Saturday school doesn’t orchestrate success

A recent study from the Education Endowment Foundation found disappointing results for a Saturday school designed to improve the reading and maths attainment of underachieving and disadvantaged pupils in Key Stage 2.

Developed by the SHINE Trust and Hallé Orchestra, the intervention provided additional school-based literacy and numeracy lessons, based on musical themes, as well as visits to Hallé rehearsals, performances and other theme-based activities. Twenty-five Saturday sessions, each lasting five hours, were planned for the intervention over the course of an academic year, delivered by qualified teachers, teaching assistants, peer mentors, and professional musicians.

The evaluation, by Victoria White and colleagues from Durham University, consisted of two randomised controlled trials (RCTs)—a pilot trial and a main trial—and a process evaluation. The pilot trial involved 361 Year 5 and 6 pupils in 18 schools; the main trial involved 2,306 Year 4, 5 and 6 pupils in 38 schools.

There was no evidence that the programme had an impact on the reading or mathematics attainment, or attitudes to reading, maths, music, and school, of the children in the trial.

Attendance of eligible pupils was often low and considered as a barrier to successful implementation. Reasons for low attendance included pupils’ lack of availability to attend the Saturday sessions, variable parental engagement with the programme, and limited time at the beginning of the programme for schools to engage children and parents.

The process evaluation revealed a positive picture of involvement and engagement for those pupils who attended the Saturday school activities. Evaluators observed good working relationships between the teachers and pupils, and positive and purposeful learning environments in lessons. All stakeholders felt pupils were making noticeable improvements in behaviour, confidence, and development of social skills.

Source: SHINE on Manchester (2016), Education Endowment Foundation

Shall we dance? Arts integration shows promise in early learning

Arts integration is an approach to learning that uses dance, drama, music, writing, drawing, and other arts to teach concepts in subjects not traditionally associated with the arts. The American Institutes for Research (AIR) has just released a report, Arts Integration: A Promising Approach to Improving Early Learning, summarising the findings of a four-year, randomised controlled study of arts integration in early childhood maths funded by a grant from the US Department of Education.

The study examined the effects of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts’ professional development programme for early childhood teachers, teaching them to incorporate dance, drama, and music to teach STEM concepts – with an emphasis on maths – to children aged 4-6.

Eighteen elementary schools in two cohorts in Virginia were randomly assigned to participate in the Wolf Trap programme or to continue with their usual practice (Year 1 = 6 schools, 3 experimental/3 control; year 2 = 12 schools, 6 experimental/6 control). Differences in student ethnicity, native language, and socio-economic status, and in teacher experience, existed but were not statistically significant. The AIR study found that Wolf Trap students scored significantly higher than the control-group students on the standardised Early Math Diagnostic Assessment. Compared to controls, the first-year cohort’s scores were equivalent to 26 additional days of learning (effect size = 0.17), and the second-year cohort’s scores were equivalent to 34 additional days of learning (effect size = 0.21).

Effects on teacher practice were analysed via teacher survey, observations, and interviews. Wolf Trap teachers used arts integration in 32% of observed lessons, whereas control teachers used it in 18% of observed lessons.

AIR also examined the research on key features of successful professional development programmes and correlated them with Wolf Trap’s programme. Successful attributes of the Wolf Trap Early STEM/Arts programme included training prior to the school year, intensive mentoring and coaching during the school year, and strategies to align classroom practice with the schools’ goals and standards.

Source: Arts Integration: A Promising Approach to Improving Early Learning (2016), American Institutes for Research.

Sketchy findings for arts research

A new systematic review from researchers at Durham University explores the impact of arts education on the cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes of school-aged children aged 3-16, especially disadvantaged children.

The authors found 199 studies that met their inclusion criteria. They considered arts education to include a broad range of subjects, from traditional fine arts to modern dance and movement, hip hop, poetry and creative writing. The majority of studies were about music education or a combination of art forms.

The review found no convincing evidence that demonstrated a causal relationship between arts education and young people’s academic and other wider outcomes, although music (instrumental, music education and music integration) showed promise across all age groups.

The authors rated almost all the studies in the review as providing weak evidence because of serious design flaws, meaning it was difficult to state conclusively what the impact of arts activities in education might be. However, they point out that as a large number of the studies suggest positive effects more rigorous and robust evaluations would be justified.

The Education Endowment Foundation, who commissioned the research, argue that whether or not there is a causal link to attainment, schools should still find space in their day to ensure all children benefit from a stimulating arts education.

Source: Impact of Arts Education on the Cognitive and Non-cognitive Outcomes of School-aged Children: A Review of Evidence (2015), Education Endowment Foundation.

Preschool music hits a wrong note

A new study assesses the effects of early music education on children’s cognitive development. The researchers conducted two randomised controlled trials (RCTs) with preschool children. The experiments investigated the cognitive effects of a six-week series of 45-minute music classes, as compared to a similar but non-musical form of arts lesson (visual arts, Experiment 1) or to a no-treatment control (Experiment 2).

After the six weeks the children were assessed in four cognitive areas in which older arts-trained pupils have been reported to excel: spatial-navigational reasoning, visual form analysis, numerical discrimination, and receptive vocabulary. The authors initially found that children from the music class showed greater spatial-navigational ability than the children from the visual arts class, while children from the visual arts class showed greater visual form analysis ability than children from the music class (Experiment 1). However, a partial replication attempt comparing music training to a no-treatment control failed to confirm these findings (Experiment 2).

The combined results of the two experiments were negative: overall, children provided with music classes performed no better than those with visual arts or no classes on any assessment. The authors say that their findings underscore the need for replication in RCTs, and suggest caution in interpreting the positive findings from past studies of cognitive effects of music lessons.

Source: Two Randomized Trials Provide No Consistent Evidence for Nonmusical Cognitive Benefits of Brief Preschool Music Enrichment (2013), PLoS ONE, December 2013.

Examining the connection between music and reading

This study published in Journal of Research in Reading examines the correlation between musical skills and reading skills, and investigates whether musical training has a positive effect on reading ability. A total of 159 primary school children from eight classes in Germany participated in the study. Children in the experimental group received special musical training twice a week for eight months, while children in the comparison group had additional training in visual arts to the same extent as the musical training. A second comparison group did not receive any special training for the period of the study. Assignment to the different groups was randomised.

Pre-tests (a standardised test, a questionnaire that explored socio-economic background, and music and reading measurements) were conducted before the training began, and then reading skills and musical ability were tested again immediately after the training had been administered. Key findings were as follows:

  • Rhythmical abilities (the ability to differentiate between rhythmic patterns and tone lengths) were correlated significantly positively with decoding skills (both reading accuracy and reading prosody – the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech).
  • Tonal skills (discrimination of pitch and melodic/tonal patterns) were not correlated with reading skills.
  • The special musical training had a significant effect on reading accuracy in word reading.

Source: The Effects of Musical Training on the Decoding Skills of German-speaking Primary School Children (2013), Journal of Research in Reading.

Improving literacy though music

An independent evaluation of the New London Orchestra’s (NLO) “Literacy through Music” programme shows that participants achieve significantly more in literacy and music compared to similar children outside the programme.

The 20-week NLO programme took place in seven Year 2 classes in three schools in the London borough of Newham. It aimed to improve the reading abilities of six- to seven-year-old children by engaging them in a special programme of music activities that were combined with sessions involving games, poetry, and story-telling.

Researchers tested children at the beginning and end of the NLO programme and found that participants’ reading ages went up by 8.4 months on average. The reading ages of the children in the control group improved by only 1.8 months. Participants’ singing ability also improved significantly, as measured by a researcher-led singing assessment.

Source: Literacy through music: A research evaluation of the New London Orchestra’s literacy through music programme (2012), International music education research centre