And can you do math?
You must or incur my wrath
What do Garth Brooks and a fruit-flavored salsa from Fort Worth have to do with raising math scores among students?
I’ll tell you at the end of the column, but first let’s talk about learning.
It may have changed since I went to school in the dark ages, but one of the first things we learned in school (1st grade in Mrs. McMullen’s class at South Fort Worth Elementary, now Richard Wilson Elementary) was singing the alphabet. Even I, one of the youngest – cognitively speaking – in class with a late August birthday, could ace that one. Later, when – for reasons that must have had to do with some attractive female – I took Russian in high school, the one area where I could score (in class – get your minds out of the gutter) was singing the Cyrillic alphabet. I think I could still do it if pressed.
If only the rest of school were that easy.
If you grew up in the 1970s and early ‘80s you may also remember the great Schoolhouse Rocks, which used music to teach us things like how legislation works with I’m Just a Bill.
Those kind of things can get a little crazy. If you watched a recent episode of Breaking Bad-spinoff Better Call Saul, chemist Gale Boetticher, played by David Costabile, sang the Tom Lehrer song, The Elements, which is the periodic table set to the music of the Major General’s Song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. That would make a great party trick, if nothing else.
And, in some ways that’s what Muzology aims to do for math. It’s an education program pioneered by researcher and CEO Lana Israel and Garth Brooks' manager Bob Doyle on Music Row in Nashville. Muzology uses music videos to boost comprehension and test scores.
The web-based program works to trigger memory, emotion, motivation and attention – four critical areas of the brain related to successful learning. Israel, who earned her doctorate from the University of Oxford in England as a Rhodes Scholar, assembled a team of professional songwriters and producers to ensure the artistic aspect of the learning tool was contemporary and relevant. Israel had done some data analysis work for Brooks during a recent tour.
"We created Muzology because we knew that while many students struggled with learning and checked out of the learning process, the same students knew the words to countless pop songs," Israel said. "We said, 'What if we assemble a team ... and create a comprehensive and iterative series of music videos that teach an entire subject."
After two years of being used in select school districts around the country, the National School Boards Association selected Muzology LLC as one of six companies for its annual Technology Innovation Showcase.
In addition, Muzology was just awarded a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant to conduct research and development work on optimizing music for learning.
Israel chose pre-algebra as the first subject to target because, she said, the subject is an acute pain point and is directly linked to high school graduation rates.
But she and Doyle plan to expand Muzology to include lessons in other subjects. Israel will use the NSF grant for more research in hopes of uncovering an algorithm clarifying the characteristics of a song that is optimal for learning.
"There are a number of variables that are in the mix that may influence the songs' efficacy from a learning perspective and there may be others that don't," she said. "There may be characteristics we find that don't make a difference but that when it gets to a certain point it makes a significant difference and it could be rhythmic or meter or tonal. There's a lot to unpack."
Muzology just finished a pilot program in Hillsboro County public schools in Tampa, Florida, added a school district outside of Philadelphia, and is in talks with schools and school districts in Texas, Florida, California, Illinois, Virginia, Ohio, Louisiana, Montana, Alabama, Kansas, Minnesota, Utah and South Carolina. The program has been used by more than 200 schools across the country. Israel and Doyle were in the Fort Worth area recently to meet with officials at several school districts hoping to bring a little music – along with some math – to the learning environment.
The connective tissue in the Texas visit is John Fletcher of Fletcher Consulting Public Relations. Fletcher, a tennis player at TCU who continued to play for many years, met Doyle at a tournament many years back, long before Garth was singing about Two of a Kind. Fletcher, it should be noted for this story, also does work from time-to-time with Fort Worth’s family-owned Renfro Foods.
Now, back to math.
The videos go beyond rote memorization to engage learners, get students excited about math, and teach foundational math skills, concepts and procedures, according to Israel.
The company works with curriculum specialists to outline what is needed in the music video they create.
“We have a process whereby we start with developing fact sheets that ensure we have what is needed,” said Israel. “We work with curriculum experts first. Before a songwriter comes into the process, a learning expert and curriculum expert is involved in the process. Because what's crucial to us, and of utmost importance is that all of our material is academically sound,” she said.
The feedback the Muzology team continues to receive from students, Israel said, indicates emotional and affirming results.
Doyle works with the songwriters to make sure they stick to the program. I mean the guy works with Garth Brooks, so he carries some weight.
“One of the challenges of course is you get into the actual writing of the song and the songwriters want to make things rhyme,” he said. “And all of a sudden, you have to kind of pull them back and say, ‘No, this is the fact. This is the way it's gotta be stated.’”
They can’t be ‘Shameless’ about it.
What impresses Israel is the transformation she sees in students.
"We're seeing students who were coming into summer school programs saying they were dumb, hated math and didn't want to go to college. Four weeks later, we see those very same students who after learning Muzology, say, 'I love math, it's my favorite subject,'" she said.
Doyle and Israel want the program to illustrate the connection between the arts and learning.
"We're hoping to build a bridge between science and music and say that what songwriters and artists create has very important scientific ramifications in helping people meet their goals and actualize their potential and educate themselves," Israel said. "That is really exciting."
And so how does salsa enter into it? While in Fort Worth, Doyle and Israel, escorted by Fletcher, dropped by Renfro Foods to pick up some Mrs. Renfro’s Pineapple Salsa.
Why you ask? Does the family-owned company’s Pineapple Salsa hold magical powers to allow you to do quadratic equations in your sleep?
Sorry, no. Aside from a great flavor, Mrs. Renfro’s Pineapple Salsa was cited by Garth’s wife, Tricia Yearwood, in a Good Housekeeping article in 2013 as one of the low-fat items that helped her shed 35 pounds. Since they were in the area, Doyle, Garth’s longtime manager, decided to pick up a few bottles for the couple.
It pays to have friend in hot places.
This story contains material from the Associated Press.