Jonny Berliner - science through song


Opinions and reflections on the dissemination of science from a science troubadour, educator and sci ed researcher.

Songs for super science revision

The Easter holidays are nearly over and for year 11 teachers and students this means one thing - revision, revision, revision. It can be a stressful time for teachers, students and their parents and it can be boring for students too. The new GCSE curricula for science are content heavy and students' memories will be stretched to the max. Sitting down and memorising facts is rarely fun but teachers will hopefully make the best of it by designing games and dynamic sessions for students to go over the enormous quantity of material in the short time left. If the sessions are boring then nothing gets remembered. If they are too slow then they run out of time to revise it all. So the challenge for teachers and students is to cram lots of information in without it getting dull. Students quickly tire of making mind maps and teachers struggle to find the time to make great resources but over the past year and a half, since I left the classroom, I have been working on a set of resources that might help! The struggle for parents of course, is to keep their kids on track without sounding like a nag.

As a classroom teacher, I was always thought of as 'that funny one who plays the guitar'. I never minded being branded as an eccentric and the students got a kick out of the change of pace in the lesson when the guitar came out. They were also vocal about the fact that my lyrics helped them remember information for tests. The problem was, I had not written the songs for their learning, I had written them to be sung at nerdy comedy nights. They regularly asked me to write songs about the GCSE material but I just never had time. This is one of the reasons I left classroom teaching. I felt like I could write these songs in a way that would be able to help teachers and students alike. I have written 10 and made (rudimentary) videos for them and starting from next Monday I will be promoting one a day in 10 days of revision songs. I will use this blog post to outline why they work and how to use them if you are a teacher, parent or student.

SONGS ARE ENGAGING - For most people, songs are engaging, by which I mean that they invoke an emotional response. Why this is the case is something of a mystery to science but it is nevertheless a fact and is why almost all forms of communal gatherings across all cultures involve music of some kind, from the chants on football terraces, to religious services, to club nights. Why there isn't more music in classrooms is a mystery to me as it clearly serves some function in terms of decreasing tension when you have a lot of people in a small space. And when technical information is presented in song, it does not seem so dry. It would be boring to listen to the same lecture more than a couple of times but we happily stick songs on over and over again, much to the delight of any songwriter that has ever had a Christmas hit! When students revise, repetition is key. Why not make the process that much easier by setting it to music?

SONGS INTRODUCE TECHNICAL LANGUAGE - Technical language can be immensely off-putting. The ability of songs to present technical information engagingly means that you can introduce technical words in a non-intimidating way. In fact the rhyme and rhythm of songs can scaffold the learning of the language for students. It is much easier to enunciate supercalifragilisticexpialidocious because of the song. It would otherwise just be 'that funny word from Mary Poppins that no one can remember'. Why not do the same for the more technical terms of science?

SONGS CONVEY UNDERSTANDING - A good song tells a story. So does a good scientific paper and whatever form narratives come in there are commonalities that always work. The human brain loves a story which is why memory masters encode strings of information into stories that help them to remember them. The advantage of a song is that the information is communicated very succinctly and the main points get repeated in the chorus so that it is extremely clear what the message is. I have found that it is very good for explaining scientific ideas and this works well at any level of complexity. It is possible to weave a clear and understandable narrative to explain GCSE science, but I have worked with cutting edge researchers who are frequently amazed that their complex research can be made understandable in 3 minutes of verse. Songs get to the point quickly and accurately.

SONGS ARE MEMORABLE - There is a reason I can still remember all the words to the theme tunes of the shows I watched when I was a kid. It's not because I have savant like abilities to remember endless streams of verse because everyone can do this. It's because our brains are associative and the more connections between ideas that they can create, the better the chance they have of being able to store them and then retrieve them quickly. All songs have rhyme, rhythm and melody to help create these connections and the repetition helps to embed the memories.

SONGS BRIDGE THE ARTS SCIENCE DIVIDE - There is not actually a divide between the arts and the sciences. A disproportionately large amount of scientists play music but science still has an image problem in the minds of adolescents who often see science as uncreative and less caring than the arts. This is particularly emphasised in girls, so by putting the science in a song, the students who do not readily identify with the content of science lessons will have more to connect to. Even if the songs might not convince them to be scientists, it will make their lives easier when preparing for exams. 

So that's why songs make for super science revision, but how should they be used? The answer to that depends on who you are. For parents and students, you can watch at home, on youtube or through the website. Soon you will also be able to download the songs so that you can listen to them on the move too. How should you be using them? You are revising just by simply listening, which means that you can revise when other forms of revision are impossible such as when you are walking or sitting on the bus, or during dinner or whenever you like. All the songs can be accessed here and you can even download the chords and lyrics to play them for yourself.

If you are a teacher, it works best to start using songs early so that they have time to sink into your students' brains. The songs I write are designed to work alongside the teaching. If you are teaching a topic like EM waves, it may take a couple of weeks. Each verse will contain the contents of roughly one lesson so you could use the song as a fun starter, teach your lesson and for a plenary students could fill in missing words from the lyrics before singing along with the video. All in all that would take around 10 minutes of your lesson but would have embedded the information very efficiently. I have seen classes where at the end of the lesson, the students remembered more information from the song at the beginning than they did from anything that happened in the 45 minutes of lesson in between. Over the course of the topic you will be revising everything you have learnt so far by singing through the verses you taught previously. When it comes to revision time at the end of the year, all you have to do is sing through the song and you have revised a topic thoroughly leaving more time for things like exam question practice. And if I haven't written the song you need yet, you can get students to write their own by changing the words to a well known song. I want to know about the experiences of teachers using the songs, so if you have any comments or any suggestions for resources that would make the songs easier to use, I'd love hear them in comments below.

Happy revising!