Does leisure music have a place in school?

I’ve been substitute teaching for about half a year now, mostly at the high school level, and one of the most striking differences from when I went to high school (I graduated not even ten years ago) is the presence of what I will call leisure gadgets. Technology and electronic devices that do not serve any notable or noticeable educational purpose, but are instead used rampantly by students as a way to socialize or entertain themselves. It doesn’t take a veteran educator to understand that most gadget use in schools today is likely a distraction to students (whether students realize or admit it), not to mention unendorsed by administrators. Students in high school don’t have the responsibility, will power, or even wherewithal to use their gadgets for educational purposes. It can be done (in fact, I just wrote a philosophy of educating praising the responsible use of technology and social media in schools), but when you consider than many teacher older than even 35 often are unfamiliar with technological trends, as well as the fact that school budgets simply don’t allow for the latest technology to be brought into schools, it’s not surprising that electronics are seen as threats to learning. So administrators put into place rules that flat out prohibit electronics. While this makes me cringe (I’ll say why in a different blog post…), I can understand their desire to curb the use of electronics for leisure and entertainment purposes. Because it’s distracting and keeps students unfocused and unmotivated.

Or does it?

At work, I often supervise/tutor one kid who loves listening to music. I think a lot of people like listening to music while they work. If only the kid actually worked. Any student will claim listening to music helps him concentrate. But until that claim is supported by substantial evidence, I can’t have sympathy. My own feelings aside, it’s a school rule that all electronic devices are prohibited.

One day recently, I was supervising a small class, this student included. He wanted to listen to music while he worked on his computer research packet, but I asked him to take out the earbuds. Having supervised the class several times before, I knew the group dynamic as well as the personalities of the individual students. My decision was the right thing to do, I’m sure, or else nothing would have gotten done, and a precedent would have been set that I wanted to avoid. “Music is a privilege,” I said. “You may listen to it when you’re done.” Another kid spoke out, “Music isn’t a privilege- it’s a right! You’re mean!”

That comment really got to me. Not the “you’re mean” part (I’m not going to go home and cry because a 14-year-old thinks I’m mean), but the “music is a right” part.

Of course, it’s not a right. It’s not written in the constitution. But as a musician, I can’t imagine someone controlling my musical intake. I would be infuriated if I was told I had limited access to music, because music does so much for me that is immeasurable by anyone else.

What if music really does help students concentrate?  To be honest, iPods are a serious rival to human interaction. At any rate, listening to music could prevent students from chatting with each other. It could keep them focused on the task at hand, encouraging them to do their own work at their own pace. It could boost their mood, mentally preparing them for a long day ahead. It could energize them. It could inspire them. So if the volume is appropriate and there’s evidence that music in school could benefit students, why are iPods expressly prohibited? Does this rule exemplify the antiquated idea that technology is inherently distracting? That devices that isolate are intrinsically bad for society?

It’s 2013. Educators need to reevaluate rules about technology and devices and teach students how to use them responsibly. It’s one thing if a student feels the need to be constantly “plugged in.” It’s another if that student wants to use music to help him concentrate and get work done. Anything that reasonably helps reduce students’ stress should be welcome.


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