Three evolutionary perks of singing

All together now – three evolutionary perks of singing

Image 20141211 6030 14ko55u
Cranking out a tune cements our social networks.
Julie/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Susan Maury, Monash University

We’re enjoying the one time of year when protests of “I can’t sing!” are laid aside and we sing carols with others. For some this is a once-a-year special event; the rest of the year is left to the professionals to handle the singing (except, perhaps, some alone time in the shower or car).

Music – and singing in particular, as the oldest and only ubiquitous form of music creation – plays a central role in our lives and shared community experiences, and this has been true for every culture for as far back as we can trace our human ancestors.

So does singing in a group provide specific and tangible benefits, or is it merely a curious ability that provides entertainment through creative expression?

This is a question currently of great interest to evolutionary theorists, linguists, psychologists and musicologists. The debate took off when psychologist Steven Pinker stated his opinion that music is a spandrel – a useless evolutionary by-product of another, useful, trait. In this case, he suggested that music is a spandrel of language development, providing no advantage and serving no purpose.

There are strong links between music and language development, although there is no consensus on the actual nature of the relationship. Arguments include theories that:

  • language developed from music
  • music sprang from language
  • they both developed from a proto-language that was musical in nature
  • they developed concurrently.

A strong body of research conducted with choirs indicates that membership has many benefits to individual wellbeing and physical health. It is possible these effects are due to people – the singers – participating in something they enjoy doing. Or, there may be something more elemental taking place.

janwillemsen/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

If these findings are viewed through an evolutionary lens, though, there is compelling evidence that music making provided some very specific benefits for our ancestors. Specifically, there are three theories which have been proposed that, if true, may explain these effects while suggesting that group singing is still beneficial to all:

  1. singing creates a shared emotional experience
  2. singing increases social bonding
  3. singing improves cognitive function.

Sing us a song, you’re the hominid

Our hominid ancestors used music to create shared emotional experiences. This would have been particularly important for early hominids struggling to survive, because emotions serve as a kind of “red flag” to our cognitive processing systems, signalling that something critical requires attention.

Emotions prioritise the many options that we may have at any given time, and reduces “data overload” from the bombardment of senses that we experience. Hominids, like many other primates, could have developed very small social groups, or even no social groups.

But the ability for a large group to work cooperatively together was more advantageous than individuals attempting to survive alone. In order to cooperate, individuals needed to subsume their individual priorities for action, and learn to delay gratification so that the good of the group could take precedence (such as forgoing eating or sleeping in order to build a shelter). Group singing likely provided a rewarding, positive activity where emotional empathy could be developed.

Only Boys Aloud at a Britain’s Got Talent audition.

We know that interacting with music today is, for almost everyone, both an emotional and overwhelmingly positive experience. Music is also used to reinforce positive moods and manage negative moods. Adolescents regularly use music as an effective mood regulator.

Others put music to targeted purposes; many athletes use music to put them in a mood state that supports peak performance (and research shows it to be an effective strategy). Music’s ability to change or reinforce a mood relies on the same principle of emotion contagion.

Social significance

Second, music engagement would likely have led to increased pro-social behaviours. This would be supported by a shared emotional state, which relies on empathic skills (empathy) to spread.

But music is also at the centre of where we first learn to be sociable – in the mother-infant bond. Infants are mesmerised by their mothers’ infant-directed singing. It is a communication tool between mother and infant, and is highly companionable in nature.

Mary Helen Leonard/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Listening to a mother sing has an immediate and profound impact on an infant’s arousal and attention, including physical responses. These musical communications are highly effective despite the infant not understanding the linguistics involved. They are also universal; lullabies are recognisable as such in virtually every culture on Earth.

There are strong indications that group music making and social behaviours are still linked today. Individuals with Williams Syndrome, in addition to profound cognitive deficits, are known for both their love of music and their incredible sociability.

Music therapy has been shown to reliably improve social behaviours in individuals on the autism spectrum. Choir members consistently report that social bonds are one of the primary benefits of choir membership.

More experimental studies indicate that instrumental jazz musicians use the communication centres of their brains when coordinating play, and that guitarists and even audience members experience synchronised brain waves when a duet is played (see video below).

Studies also show that musical interactions increase both empathy and pro-social behaviours in children.

Taken together, the evidence points to a strong link between co-creation of music and improved social bonding.

Getting ahead

Finally, evolutionary theorists argue that it was their musicality that allowed hominids to develop what is known as the “social brain”, while others argue that the complex brain we enjoy today developed to keep track of large social networks. It may have been a bit of both.

By creating a shared emotional experience and increasing members’ pro-social behaviours, group singing supported complex social networks. Tracking and managing complex social networks may have led to the development of the neocortex. This brain region supports the suite of abilities known as executive function, which provide the skills necessary to make and implement long-term plans.

It also supports cognitive flexibility, which is a style of fluid cognition that allows humans to successfully pair concepts that don’t generally go together, resulting in creative, insightful, and elegant ideas and solutions.

We already know that a positive mood state supports cognitive flexibility, while stress and anxiety act as inhibitors. Co-creating music may support improved cognitive skills through other pathways as well, although these links have not been explored.

Of course all theories concerning the use of music by early hominid groups is conjecture, resting on the scant pieces of evidence the fossil record leaves us as well as what we know about our own musicality today. But the questions are important, because it can inform us about our own relationship to music.

The ConversationIf the theories outlined here are correct, it may benefit us both as individuals and as a community to normalise and promote music co-creation. Participating in singing ought to be more than a once-a-year activity.

Susan Maury, PhD candidate in Psychology, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Here’s why non-government schools work better

The Australian 12:00AM December 28, 2016
(Retrieved from

In 2004, in Why Our Schools are Failing, I argued Australia’s competitive academic curriculum was being “attacked and undermined by a series of ideologically driven changes that have conspired to ­reduce standards and ­impose a politically correct, mediocre view of education on our schools”.

Three years later, in Dumbing Down, I repeated the claim, arguing that Australia’s cultural-left education establishment, instead of supporting high-risk examinations, teacher-directed lessons and meritocracy, was redefining the curriculum “as an instrument to bring about equity and ­social justice”.

At the time the Australian Curriculum Studies Association organised two national conferences involving leading education bureau­crats, professional organisations, teacher unions and like-minded academics to argue all was well and that critics such as the News Corp’s newspapers were guilty of orchestrating a “black media debate” and a “conservative backlash”.

The Australian’s campaign for rigour and standards in education, especially its defence of classic literature and teaching grammar, was condemned by one critic as a “particularly ferocious campaign” that was guilty of wanting “to ­restore a traditional approach to the teaching of English”.

Fast-forward to 2016 and it’s clear where the truth lies. Despite investing additional billions and implementing a raft of education reforms, Australia’s ranking in international tests is going backwards and too many students are leaving school illiterate, innumerate and culturally impoverished.

In the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, Australian students were ranked 22nd; in the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, Australian students were ranked 20th in mathematics; and in the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, our Year 4 science students were outperformed by 17 other countries.

Australia’s national curriculum, instead of acknowledging we are a Western liberal democracy and the significance of our ­Judeo-Christian heritage, em­braces cultural relativism and prioritises politically correct indi­genous, Asian and sustainability perspectives.

Instead of focusing on the ­basics, teachers are pressured to teach Marxist-inspired programs such as the LGBTI Safe Schools program where gender is fluid and limitless and Roz Ward, one of the founders, argues: “It will only be through a revitalised class struggle and revolutionary change that we can hope for the liberation of LGBTI people.”

What’s to be done? It’s rare that those responsible for failure are capable of choosing the right way forward. Organisations such as ACSA, the Australian Education Union and the Australian Council for Educational Research are part of the problem, not the solution.

Instead of education fads and a command-and-control model mandated by such bodies, where schools are made to implement a one-size-fits-all curriculum, assess­ment, accountability and staffing system, schools must be freed from provider capture and given the autonomy to manage themselves.

As argued by Melbourne-based Brian Caldwell: “There is a powerful educational logic to locating a higher level of authority, responsibility and accountability for curriculum, teaching and assessment at the school level. Each school has a unique mix of students in respect to their needs, interests, aptitudes and ambitions; indeed, each classroom has a unique mix.”

The reason Catholic and independent schools, on the whole, outperform government schools is not because of students’ socio-economic status, which has a relatively weak impact on outcomes, but because non-government schools have control over staffing, budgets, curriculum focus and classroom practice.

In a paper this year — The ­Importance of School Systems: Evidence from International Differences in Student Achievement — European research Ludger Woessmann identifies “school autonomy and private competition” as important factors when ­explaining why some education systems outperform others.

Instead of adopting ineffective fads such as constructivism — where the emphasis is on inquiry-based discovery learning, teachers being guides by the side and content being secondary to process — it is vital to ensure that teacher training and classroom practice are evidence-based.

Not so in Australia, where the dominant approach is based on constructivism.

In opposition, and when arguing in favour of explicit teaching and direct instruction, NSW academic John Sweller states that “there is no aspect of human cognitive architecture that suggests that inquiry-based learning should be superior to ­direct ­instructional guidance and much to suggest that it is likely to be ­inferior”.

American educationalist ED Hirsch and Sweller argue that children must be able to automatically recall what has been taught. Primary schoolchildren, in particular, need to memorise times ­tables, do mental arithmetic and learn to recite poems and ballads.

After citing several research studies, Hirsch concludes: “Varied and repeated practice leading to rapid recall and automaticity is necessary to higher-order problem-solving skills in both mathematics and the sciences.”

Even though Australia has one of the highest rates of classroom computer use, our results are going backwards.

A recent OECD study concludes “countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science”.

At a time when Australia’s education ministers are deciding a new school funding model after 2017, it is also vital to realise investing additional billions, as argued by the AEU and NSW’s Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, is not the solution. Australia has been down that road across 20 years and standards have failed to improve.

The debate needs to shift from throwing more money after bad, a la Gonski, to identifying the most cost-effective way to use ­resources to raise standards.

As noted by Eric Hanushek and Woessmann in The Knowledge Capital of Nations, the focus must be on “how money is spent ­(instead) of how much money is spent”.

And here the research is clear. Stronger performing education systems embrace competition, autonomy, diversity and choice in education, and benchmark their curriculum and approaches to teaching and learning against world’s best practice and evidence-based research.

Teachers set high expectations with a disciplined classroom environment, students are taught to be resilient and motivated to succeed, there is less external micro­management, and parents are ­engaged and supportive of their children’s teachers.

As argued in the Review of the Australian National Curriculum I co-chaired, it is also vital to eschew educational fads and new age, politically correct ideology and ­ensure what is taught is based on what American psychologist Jerome Bruner describes as “the structure of the disciplines”.

Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of The Culture of Freedom.

Poor Parenting Skills

How entitled children are making their parents’ lives hell

Cosima Marriner and Rachel Browne
Published: January 3, 2016 – 11:17AM

“She terrorises us.” That’s how bad it is for Steve Richardson* and his wife when their 17-year-old daughter is at home.

Olivia has dropped out of school and goes missing for days at a time. She’s smoking pot and has been arrested for shoplifting. Tensions quickly escalate when she does return to the family home in Sydney’s north west.

Like when she lost her iPhone recently. “She was screaming at me to buy her a new one,” Richardson says. “It couldn’t just be any phone. It had to be the newest, most expensive iPhone.

“When I said ‘the phone is your responsibility’, she started abusing me, screaming at me and smashing her bedroom. She said, ‘I’m going to destroy the house, I’m going to kill myself’.”

Her father called the police.

Richardson is one of a growing number of parents under siege from their children.

The pointy end of entitlement

Sons are smashing windows, furious they’re asked to stop playing computer games. Doors are hanging off hinges having been slammed so hard in a fit of pique. Teenagers are holding knives to their mother’s throat, or threatening to kill themselves.

This is the pointy end of entitlement, the defining characteristic of this generation of children.

“It’s the end result of giving kids everything they want,” psychologist Judith Locke explains. “Tough love is really being called for, but we’ve got a generation of parents who are much less inclined to do this.”

Eager to deliver the perfect childhood, parents are emotionally and materially indulging their children. Boundaries are rarely enforced and consequences aren’t imposed by parents who want to be their child’s friend. Kids who grow up expecting attention and success are so accustomed to getting what they want that they don’t know how to cope when they don’t.

Richardson blames himself for spoiling his daughter. “She has always been given everything she wanted.”

Unable to tell anyone what’s going on at home, he and his wife have travelled to the eastern suburbs to attend a meeting of Toughlove​, a confidential parent support group.

His story resonates with other parents there. “I would always buy my daughter whatever she wanted because I thought that would make her happy,” says Janet Burchfield*, a blonde woman in her 40s. “Now she hits me if she doesn’t get what she wants. Today she told me she was never going to speak to me again because I never get her what she wants. I can’t win.”

Path of less resistance

Parenting experts say the trend towards smaller families has upped the ante on parenting with the goal of maximising the outcomes for each child. But often working parents are so time poor that they will take the path of less resistance.

“Sometimes parents haven’t got the time to have that fight with the kids so we just give in,” parent educator Michael Grose says. “Often we don’t delegate to the child, or allow them to do it themselves, because it’s easier and quicker to do it ourselves.”

No parent likes seeing their child upset but psychologists believe we’re going overboard in our quest to please our kids. “It’s well-intentioned but extreme responsiveness to the child, which can actually stop their resilience,” Locke says.

Schools report that kids are now so conditioned to receiving a ribbon just for showing up at the sports carnival that they overreact when things don’t go their way.

“We are very quick to gratify our students,” admits Australian Primary Principals Association president Dennis Yarrington. “This notion of putting in effort, working hard, having delayed gratification, is something I see young people today struggle with.”

Growing up with the Internet and social media hasn’t helped. Anything kids want, from pizza to porn, can be satisfied 24/7 via the Internet. Social media breeds narcissism by making kids the stars of their own lives on Facebook, Instagram​ and YouTube. Having a newsfeed​ full of what their peers are getting and doing dials up the desire to have the same.

Saying no a matter of choice

Yet kids rarely have to go without. With most families now dual income, saying no to a child’s latest whim is a matter of choice, not because parents actually don’t have the money to buy the new iPhone 6 or PS4.

“Because we can give them so much, kids now see it as their right rather than a privilege,” Grose says. “We forget that with rights come responsibilities.”

The never-ending requirement for more peaks at this time of year. “Kids tend to focus more on the number of presents and their expectations on the present being exactly what they have asked for, they don’t experience the joy and gratefulness of receiving one item,” psychologist Michelle Pritchard observes.

Pritchard stresses that entitlement is a normal part of kids’ development, which strikes with the egocentrism of the toddler, and then the boundary-pushing of the 15 – 18-year-old teenager. “But when that entitled expectation is reinforced with no boundaries, it can become really unhealthy and negative,” she says.

Some parents are compensating for their own childhood, indulging their children the way they feel they weren’t.

Others are making enormous sacrifices for their kids. They might be working long hours or piling up the debt. They’re turning themselves inside out to organise their schedules around dance, swimming, piano and Mandarin lessons, or funding overseas trips for their kids which they themselves won’t be able to afford in retirement.

“Often children remain on the parents’ payroll a lot longer when they’re brought up like that,” Locke says. She wonders what this will mean for parents in their old age. Will children who are so used to being lovingly tended to – and funded – well into their 30s be able to adjust to the role-reversal and take care of their parents when the time comes?

Mental health issues predicted

Kids who grow up insulated from difficulty and disappointment are also likely to struggle in adulthood if they don’t get into their first preference for uni, miss out on a job, or are dumped by the love of their life.

“Because they haven’t really developed resilience, they emerge a lot weaker from tough experiences,” Locke warns. She predicts mental health issues will emerge in this generation as they mature.

In a bid to clamp down on entitlement, principals are encouraging parents and teachers to emphasise the concept of personal best.

“It’s learning that if you have done your best, if you have done whatever you can to achieve the best result, that’s what’s important. Not whether you came first or last,” Yarrington explains.

Schools are adopting the KidsGive program, where children use crowdfunding to raise money for the cause of their choice. “You counteract the age of entitlement with the age of giving,” Yarrington says. “Kids learn that sometimes it is more about others than myself.”

*Names have been changed

This story was found at:

Peter Sculthorpe (20 April 1929 – 8 August 2014)

(Reproduced from ACO Concert Programme: Tognetti’s Beethoven, 2014)

Our good friend Peter was Australia’s foremost classical music composer, and one of our most original and distinctive creative voices in any medium. Born and schooled in Launceston, he undertook university studies at Melbourne, under Bernard Heinze, and Oxford, where in 1958 his tutor, composer Edmund Rubbra, prophetically dubbed him ‘Australia’s Bartók’. Another English mentor, musicologist Wilfrid Mellers, saw that it was paradoxically at Oxford that the homesick young Antipodean ‘discovered his true identity, becoming the first composer to make a music distinctively Australian’.

MUSIC ARCHIVEBack home he responded to his father’s death in 1961 by composing his ‘austerely Australian’ string orchestra classic Irkanda IV. It earned him the attention of arts leaders including Nugget Coombs and Robert Helpmann, and resulted in opera, ballet and chamber music commissions, as well as a place at the head of a questing ‘new wave’ of young composers including Nigel Butterley, George Dreyfus, Larry Sitsky, and the late Richard Meale.

His appointment to the teaching staff of Sydney University
in 1964 was a turning point in his own creative development. ‘Thrown in at the deep end,’ he recalled, by Professor Donald Peart, he found himself teaching Asian traditional music, which in turn deeply influenced his own music.

Sculthorpe learned double bass so he could join the string orchestra at Melbourne University’s Conservatorium in the late 1940s. Since then, music for strings has formed the core of his output as a composer: in his 18 string quartets (one more than Beethoven!), and many scores for string chamber orchestra. When a group of his friends formed the Australian Chamber Orchestra in 1975, it was inevitable that Peter would compose for them.

His first work for the ACO was the sombre Lament for Strings (1976). His second, Port Essington (1977), created a dramatic mix of historic and contemporary sounds to reimagine an early colonial settlement in the Carpentaria. In 1989, he returned to the gulf country in his concerto, Nourlangie, for the ACO and guitarist John Williams. Over their almost 40-year shared history, Peter composed nine new scores for the ACO, the last the Chaconne, to celebrate Richard’s 20th anniversary as artistic director. In turn, the ACO has made three all-Sculthorpe CDs, as well as championing his music at home and abroad.

Sculthorpe showed Australian classical music how to become more truly itself, by moving on from its foundational European focus, and situating us firmly in our own place and region. For Australian music post-Sculthorpe, Europe is the Antipodes! As we celebrate a musical life completed and contemplate his ongoing legacy – and after Sculthorpe himself has been accorded due plaudits for having been so exceptionally himself – Australia too should take a bow for creating him!


Lament for Strings (1976)

For the Australian Chamber Orchestra First performance: 26 May 1976,
City Hall, Wollongong NSW: Australian Chamber Orchestra

Port Essington (1977)

Commissioned by Musica Viva Australia for the Australian Chamber Orchestra
First performance: 16 August 1977, Mayne Hall, University of Queensland, Brisbane QLD: Australian Chamber Orchestra

Little Suite for Strings (1983)
For the Australian Chamber Orchestra First performance: 22 September 1983, Sydney Opera House: Australian Chamber Orchestra

First Sonata for Strings (1983) Commissioned by Musica Viva Australia for the Australian Chamber Orchestra
First performance: 29 November 1983, Sydney Opera House: Australian Chamber Orchestra

Second Sonata for Strings (1988) Commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra
First performance: 19 May 1988, UK, Brighton Festival, St Martin’s Church: Australian Chamber Orchestra/
Carl Pini

Nourlangie (1989)
Commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra
First performance: 24 October 1989, Australia, Queensland Performing Arts Complex, Brisbane: John Williams/Michael Askill/Australian Chamber Orchestra/Richard Hickox

Lament (1991)
For the Australian Chamber Orchestra First performance: 22.9.91, Australia, Sydney Opera House: Raphael Wallfisch/Australian Chamber Orchestra

Djilile (2001)
For the Australian Chamber Orchestra First performance: June 2001, Chandos recording sessions, Sydney: Australian Chamber Orchestra/ Richard Tognetti

Chaconne (2009)
Dedicated to Richard Tognetti; commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra to mark the occasion of Richard Tognetti’s
20th anniversary as leader and artistic director of the orchestra
First performance: 8 August 2009, Richard Tognetti (violin), Australian Chamber Orchestra, Llewellyn Hall, Canberra School of Music, Canberra



Dumbing Down for a Decade

This appeared on the UK’s Daily Mail website and provokes thought about the adequacy of some educational systems and what can be done to make improvements.

British pupils have slipped down international league tables in key subjects over the past decade.

The most authoritative comparison is the Programme for International Student Assessment carried out by the OECD. It is based on tests given to 15-year-olds in up to 65 countries.

When first carried out in 2000, the UK was ranked fourth in science, seventh in literacy and eighth in maths. The science ranking fell to 12th in 2003, 14th in 2006 and 16th in 2009.
In literacy the country sank to 11th in 2003, 17th in 2006 and 25th in 2009.

The most dramatic slump is in maths, where the ranking was 18th in 2003, 24th in 2006 and 28th in 2009.

Critics point out that the sample in the survey has grown across the years, from 43 countries in 2000 to 65 in the last study in 2009. But, even when this is taken into account, the UK has still slipped proportionately down the tables.

Under Michael Gove’s plans for a revival, pupils will be able to sit the new O-levels at 16 or 17 and the best pupils will be allowed to bypass the exams and go straight to A-levels.

Schools will be given the freedom to enter pupils for the exams when they are ready, rather than forcing everyone to sit them at 16.

Modular study will be abolished, with emphasis put on in-depth work and end of year exams rather than coursework that can be redone until it passes muster.

Pupils studying English literature will be banned from taking the text of plays into exams and maths pupils will be expected to learn complex subjects such as calculus in order to obtain an A grade.

Mr Gove believes the exams need to be tougher to prepare pupils for A-levels, which are also being made more rigorous.

Meanwhile, businesses will be asked to draw up a new CSE-style qualification for less able pupils – around one quarter of pupils struggle even to get D or E grades at GCSE.

Mr Gove thinks it is pointless to make those children sit the same O-level as those who are preparing to read a rigorous academic subject at Oxford or Cambridge.

Read more:

MCA MEMBERS’ OCCASIONAL BULLETIN From the Executive Director, Music Council of Australia

Dear members,

Here is an update on a number of important (if slow!) developments in the music world, along with my cheery, optimistic comments.

The National Curriculum. This has quietly been renamed the Australian Curriculum. Maybe the PM’s continuing references to ‘our nation‘ made change desirable.

The first draft of the curriculum for music and the other arts is scheduled for publication around the end of May and comment will be invited–and no doubt forthcoming. MCA has an expert working group ready to go.

The curriculum will be given a test run in selected schools in the last half of the year and presumably will then be ready to be taught as of 2013. We are not expecting a lightning switch by the school systems. For one thing, as you know, at primary school level in most states, the classroom teachers have not been educated to teach this or any other music curriculum. We keep pointing this out but so far have not heard of any teacher training plans.

Spare a thought for the Curriculum Authority (ACARA), about whose work everyone including us has an opinion and turfs and politics and egos are all in glorious shouting discord.

Funding for university music schools and programs. As I have written to you before, there is no university music school in Australia known to us that does not run at a loss under the current funding rules. They cope by cutting and cutting programs and by internal rescue by their universities.

The Higher Education Base Funding Review seemed to recognise the problem, states that the ‘studio-based arts’ need more funding, says no more internal rescues and appears to act to give it to them, but in fact gives nothing. Unbelievable.

Furthermore, taken as a whole, its recommendations could only be implemented if the Commonwealth gives an overall one third base funding increase to the university sector and how likely is that? No doubt a way would be found through that impasse but still, as things stand, music would receive additional funding only if the whole sector receives it.

National Cultural Policy. This has been three years in the making and there are hints that it will be published in late May. The MCA will hold one, maybe two, open meetings for public discussion of its effects on music. We cannot set a date until we know when the policy will be available, but our guess is June or July. You will be invited.

We expect that this policy is not going to deal only with matters under the direct control of the Arts Minister. While it is called a cultural policy, it probably will be an arts policy but one that covers whole of government. So for instance, what is the role of the arts in health, or regional development, social inclusion, exports? (And what is the role of the Australia Council under such a policy? That’s subject to a separate secret inquiry, already underway so presumably it takes regard to contents of the cultural policy that have already been decided before the policy is written. Well, never hold an inquiry unless you already know what outcomes you want.)

This could all be very positive except for one thing. We would not want to see the arts viewed, and used, only as a tool for other objectives. In any case, such a proposition would contain the seeds of its own failure. The arts have their own values, and people value the arts to the extent that they are grabbed by a direct and hopefully deep experience of the arts. Without that, who cares enough? Give at risk youth a genuine experience of arts and art-making if you want to make an arts-rescue. They already hear music on the radio and that didn’t help.

Music and Media Symposium. The Music Council is organising an expert Music and Media Symposium for April 19. The purpose is to figure out ways to ensure a strong showing of Australian music in the broadcast and online media. This has become a very complicated issue with the disruption of old certainties by the growth of availability of music online. Everyone knows that the recording industry has taken a beating. MCA is especially concerned with the effects on composers and musicians, without whom, after all…

Australian music has been programmed on commercial radio, on the face of it, only because of regulations requiring it. We don’t quite know why commercial stations are reluctant to broadcast Australian music tracks other than that they are not already international hits. The radio regulations have been called into question because it appears that they cannot be applied to music on the internet. The radio stations complain that this puts them at an unfair disadvantage. The Symposium will be looking for new solutions.

The Convergence Review. The report will be published, says the government, ‘by late April’. This review is very important for the future of music in the media and the Interim Report of the review was widely criticised by an audience that has reason to be a bit jumpy. That report was floating ideas such as disbandment of Australian content regulations to be replaced by government subsidies. But this is a government that is balancing its budget through cuts. What are the chances that it will add new financial responsibilities in the media?

1% case fails. Most radio depends almost entirely on music to fill its program day. Without music, we would have only talk shows, with two alternatives: turn off the radio, or serious self-harm.

Under legislation, commercial radio pays a royalty to record companies and performing musicians capped at 1% of income. The actual payment is less than 1% due to various wrinkles. Last year, commercial radio brought in over $1,000,000,000 and 1% of that is $10,000,000. $10,000,000 for use of music to keep almost all of the commercial radio stations in the country going, 365 days a year around the clock.

ARIA has been trying to get governments to rescind the legislation and allow the parties to negotiate a market-based price. Successive Attorneys-General have accepted the justice of the case but do not act. What government wants a bad friend in the media, after all? So in frustration, ARIA took a case to the High Court to have the legislation declared unconstitutional. That would relieve the government of any obligation to do anything that upsets the media. The case failed. Back to the drawing board.

Music Career website. If you or your loved one is building a career of any sort in music, there’s a lot of new information on this lively site. To the 150 job categories have been added some more for jobs in the digital arena. There also is a lot of other new information about current (this month? this year?) best practice in use of the internet for marketing music–a career essential. Alex Masso is in is our dynamic site to support music teaching especially in schools. It has a sister site, to help you get more music into your school or the school your kids attend. Both of these are run by Pru Borgert, who welcomes your ideas.

The Music in Australia Knowledge Base has had a major infusion of new information. Editor Hans Hoegh-Guldberg is one of Australia’s top cultural economists and a great music lover to boot. He brings his knowledge to bear especially in the highly neglected area of music statistics. This is the site which brings all the stats together and gives them penetrating examination and explanation. Given that statistics may not get your blood racing, there is a mother lode of other information about how music works in Australia. You can reach the KB through You will find it under MUSIC IN AUSTRALIA in the bar across the top of the home page.

Best regards

Dick Letts


Executive Director, Music Council of Australia, Past President, International Music Council
64/1 Macquarie St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia.Tel. +612 9251 3816

Reflection on the Finnish education system – Anne Knock

Reflection on the Finnish education system: More questions than answers #SCIL

Retreived from

Having spent a little time in Finland I have gained an impression of the educational culture and the system’s achievements. Educators from all over the world are travelling to Finland to learn from their PISA success. Some to try and improve their own country’s outcomes, while some nations are keen to topple them from the top of the PISA perch.

I first went in October 2011, visiting a primary and secondary school, and in February 2012 I went there again with a group of curious Australian educators. We heard from the Finnish National Board of Education, met with forward thinking school leaders and researchers, and attended a conference with school-based educators, policy-makers and academics.

The Finnish system is characterised by key elements

– Education in Finland is focused on quality and equality.

– Schools produce very small variation between the most successful and least successful students.

– The government has a clearly articulated an educational pathway from school to work, with vocational and tertiary education options for young people.

– There is a very competitive entry into teacher education, with high entry scores

– There is no national formal assessment

– Schools are not inspected

– A school’s curriculum is framed around minimal curriculum guidelines

– There is local autonomy for decision-making

– Content taught in subjects/disciplines

– There is equality of education delivery for all students

My own passion is to help schools, educators and leaders develop learning environments that fully engage the 21stC learner and help young people be inspired to pursue their interests and aspirations. In Finland I have observed schools and talked to academics, school leaders and policy makers, but remain perplexed.

More questions than answers
I believe we need to reinvent schools for this generation, understanding that our society has changed so significantly, that schools need to think differently in order to inspire and engage students.

My experiences in Finland left me asking questions, and my observations are at odds with my understanding of 21stC learning. So while PISA is only one measure, it is highly regarded and internationally recognised. Herein lies the tension.

1. Do educators recognise that outside school young people live in a dynamic connected world and how are schools responding to this challenge?

2. Do traditional classroom environments better suit the culture of learning in Finland?

3. How are schools in Finland addressing the ubiquitous nature of mobile technology?

4. Does the work/study culture of Finland mean that young people and their parents expect teaching to be formal?

5. Does the six hour exam regime at the conclusion of the final year of school mean that despite the minimalist curriculum requirements and lack of national assessments, a wide range of content must be covered through didactic approaches?

6. Are there opportunities for multi-disciplinary project-based learning?

7. Do students have the opportunities to pursue self-directed projects?

8. How are talented students encouraged and challenged?

9. How are teachers prepared for the changing nature of learning in this globally connected world?

10. Does the school experience vary sufficiently to be able to meet the diversity of interests that students possess?

11. Does the learning culture of schools in Finland actively encourage collaborative and team-based approaches to learning, or is individual achievement more commonly supported?

12. Are students typically passionate about learning, are they self-motivated and curious?

Finland’s position on the PISA rankings seems to be at risk as Singapore, Shanghai and South Korea rise up the ranks. These nations are actively seeking to claim the top spot. In a nation such as Finland, where there is significantly less emphasis on formal assessment, the ranking on PISA is an important benchmark. One academic remarked to me at the conference that he will be happy when Finland is no longer at the top, so they can focus afresh on what is important in education.

Joining the dots
Perhaps the success of this small nation, now on the international stage, is a result of a combination elements:

– Finland has a culture of hard work and knowledge acquisition is necessary for academic progression

– Each young person must decide for themselves that education is important

– Attracting high calibre candidates to the teaching profession

– The high esteem in which teachers are held

I seem to think that there is no formula for success in the PISA rankings and for the past 10 years, Finland has been able to effectively connect the dots and are enjoying the accompanying status.

Of course, these thoughts are an amalgam of listening to presentations, having conversations and making observations, so if debate and discussion ensue, I am happy to engage and hear the thoughts of others.

Race to the Finnish – by Mark Sparvell

A Scandinavian country is achieving great results in its schools by focusing not on competition but on co-operation, writes Mark Sparvell.

The international benchmarking convention in Winnipeg, Canada, on March 2 bought together educators from countries whose students do well on international measures of achievement, such as the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) and Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

The countries involved included Finland, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

With support from the Principals Australia Institute, I packed my winter woolies and headed to where the temperature hovered around minus 20 but education reform was on the boil.

Organised by Mindset, the Manitoba Network for Science and Technology, a program of Manitoba Innovation, the organisers strategically selected presenters from the field, notable educators who have recent direct involvement in the business of leading learning in schools but also were identified as influencers or systems thinkers. The agenda was to explore how education policy is translated into practice, the social contexts of the education system and the drivers for improvement.

Finland has a very successful education system, so even though I had a heavy presenting schedule, I gathered questions for my Finnish colleague from Australian educators via the <b>> Thought Leaders, Twittter and Facebook.

I was overwhelmed with inquiries. From system leaders to classsroom teachers across states, territories, sectors and levels of schooling the Australian education community generated questions around inclusion, early literacy, class sizes, performance pay, governance, disability and, the big one, accountability and testing. I strapped on my ice skates (first time) and joined my (highly accomplished) colleagues from Finland and Canada for a three-hour skating interview along the frozen Red River … it was worth every blister!

Merja Narvo-Akkola has more than 10 years’ experience as a principal in a multicultural environment with special education and language immersion. Narvo-Akkola is a highly respected professional and she is one of the key contributors to the Global Education Leaders Program in Finland.

She noted that she felt “no-one was more surprised by the PISA results and Finland’s relative high standing than the Finns themselves!”

Finnish schools quickly found themselves under an international spotlight with visitors attempting to work out how a system which has short school days for teachers and students (the day finishes about 1pm and teachers have about 26 contact hours) and engage in no system-wide testing of literacy, numeracy or science can do so consistently well.

Narvo-Akkola believes that the conditions for success in schooling are interconnected, like a double helix with the Finnish culture. “Finnish schools achieve excellence by focusing not on competition but on co-operation and achieving equity,” she says.

Students may attend pre-primary from age six but most begin compulsory schooling at seven. Narvo-Akkola believes that at this age students are developmentally ready and able to achieve success. Great emphasis is placed in the early years on play, oral language and social skill development. All schools are government schools and all schooling (including tertiary) is free. Students are provided with hot meals for free.

Whilst school finishes at about 1pm, students can involve themselves in after-school clubs. Homework is very much a foreign concept.


I raised the comparison with another high achieving nation, Singapore. It achieves high PISA results and has an educational climate of regular high stakes testing combined with a national explicit curriculum. In Finland, the only national testing occurs as part of university entrance matriculation. Narvo-Akkola noted the drivers for Singapore are, like Finland, deeply connected with the culture. Similarly, those working in education are seen to be in positions of great prestige and are, accordingly, highly valued. With no natural resources (Singapore even buys its water from Malaysia), a highly educated workforce is a critical asset.

I asked Narvo-Akkola about curriculum design and student achievement information. She explained that whilst Finland has a broad national curriculum overview, the “living curriculum” that is delivered in a school is shaped in consultation between the staff and principal – a very customised and contextualised curriculum.

Narvo-Akkola, like other Finnish principals, recognises their staff as highly skilled and competent professionals. She said she wouldn’t expect her doctor’s daily work to be overseen and case managed by another person, she trusts his professional capacity as she trusts her staffs to make local decisions.

When the teacher identifies a student is underperforming, additional support is provided by the class teacher, a modified curriculum plan may be developed or the special education teacher may be involved (all schools have these and they are outside of the staffing costs to the school). Most students with disabilities or learning difficulties are fully integrated and supported, in some schools special need classes provided targeted support.

In Finland it is harder to become a teacher than it is to become a lawyer or a doctor. To teach, you must have a Masters in Education. Narvo-Akkola believes that the research element to the masters program makes the critical difference. Teachers exit university with the skills of researchers who are able to read and understand research,

I received a few questions for Narvo-Akkola around the management of language and cultural diversity, and in particular, how the indigenous Sami language group are represented in the schooling sector. The Sami people have a degree of autonomy and their lands stretch across the far north, across borders with other countries. The representation of indigenous Sami in Finnish schools is minimal.

Religious education is provided two times per week. If the school has four or more students of a particular religion then lessons in that religion are provided. With an increasingly diverse multi-faith cohort there are some movements to replace religion studies with ethics.

Narvo-Akkola was quite perplexed by education systems where teacher professional judgment was not valued, and where literacy and numeracy were a focus instead of an outcome from a socially just, creative and student wellbeing-focused curriculum.

When asked in the forum about how teachers’ accountability for student achievement was measured, Narvo-Akkola paused and looked perplexed before saying that, in Finland, there is no word to translate that concept and that they trust the work of their teachers.

I received many more questions for Narvo-Akkola from Australian educators than I could politely impose in a one skating encounter. Narvo-Akkola has agreed to provide a webinar through Palnet Events <b>> later this year to provide more information.

Mark Sparvell is executive consultant – ICT capability and innovation at Principals Australia Institute. [email protected]

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