August 24, 2018

Some of the most heated discussions we have had on our staff have been about whether we should allow learners to listen to music on earphones while they are working. And that was long before we even introduced technology into our teaching. Everybody had and still has strong feelings either for or against earphones. All that has changed is that we are now giving teachers more freedom to decide for themselves if they want to allow it.

Earphones are a generational thing

In our discussions on this topic, it became apparent early on that the biggest factor determining on which side of the debate you fall is age. The younger staff members who grew up in the age of walkmans and iPods were much more sympathetic to the requests of the learners to listen to music that the older staff. They are usually also the ones who turn on the music or put earphones in when we are marking. (Full disclosure: The moment I sit down behind my computer I turn on some music) The truth is that today’s children live in a world that is almost never silent. So they have a point when they say they work better when listening to music.

Earphones are about focus

The biggest argument against allowing learners to listen to music on their earphones is that it will be a distraction. But teachers who have tried it even once will tell you that it is definitely not a distraction. My class can do 30-40% more work in a lesson when they are listening to music. Not only are they more productive, they can also work for a longer stretch of time before getting fidgety.
Anybody that has ever commuted on the London Underground will tell you that there is nothing like earphones to wrap you in your own world and reduce distractions.

It is about individual work

You might be shaking your head at this point, wondering what the world has come to, that learners want to be isolated in their own little world. I will agree with you that the idea of a class where all students are sitting in silence working by themselves, scares me as well. But that is because I believe that more learning takes place when learners are actively engaging with each other. My classrooms are almost never silent.

It is an undisputed fact that listening to music on earphones discourages learners from asking questions and discussing their work with each other. This is the main reason why I very seldom allow earphones in my class. An integral part of learning maths is by explaining what you did to your friend. So in my class, discussions while working are encouraged, and earphones do not fit in with our classroom culture.

But often the teachers who make the strongest argument that it is not good for learners to sit and work while listening to their own music, see no problem with making learners do their work in absolute silence without earphones. Both scenarios discourage discussion, collaboration and engagement.

Even though I encourage participation and discussion, there are times when I want learners to work by themselves. Not every lesson is about collaboration and discussion. And it is in those lessons that earphones can play a significant role to help learners focus.

Won’t they be doing other stuff?

Let’s start by being honest. How often would you give learners an exercise to do only to find them doing other homework, chatting, doodling or even reading a book? Kids don’t need earphones to enable them to ignore your instructions. Earphones are in any case not a very good indication of what they are doing on their device. The movement of their fingers is a much better indicator. A learner busy with individual work, while listening to music, should not need to touch their device at all. And yes you can get completely lost in a daydream while listening to your favourite song, but again their hands give them away. If they are sitting staring off into space with not even a pen in their hands, it is always a good indicator that they are not working, earphones or no earphones.
The problem comes in when the learners are so quiet when they are listening to music that the teacher assumes they are working hard and decides it is a good time to catch up on admin.
I would be willing to take a bet that whenever a teacher is sitting behind their desk, some learners are off task, whether they are listening to music or not.

The value of being completely present in your class

They can’t listen to music in exams.

Personally, I think all of us will benefit from soft classical music playing during exams, but that is beside the point.
While it is true that learners can’t listen to music during exams and therefore should be able to stay focused without music in their ears, it is also true that we pull the exam excuse whenever it suits us.
We allow learners to write in different colours in class because colours are good for learning, but we will not allow them to do the same in an exam.
We allow learners to ask a friend for help in class, but during an exam, we would call that cheating.
The truth is that not everything we do in class is under exam conditions. Afterall we are educating kids, not preparing them for exams.

Don’t knock it until you have tried it.

 

One of the things that really frustrate me in these type of debates is how many teachers argue strongly against something they have never tried. It ‘s hard to see the value of allowing learners to listen to music until you have tried it yourself. And over the past three years, a number of teachers have come back to me, saying they have changed their mind after trying it a few times. ( I believe you need to try something six times before you can tell whether it works or not)
But you have to try it in the right situation. Try it in the last lesson of the day, when you are in any case struggling to keep learners focused on their work.
Don’t try it in a lesson where discussion forms part of the learning process. I never allow earphones when we are at the start of a chapter and learners are still figuring out what the work is about. But once we get to the consolidation exercise at the end of the chapter, I actually prefer them to attempt the work by themselves.

If you are not convinced yet, here is more reading

Daily Herald – Student’s thoughts on listening to music.

The learning scientist – Listening to music while studying: Good or Bad idea?

Do you play music in your classroom?

How do you feel about allowing learners to listen to music in the class? Have you tried it? Share your experiences with us in the comments.

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