Rhythm in Your Classroom

by Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Associate

(reprinted from the Center for Educational Improvement July 2016 newsletter)

“But I’m not a music teacher.” 


Rhythm is an often overlooked way to bring a fun and valuable tool into the classroom of any subject matter.  By introducing information to the brain from as many angles as possible, more neural connections are created and strengthened.  Rhythm’s components of movement and distraction can be two key players in improving learning.  There is now a large collection of research that proves what many have suspected all along.  Human bodies are meant to move, and learning is enhanced by that movement.  Neuroscientist Wendy A. Suzuki suggests that we “consider how the educational system might be altered if we acknowledge exercise’s ability to brighten our mood, decrease stress, and improve our attention span and memory.  The growing evidence that exercise improves these key brain functions should encourage schools around the world to increase— not decrease— students’ physical activity.  Not only would this help students to better absorb everything from history lessons to chemistry experiments, they’d be a lot happier, too.”

Movement.  A 2013 review of studies on the effects of cardiovascular exercise on the human brain shows that exercise benefits learning by priming the molecular processes that help form memory.  When the role of fitness on the brains of preadolescent children was studied in 2015 by Chaddock-Heyman et al., evidence was found that suggests aerobic fitness benefits the both the brain and cognition.  Essentially, what happens is that a certain type of protein is created during exercise that seems to play a role in the development and maintenance of healthy neurons.  The exercise-increased proteins also pump up the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning.

Distraction.  There are two parts of learning: getting things to stick in the brain, and then getting them to come back out (hopefully at the appropriate time).  Using distraction as an intentional tool can help with both of these processes.  A study at Brown University in 2014 found that if a task was to be recalled in an environment that had distractions, it was best learned in an environment that had a similar level of distractions.  It wasn’t necessary that they were the same diversions, just that they were of a similar level.

Application.  Which brings us to multiplication tables, or the periodic table, or the German alphabet.  Whatever set of data students are memorizing can be more effectively learned if elements of movement and appropriate distraction are applied.  One very fun way to do this is with rhythm.  (Please note:  if you’re someone who thinks “I have no rhythm!” follow this link for a basic tutorial video to help you find the beat and work with a metronome.) 

With students out of their chairs, start with a slow beat.  Tapping or marching is an easy way to have everyone join together in the activity.  A metronome is very helpful for keeping a steady tempo, and keeping track of the metronome number (the beats per minute, or BPM) can allow progress to be charted.  Demonstrate the recitation goal to the students; for example, decide if each word comes on a beat or every two beats.  Repeat this activity over many days and experiment with the speed.  When it seems all students have progressed to a fast tempo, do some slow motion repetitions and check that the information can be recalled under varying circumstances.

Also, adjusting movements with the tempo can add additional useful elements to the learning experience.  When all students are comfortable with one aspect, such as marching, add another layer.  Possibilities include snapping, clapping, gesturing with different parts of the body (elbows, heels, knees, shoulders).  The sillier the combination, the better the facts will stick in the brain.

Summary.  Rhythm is a valuable tool for all classrooms.  By incorporating movement and relevant distraction into lesson plans, the brain can become both healthier and more able to embed and recall information.  It is important to remember to balance this rhythm-movement activity with stationary and quiet practice to allow learning to take place in yet another context.  The goal of introducing information to the brain in as many different ways as possible will keep all students actively engaged throughout the learning process.

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