Monday, November 30, 2009

Week 7: El Sistema on the Brain - A Meeting of Two Minds

How can the intuitive and elusive spark of El Sistema be translated into more scientific language for the United States where data drives funding priorities and dictates the way in which a program is valued? 

Even though this is a question that I hope to answer throughout my fellowship studies and observations, a recent webinar funded through the Juneau School District and Association of Alaska School Boards started me on my path. The presenter of the webinar, Eric Jensen who is an author of many brain-based books, led a group of Alaskan teachers and administrators through the research referenced in his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind.  With a new lens called El Sistema, I was able to connect many of its principles with Jensen’s findings, as well as with his recommendations for schools to help children in poverty. 

Keep in mind this was a 6-hour webinar, so I will bullet the main points and recommend reading his book for more details.  I hope it will help bridge what El Sistema has discovered intuitively with the scientific research valued by the US.  Here it goes!

Jensen lists the reasons why kids from a low socio-economic status (SES) underperform: 
  • Chronic stressors
  • Lack of positive role model
  • Ineffective teaching
  • Lack of comprehensive support
  • Lack of quality relationships
  • Little or no hope
The good news is that schools can reverse this process by targeting what Jensen calls SHARE or the Poverty Solution Model: Skill-building, Hope, Accommodations, Relationships and Enrichment.  Here are a few specifics for each:

S = SKILL-BUILDING: develop memory, processing and sequencing skills through activities that incorporate student relevance, focused attention, built-in feedback, last 30-90 min/day and occur 3-6 times/week.

H = HOPE for the future through long-term effort, delayed gratification, and setting and getting goals;

A = ACCOMMODATIONS as needed with food, transportation, health care, activities, people and places;

R = RELATIONSHIPS are stable and positive, include mentors and positive role models; and

E = ENRICHMENT is daily, constant, challenging and meaningful with plenty of social interaction.

Jensen's SHARE model easily translates into El Sistema philosophy.  Music-making naturally develops memory, sequencing and processing skills.  In an El Sistema model, this highly motivating activity happens consistently with lots of social interaction, peer mentoring and hope-building through long-term effort.   Accommodations, such as free transportation, instruments and music instruction, make this incredible world accessible to everyone.  Jensen summarizes his presentation with these four powerful statements, which have El Sistema principles written all over them:

  1. Effort and Emotional IQ matters more than IQ in predicting achievement
  2. Schools need to be in the business of building hope and positive social interaction.
  1. High-performing schools excel at developing these three Primary Shapers or Drivers of Achievement::
  • Relationships: intensity and reliability of specific attachments, including adult and peer mentors.
  • Social Status:  differentiating oneself from others and feeling special.
  • Socialization:  gaining the group’s acceptance and feeling part of a team
  1. “Arts support the development of critical neurobiological systems, which enhance improved attentional, social, cognitive, academic and cultural outcomes across ALL subject areas.”


      1. For my preschoolers, just waiting for the "Ready Go"; the conductor's anti cruses is frontal lobe development. For others it is EQ, patience with social interaction.
        I tried to find some relevant video from a documentary about the Algebra Project Even Bob Moses has found relevance of many of the concepts you have been discussing as Abreu Fellows. Teaching math for a technological world demands that you do more than come up with a right answer. It requires that you put off deciding on the right answer as long as possible to explore all the possible processes for discovering an answer. Children need to feel they have a safe place to play games, toy with an idea. This demands some major EQ development. Moses has also created a mentoring system. I find it interesting to see that they do retreats with their mentors to develop their leadership skills further. Everyone is considered a contributor to problem solving. Its about much more than just knowledge and intellect. Social cooperation is an import part of the enrichment. Egad! No wonder the Chinese have America on the defensive lately.
        When teaching Suzuki Violin in Irvine or Santa Ana I am always thinking how can I create an environment of cooperative learning. How can I get both parents and children to share in the process across generations, ethnicity and social economic status. To see value in one another's contributions to the learning environment.
        Modern musicologist have reason to believe that there is something inherent about music that can be used for that purpose. i.e. the urban students from different hoods rapping their prime numbers together.
        Who is looking at why music can be used to develop that kind of EQ in every subject or domain?
        Wouldn't the Greeks think we are so backward in the way we educate children? We have become such specialist, very top down, education by authority. How do we excavate this feudal demon from our educational system?

      2. I went to Jensen's site and was quite intrigued to see recomendations that I have always made to my fellow professionals. But Oh no. Why would they want to hear a bunch of churpy cheerful music in the hall ways or play grounds. Never mind that it would do the students so much good.
        My Suzuki students just played a bunch of it for the last Gala Fundraiser for a local hospital at a Luxury Hotel in CA and the guest just loved it. IT was all dances from the Suzuki Repertory.

        His ideas about teaching small amounts of information at a time with as much novel review as possible on the fundamentals is straight out of any good Suzuki Teacher training class. I think most great music teachers know perfectly well that they are teaching a multitask activity, each layer of which needs to be internalized, else one can easily overwhelm even an advanced or talented student.
        I get a little tired of not being supported by staff when I have parents complaining that I am going to slowly with the content of the class. Parents want to see big changes from their kids with out realizing how hard their children are working. This is why we need to have classes for parents, so parents can appreciate what it is like to be a novice at a musical instrument.
        It really helps when they realize that the first Twinkle they learn takes the longest to learn and master but then the next 3 Twinkles go so much faster after they learn how to be systematic as students.