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Predispositions in learning music, math, physics, and logic. Is it a matter of talent or just learnable skills? [podcast]

Sandra Užule - Fons

Today we are joined by Christoph Drösser, a German science journalist based in San Francisco, to find out about some fascinating connections between different school subjects and our abilities and predispositions in learning and studying these subjects.

Christoph Drösser has a graduate degree in mathematics and has written numerous general interest books, covering topics as varied as music and the brain, math, physics, logic, and weather. His book “Der Mathematikverführer” (“The Math Seducer”) was a national bestseller in Germany in 2008. His weekly column about everyday myths (“Stimmt’s?”) has appeared in the German weekly national paper Die Zeit since 1997 and is a daily radio spot on two German radio stations. Christoph has been named Science Journalist of the Year in Germany in 2005 by Medium Magazine, and he received the Media Prize of the German Mathematicians’ Society (DMV) in 2008 for his contributions to the popularization of mathematics.

His book about music dealt with contemporary scientific research into the connection between music and the brain. We asked Christoph about the interdisciplinarity of music as a school subject.

“If you talk about music education, I think we don’t do enough music education at school. Not because someone said that, if you learn music at school, it’s good for other subjects at school. «It’s better for math if you learn a lot about the music» —  there is no proof for that. And I don’t think that that’s the reason they should do music education. Music has a purpose in itself, it’s beautiful, it’s art. But if you look at the effects of music education, one that has been proven is the social effect. If you teach music in the right way, not just in an abstract manner, but by making music or listening to the music that you enjoy, it’s good for the social competence of kids. There have been experiments, for example, in which children in a difficult social situation have been given classical instruments to play, and have been taught the basics of violin playing. Most of these kids won’t be violin players in their lives, but they treated the instruments very carefully. They have good interactions with other kids, they are less violent — these might be some of the skills that are the side effects of teaching music. The children don’t necessarily become smarter, I don’t think that is true, but they acquire social skills, and underdeveloped capabilities to learn at schools”. Christoph then goes on to add:  “If you ask kids, especially young adults and teenagers, what their favorite occupation in their free time is, they say listening to music, and if you ask them what their favorite school subject is, music is at the bottom. That is a sign that maybe we are teaching it in the wrong way. Almost everybody can appreciate music and hold a note while singing. Music used to be something you did in your family, in your local village, and people in other cultures still do it. But in our civilization, music has become an expert thing, because music can be heard on the radio, or seen on TV performed by many expert singers or musicians, and you think, if I can’t do that, I am not good enough, and that’s nonsense, you don’t have to be an expert or the best singer in the world to sing”.

When it comes to math, in Christoph’s experience, the most important thing is the right approach to teaching: “With math, the big problem is to find some access point for every kid to enjoy math problems. For example, some kids like the abstract character of math, pure math, abstract structures, and geometry and logic, while other kids like applied mathematics — how to use math to solve everyday problems — everybody has different access routes and a different approach to math”.

In our interview, we also raise the problem of predispositions. To describe it, Christoph gives a famous example:  “In my music book, I still favor the view that talent is 10 000 hours of work, something Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his book “Outliers. The Story of Success”. For example, the Beatles were so good partly because in their early years they played in Hamburg (Germany) two or three gigs every night. They played for years, probably 10 000 hours, and that made them such a good band. And you can do anything if you just put enough work into it, everybody can learn everything. But I don’t think that’s true literally, because I think that people come with predispositions towards one thing or another, like in sports. If you are seven feet tall you might have a basketball talent; when you look at sprinters they have a different body shape than long-distance runners. You don’t have to be world-class in everything you do. Imagine telling some kids they shouldn’t do sports because they won’t ever be champions. The same goes for math or music.

Christoph was also asked the question we have been addressing to our interviewees in connection with the Holistic Think Tank’s recent international study, namely: What should schools teach? In Christoph’s opinion, school has to prepare us for our adult life in a democratic and open society. “People should be citizens who can find their way and be responsible for their own lives and the years to come, since change is so fast and it’s accelerating. When I was at school there was no internet, we didn’t have personal computers. Did my school prepare me for life? Maybe it did, not because it taught me how to use a PC, but because it formed my view of the world, made me into someone who can tackle things like the foundations of mathematics but who also has social skills. As I said before, it’s not a catalog of facts that you should learn, because these facts can occur 20 years from now, but general capabilities to see through the things that politicians say, to understand new technological developments — all these little foundational elements. It’s less a canon of facts that you have to learn than a canon of capabilities. And critical thinking, so that you learn not to believe in everything that you read on the internet, for example. We have a big problem right now with social media. We are confronted with all kinds of stories, sometimes fake news, and to learn to tell the difference between a good source and a bad source is not straightforward”.

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Predispositions in learning music, math, physics and logic (Episode 8)

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About the author
Sandra Užule - Fons
Holds Ph.D. in history, journalist, documentary filmmaker. Researcher and author of scientific and other publications about the Baltic States and media. Her professional career started in Warsaw in Polish Public Radio working for more than 10 years as an editor in Polish Radio External Service. She cooperates with media outlets in the implementation of media projects in Central Europe and Post-soviet countries. Currently, she is working on an alternative school project.
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