy sayings on T-shirts–is perhaps the ideal preparation for real life. In that line of thinking, that the best formal education is one that encompasses an array of arts and sciences, I am old-school.
I also readily admit to my fondness of the traditional scenario in which, ideally, an expert in a given discipline tells the stories and states the facts of a particular topic and shares with eager students his or her carefully curated and grand thoughts about the thing. We, the students, would put pen to paper and jot down notes while listening. The expert (aka the professor) would engage and entertain us primarily by means of his or her own cleverness and wit. We would devote many hours to reading other experts’ accounts of the thing and fashion in our memories an invisible mosaic of dates, names, facts, and concepts. Periodically, we’d put pen to paper again and, drawing from memory, would write everything we’d learned about a batch of material, include our own evolving thoughts about it, hand our work to the expert, and hope for a good grade. We were responsible for learning the material the expert presented to us. It’s a fine model. Logistically simple. Direct. It is the definition of old-school and, for centuries in the Western world, it–and variations of it–was the preferred format of formal education.
But old-school schooling is now over.
I’m certain that I am not alone in mourning this loss. I have spent many years and much of my life’s energy working toward the ideal described above. I have been honored to stand before students and wear as best I could the mantle, if you will, of professors who taught and inspired me. I have worked diligently to present material in different ways, to make it relevant and useful to my students (who seem to get younger every year), to bring the most recent and best research into the classroom, to expand and challenge my students’ thinking.
Of course I had observed and celebrated the fact that our world changed with the advent of the World Wide Web. Having taught a graduate-level research methodology course for 13 years, having been the director of a music library, and merely being a musicologist (we like to get our eyes if not hands on a lot of information), I can’t begin to quantify the impact of the Internet on my research, my teaching, and the quality and scope of my own and my students’ work. The value of the Internet to the academy is immeasurable.
The only reasonable comparison to put forward as an innovation of Internet-like magnitude is the printing press itself.
As the Internet and consequent technologies have “changed our world” (a dramatic statement I used above that, drama and all, is accurate), they’ve also initiated what some neuroscientists claim is a rewiring of the human brain (see, for example, Richard Restack’s book, The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind (Rodale, 2003)).
Today’s college students are digital natives, and such beings actually do think and learn differently than every generation that preceded them. Changes in how humans think (!) mandate changes in how we educate humans.
My commitment to helping people learn is rock solid, and because my students have undergone a proverbial sea change, I must, too. Simple math. Otherwise, I may as well return the University’s library books, turn in my keys, and (pay somebody to) clean out my office.
“In the future, we can expect that not much difference will exist between education and entertainment. We just have to put intelligence behind the entertainment.”
North Carolina State University’s James Lester, at the 12th International Conference on College Teaching and Learning
Pedagogical literature brims with studies that indicate that today’s students don’t learn as well from lectures and written exams as they do from working together in small groups, from hands-on activities that can be completed in a relatively short period of time, and when their attention can be frequently redirected to something new. Accordingly, websites and professional journals are afloat with accounts of educators’ novel techniques for accommodating the millennial learning style. Some educators are dispensing with graded assignments altogether so that no one will feel badly about receiving a low score. One college professor recently gushed with enthusiasm over a successful class session carried out in the format of a TV game show. The Socratic method updated, I suppose.
I openly admit my nostalgia for old-school schooling–lectures, written exams, formal essays, and papers with correctly formatted footnotes and bibliographic citations. But today’s classrooms are dynamic and students and teachers collaborate as never before. We, the professors, exercise great flexibility in putting class time to best use. Cell phones and laptops in class allow spontaneous learning and discovery. It’s exhilarating.
Back in the twentieth century, on my very first day of teaching undergraduate students at a large research-based American university, I was armed with a huge and very heavy, manually operated and noisy slide projector with requisite multiple extension cords, a buffet of CDs, LPs, and cassette tapes, and felt pretty high-tech. Today I wonder how I functioned in classrooms that weren’t wired or smart.
Given the characteristics of the typical American college classroom today, must I sell my scholarly soul and become an entertainer with office hours? No. Should I begin to lavishly praise students simply for showing up? No. Should I extend myself well beyond my professorial comfort zone, develop new approaches to coursework and assessment, and figure out better ways to help my students learn? Yes.