The “How” is as Important as the “What”

by Susan Kenney

November 2023

The College Music Society published a report in 2014 stating, “Teaching and learning are informed by unprecedented levels of research that render much of traditional music instruction at odds with what we know about perception, cognition and motivation.” The article goes on to say that “The biggest challenge to education is for teachers to teach in ways that children learn.”

“The biggest challenge to education is for teachers to teach in ways that children learn.” Why is this statement still true nearly ten years later?

Typically, teachers prepare music lessons to teach the content they want to share. The focus is on the information they want the learners to know. They may have studied different methods of teaching music, or created lessons based on their own logical thinking to help organize the content. But traditionally, in planning, teachers pay little attention to how the learning brain works.

Consider these facts from scientific brain research:

  1. “The brain is designed to deal with the confusion of the world around us and learns by extracting patterns from that confusion. The [learning] brain thrives on confusion. The learning brain resists logic.” (Hart, 1983)
  2. “Fragmenting content is the biggest mistake schools make. Teachers actually cut off meaningful connections in the brain when they teach bits and pieces.” (Caine & Caine, 1991)
  3. “Everything that we experience in life depends on the transformation of brain activity into muscular activity. When the body is not moving, the brain is not growing.” (Wilson, 1985)

These facts may be disturbing at first glance. “The brain resists logic?” That can’t be right. “Teaching bits and pieces actually cuts off brain connections?” Surely teaching little bits (say, one note at a time) adds up to an understanding of the whole, right? Wrong, according to the brain! It takes some serious thought and courage to accept and embrace these facts about the learning brain and then let them guide lesson preparation.

As stated at the beginning, our challenge–our biggest challenge–is to teach in ways that children learn. And so, our task is to teach not only the content (what to teach) but to also consider how to teach the content in brain-compatible ways.

To help with this dilemma, Peggy Bennett and Doug Bartholomew identified 13 principles on which to base decisions about how to teach (1997 & 1999). These Principles reflect what we know about how the brain learns.

The Principles also remind us to consider not only children’s cognitive development, but their social, emotional, physical, and wonder growth as well.

For a list of the SongWorks Principles and available conferences, courses, and workshops, visit the SongWorks website. For lesson examples based on the Principles, see SongWorks I: Singing in the Education of Children and SongWorks II: Singing from Sound to Symbol by Peggy Bennett and Douglas Bartholomew.

Songworks is a relatively new kid on the music education block, and it brings fresh challenges for us as teachers to consider in this, the 21st century.

As music teachers, let us be the game changers who create new teaching strategies that are consistent with what we know about perception, cognition, and motivation. Our children will be the benefactors and not only learn the facts we want them to know but will also be motivated to teach themselves when teachers are not around.

As research continues, may we not perpetuate what current research has found: “The biggest challenge to education is for teachers to teach in ways that children learn.” Rather, may the new research find that we as music teachers lead the way in challenging tradition and embracing teaching in ways consistent with brain research.


Bennett, P. D. & Bartholomew, D. R. (1997). SongWorks I: Singing in the education of children. Reprinted 2014 by SongWorks Press

Bennett, P. D. & Bartholomew, D. R. (1999). SongWorks II: Singing from sound to symbol. Reprinted 2014 by SongWorks Press

Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1991). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Campbell, P. S., Myers, D., Sarath, E., Chattah, J., Higgins, L., Levine, V. L., Rudge, D., & Rice, T. (2014). Transforming music study from its foundations: A manifesto for progressive change in the undergraduate preparation of music majors. Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major. The College Music Society.
* A 2016 revised version of this report is available at:

Hart, L. A. (1983). Human brain and human learning. Longman Publishing Group.

Wilson, F. R. (1985). Music as basic schooling for the brain. Music Educators Journal, 71(9), 39–42.

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