A strange question perhaps but as I was watching my all-time favourite film ‘The Sound of Music’ a thought suddenly struck me. I have often struggled to get my head around the process of learning but suddenly it clicked. How on earth am I going to try and link learning theory to this musical classic I hear you ask? Well here goes…

In ‘The Sound of Music’ we see Julie Andrews as an unruly nun who is sent to be a governess for the seven children of a rich Captain. The children have lived under the strict rule of their father and have forgotten what it is like to play and have fun. Maria (Julie Andrews) vows to inject a spark of joy back into their lives (no spoilers I promise!).

In one of the most iconic scenes in the film we see Maria trying to teach the children how to sing. You may want to watch the clip below if you’ve never seen it before or to refresh your memory.

Below I will aim to dissect the song line by line and try to explain how my mad brain has linked this to cognitive theory. You may even like to have the clip still open and pause at each line I reference (or just use it as an excuse to have a good sing-along).

“Well, what songs do you know?” Maria starts by asking the children about their pre-existing knowledge of songs. She realises very quickly they don’t know any songs and actually don’t even know how to sing. A pre-existing knowledge check is a great way to start a lesson. Sometimes, as with Maria, you may be introducing a new topic which the students will probably have vastly varying knowledge of. In other cases, it may act as a re-cap on prior learning which will be built on for the remainder of the lesson. This will allow you to cater for your novice and expert learners in that lesson by quickly identifying any gaps, misconceptions, or any areas in which their thinking can be stretched further. It also helps avoid making assumptions (such as the one I made about you having watched The Sound of Music!).

“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. When you read you being with ABC; when you sing you begin with do-re-mi.” Maria’s next step here is key to teaching the children this new knowledge. She is introducing them to the threshold concept – the thing they need to realise before they can go any further in this learning episode-the key which unlocks other concepts. She is teaching them the foundation of singing; that every song is made up of a series of notes. She uses the model of the alphabet to help her students understand this. Relating new learning to previous knowledge is vital. It helps students to build a schema around the subject and will help them grasp the concept more quickly if they can see how it is similar or relevant to prior ideas. She repeats this to her students to ensure they have understood this. Now I am not recommending you necessarily ask your students to repeat what you say in parrot fashion, however this would be an ideal point to bring in targeted questioning to ensure your students are all with you before you move on to the more complex aspects of the lesson/topic. Incidentally, there has also been numerous research to suggest that choral responses have a significantly positive impact on memory and retention.

Maria also chunks this information for her students. She gives them just three sounds to remember “do-re-mi” before approaching the rest of the sounds. She also does this when getting students to repeat the notes back to her; this will ultimately make it easier for them to remember the sequence of 8. In his book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ Daniel Willingham advocates using chunking to “cheat” your working memory (see more in this blog). It will be much easier for students to remember new knowledge if broken down into manageable, meaningful chunks then if presented in a long sequence.

“Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-tea… oh let’s see if I can make it easier”. Here Maria falls into a trap we often step into as teachers. This is a prime example of cognitive overload. She thinks that because the children have understood the threshold concept of singing that they will be able to cope with further knowledge. It is the equivalent of getting students to read a piece of text and presuming that they have all understood it and can apply it to future questions/concepts. It is very easy to do this – as teachers we are experts at making quick links and having the motivation to want to develop knowledge quickly. We must remember that working memory can only hold 4 new pieces of information at one time. Maria realises (from what I presume is a sea of blank faces) that the children have far from understood. This is great responsive teaching in action as she adapts learning accordingly.

“Do, a dear, a female dear. Re, a drop of golden sun”. To combat the confusion Maria does something insightful. She ‘translates’ the new knowledge into concepts that the children are more familiar with. More than this, she draws links which have strong imagery by creating a nemonic. She encourages the children to build the schema for this topic (as with the links to prior learning earlier). This might include putting the concept into ‘student-friendly’ terms, or linking it to something they are familiar with in their day to day lives.

Alex Quigley highly recommends doing this in his book ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’. When teaching new vocabulary he advocates that we ‘translate’ it into a form students are familiar with. For example, when teaching a recent Year 8 lesson I used The Avengers to introduce the key word ‘avenge’; students were quickly able to connect the actions of The Avengers to the concept of avenging someone and were therefore much more able to understand why the character in The Tempest acts in the way that they do.

In the next round of the chorus, you will notice the children begin to join in. This is a great example of the “I do” and “we do” sections of the ‘I-do, we-do, you-do‘ modelling process. Maria has modelled to the children how a song is made up, and built their schema of singing in the process. She is also encouraging them to develop procedural knowledge (how the notes build in pitch after each other). Knowledge of procedure here is as important as knowledge of concepts and facts. In Maria’s case, the knowledge she is teaching is the knowledge of notes and building the procedural knowledge of how the notes are sequenced within a scale.

The next stage of consolidating procedural knowledge is rehearsal. And on the next round of the song, Maria encourages the children to join in. I am very aware that she makes this look very easy; I have sat many a time trying to elicit ideas from students who are unwilling to talk to me. However, it is a vital part of learning . The teacher now invites the students into the process; again they may wish to use targeted questioning to test students’ knowledge and understanding of what has previously been modelled and use it as an opportunity to correct any misconceptions. Modelling is another brilliant way of making a process ‘automatic’ and reducing the load on the working memory. Josie Morgan explore the relationship between modelling and working memory in her post here.

Maria does not leave it here. It might be easy to presume that as the children are singing along happily then they must understand it. No – Maria checks their understanding through repetition. In lessons this could be through exit passes which re-cap core knowledge. It could be through starters which quiz previous learning. It could be through homework which encourages students to revise learnt concepts using their knowledge organiser. Repetition is key in helping students transfer knowledge from their working to their long term memory.

“Now children, do-re-mi and so on are only the tools we use to build a song. Once you have these notes in your heads you can sing a million different tunes by mixing them up like this: so-do-la-fa-mi-do-re…” We then see a shift in time – a new learning episode. Maria has successfully embedded the new knowledge into the childrens’ long term memory (and probably ours too). Here she again reverts to the ‘I do, we do’ process to teach students how to apply this new knowledge in order to create more meaningful and creative thoughts/ideas/songs. It is important that knowledge is revised, recovered and reapplied to new questions and concepts. She cleverly reinforces this process with a positive interlude “when you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything”. I might remember this and tell my students: “when you know how to write a successful topic sentence, you can write most anything”! Students need this confirmation of why they are doing what they are doing. Sometimes they can see repetition as ‘boring’, particularly if they feel they know it already. However, it is important students understand why this repetition is necessary; it will unlock further successes. The more students know about how learning works, the better. Megan Sumeracki summarises 6 key concepts for learning on the Learning Scientist Blog here. Maria uses these concepts which is arguably why the information has stuck; she has spaced her learning opportunities, she has encouraged retrieval practice by revisiting the topic and testing the childrens’ ability to turn it into a different tune, and she has given the concrete examples by using strong imagery to initially teach the notes.

We now see Maria do something very interesting. She takes a step back and removes many of the previous scaffolds she has in place. If you have a look at how they sing whilst on the bicycles you will see Maria is not leading all the time. By this point the students are ready to lead their own learning. This may be where you have over to your expert learners and encourage them to support the novice learners. You might even choose to complete a group task where students are given specific roles which they must complete. This type of task is fantastic for lots of reasons. It encourages students to build confidence and independence. It is also a good opportunity for you to identify which learners are happy to do this and which perhaps need more support from you. Throughout this she continues her positive reinforcement of why they are doing this; something we could also consider.

The song finishes with one final whole group run through of the chorus and a harmonious ensemble of the notes in a different order once again. We see them physically ordering themselves according to the notes they are singing (lower notes at one end of the line etc). You could argue that this is an example of dual coding. The children are now coming up with a physical representation of a scale. They have done A final reminder of the need for re-capping over time and the joy you get as a teacher when you see they have finally ‘got it’. Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein use an excellent diagram in this blog as an example for how to do this in History.

In no way am I trying to simplify the learning process here. What Maria achieves in 5 minutes and 43 seconds cannot be replicated for time in the classroom. However, I think it is a helpful example for us to use when planning lessons or schemes to remind us of how knowledge should build over time. I already knew Rogers and Hammerstein were genius, but didn’t realise I would have a ‘eureka’ moment about learning while listening to one of their most famous tunes.

By Anthea Harper

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