Synchronicity, Music & Memory

April 2012

“Let us describe the education of our men. What then is the education to be? Perhaps we could hardly find a better method than that which the experience of the past has already discovered, which consists, I believe, in gymnastics for the body and music for the mind.” ~ Plato

It is said that Winston Churchill was such a formidable conversationalist that he could reply to almost anything anyone said, with a literary quote. He was such a voracious reader and had such a remarkable memory that he had a massive bank of ready wisdom he could draw on for any given situation.

Teaching is sometimes like this. A good teacher communicates effortlessly on the surface but is always rapidly scanning the context for connections below, continually looking for things that make sense for the learners.

Thinking on your feet like this is something to practice. A good teacher goes with the flow whenever required and is never at a loss for an answer, even if that means articulating aloud to give yourself a little more time to think of a better one. In short, a good teacher must know their territory, so they can never get properly lost in it.

The best teachers are so in tune with their subject, students, and society at large that they find relevance where others don’t. They have a vast reservoir of knowledge and experiences that they can call on to make a meaningful point and harness the almost mystical phenomenon of synchronicity.

Synchronicity means finding meaningful coincidences in unrelated things. This is clearly an art. You can develop a knack for it. Synchronicity has two aspects in teaching. Firstly, through the repetition of teaching the same class, you begin to find a very congruent and effective way of explaining, eliciting and interpreting concepts by utilsing connections and coincidences. Secondly, the recycling of language in a class often comes from the occurrence of accidental random repetitions of vocabulary, syntax and semantic points.

For a competent teacher, serendipity and going off on unscripted dogme-like wanderings can bring this type of unexpected results. But it is when the original process is repeated, examined and codified that you can engineer synthesis and structure. That makes a class refined and interesting. And that is when it stops being dogme and becomes something permanent, profound and complex. (I use the term ‘dogme’ in its strictest / original sense).

For me, there’s no better way of mining synchronicity than using songs in class. With music, you consistently and randomly find the same words, concepts and themes cropping up in successive songs and this provides a great synergy to the class. As well as this, music has natural patterns and rhythms which reverberate within our soul, and music is repetitive. All of which makes it easily learnable.

Chinese phrase for ‘catchy’ — literally ‘clear go to mouth’. Music is so conducive to memory, and verse is just a highly stylised form of chunking.

Really suitable songs for Beginners are not all that easy to find so I have a three rule criteria for choosing music for an ESL class. Songs must be:

  • simple — easy vocabulary, not too idiomatic
  • literate — grammatical lyrics
  • contain a coherent story

Music is thoughtful and conducive even to the most disinterested of people and thus builds instant connections with your students. So try some songs in class and see where they take you. See the links you find. Ask students to play the part of the characters in the songs, fielding questions from others. Ask students to write letters to them offering advice. And get students to describe times when they have experienced similar people or situations and have others ask them questions about what happened.