Why observing a music lesson can benefit a modern language teacher

Why observing a music lesson can benefit a modern language teacher


Isabelle Wolfe
Language Teacher, International School Aberdeen


Instrumental instruction shares a lot of common traits with language instruction. More importantly, modern language teachers can improve their instruction by observing music lessons.


Noam Chomsky developed in the 1950s the theory of universal grammar whereby he argues that language is wired in our brains as we are infants and consequently we are born to use languages. Chomsky argues that very young children can distinguish a verb from a noun for example and that even in languages where the syntax might differ from the child’s mother tongue, the brain is wired to recognise word functions. All human languages, even though they seem to be extremely different in their sounds, syntaxes, pronunciation or scripts share some fundamental similarities.


A new research from Harvard University by Martin Leigh shows that music also carries a set of unique codes and patterns, which are in fact universally understood. This indicates a very strong similarity between music and language. Similarly to a child innately recognising grammar in his own language, the findings of the Harvard research indicate that music regardless of its tonality, tempo and ornamentation  can be understood universally by people independently of their cultural backgrounds.


Language teachers can learn tremendously in terms of feedback from their music colleagues. Feedback, to be effective, should entice the student to think. If feedback consists in looking at a piece of work, write a comment and hand the work back, there is little chance that that feedback will be effective. As Dylan William demonstrates in his paper The secret of Effective Feedback, praise given to students on their performance has a reverse effect and lower achievement. On the contrary giving feedback on what the student needs to improve and how to improve has huge effects on students achievements. John Hattie in his book called The Power of Feedback supports the idea that praise interferes with learning as it is directed at a person.


In short, effective feedback being intrinsically linked to responsive teaching and focused on making the student think rather than having an emotional reaction has a higher impact than feedback given entirely by the teacher. Music teachers consistently delivers feedback that will inevitably trigger some response in the student as it is concise and targeted to the areas that the student can fix straight away. Similarly a modern language teacher will correct for example a student’s oral abilities by providing explicit strategies that the student can implement immediately.


Instrumental lessons offer a high level of self-regulation feedback which is  described in the works of Zimmerman and Schunk as  “the processes whereby learners personally activate and sustain cognitions, affects, and behaviours that are systematically oriented toward the attainment of personal goals.” This feedback enables the learners to monitor their own performance and initiate their own strategies to achieve a better performance. This type of feedback is indeed very effective as the teacher acts as a prompts for the student to think about his performance. Instrumental teachers use this type of feedback regularly as the performance of a piece of music is the ultimate goal. In this sense music teachers driver feedback that is effective as it is self regulated as well as concise and precise with the ultimate goal of a performance. Student know exactly what they need to improve and how. 


A music teacher will be extremely specific in the position of the fingers or the mouth or the posture of the body. This is the most effective feedback that one teacher can give as it is immediate, detailed and based on formative assessment. 


Another similarity between language teaching and music instruction is that both subjects require a lot of practice. A music teacher would expect his students to practise at home extensively. How do you go from one single note on a piano to mastering a scale? How do you go from saying isolated words to answer a question confidently in a foreign language? The answer in both situation is practice.In both subjects, modelling from the teacher is the key to help raise students achievement and fluency. 


A final similarity between music and modern languages is the end result that both subject teachers are striving for. That is performance. A music teacher will prepare his students to perform for an audience. Language teachers prepare their students to perform orally so that they can communicate with a foreign audience. The end result of the instruction is very similar. In both subjects, students aim to communicate.


Language and music teachers share a lot of common features; they both teach a subject that is universal in terms that any human can communicate with language whether they are sounds put together to form words or music. Both are intrinsically wired to our brain and ancient skills. We can learn a lot from music teachers in terms of feedback and practice. They both require an active participation fo the student. Language acquisition is different from learning other subjects.


We have to treat language as a different kind of subject matter and therefore it should be treated differently than other subjects. History, science, maths and English are content courses whereby knowledge is taught, demonstrated and ultimately assessed and tested. Language acquisition assessments as well as musical performances should focus on the progress the students are making and proficiency outcomes.



Dylan Wiliam: Feedback on learning – Transcript,

https://education.gov.scot/media/1mrblr3j/assess13-dylan-wiliam-feedback-on-learning-transcript.docx. Accessed 6 February 2023.

Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E.V.M. (2011). Language Acquisition: Contrasting theoretical approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

Pine, J.M., Conti-Ramsden, G., Joseph, K.L., Lieven, E.V.M., & Serratrice, L. (2008). Tense over time: testing the Agreement/Tense Omission Model as an account of the pattern of tense-marking provision in early child English. Journal of Child Language, 35(1): 55-75.

Rowland, C. F.; & Noble, C. L. (2010). The role of syntactic structure in children’s sentence comprehension: Evidence from the dative. Language Learning and Development, 7(1): 55-75.

Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal behavior. Acton, MA: Copley Publishing Group.

Theakston, A.L., & Lieven, E.V.M. (2005). The acquisition of auxiliaries BE and HAVE: an elicitation study. Journal of Child Language, 32(2): 587-616.

Asprou, Helena. “Music Is a Universal Language, New Harvard University Study Proves.” Classic FM, Classic FM, 9 Jan. 2020, 

Hattie, J., Gan, M., and Brooks, C. (2017). “Instruction based on feedback,” in Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction, 2nd Edn., eds R. E. Mayer and P. A. Alexander (Thousand Oaks, CA: Routledge), 290–324.

Hattie, J., and Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Rev. Educ. Res. 77, 81–112. doi: 10.3102/003465430298487

Zimmerman, B. J., and Schunk, D. H. (2011). “Self-regulated learning and performance: an introduction and an overview,” in Handbook of Self-Regulation of Learning and Performance, eds B. J. Zimmerman and D. H. Schunk (New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group), 1–12.



Isabelle Wolfe is the Language Subject Leader at the International School Aberdeen.  She teaches French in Middle and High school as well as the French Mother Tongue programme to our French native students. Prior to teaching at ISA, Isabelle taught in England, Australia, and Egypt.

Organisational Culture in School Settings

Organisational Culture in School Settings

Simon O’Connor
Director, Deira International School

In the second of these articles, Simon O’Connor, Director of Deira International School, explains how lessons from organisational culture in the corporate world can be applied to school settings.

A school leader needs to negotiate the minefield of competing values and understand the social reality of its members in order to arrive at a cohesion which enables the school to function efficiently’ (Hill)

One of the criticisms which is often levelled at school leaders and system leaders is that strategy and policy developments are perceived as being “too corporate “. Quite rightly, the education industry regards itself as being different to the corporate world. The ambition for business is to make profit whereas in education our ambition is much more holistic – to teach young people the values and skills that they will need to thrive for the rest of their lives.

However, on occasion, this rejection of the corporate perspective can mean that we miss out on valuable lessons. Following the banking crash at the start of this century many corporate institutions went back to review their purpose and the values which underpin their work. For example, Natwest produced their ‘Code’ – an explanation of their values which then sets out the behaviours that are expected when employees are living their values in their everyday work. This approach is not uncommon in industry and, indeed, has been a subject of interest since the 1980s.

One writer on organisational culture is Simon Sinek. The bestselling author of ‘Start with Why’, ‘Leaders Eat Last’, ‘Together is Better’ and ‘The Infinite Game’, Simon Sinek has helped and inspired organisations worldwide to reach new heights, while his TED talk, based on ‘Start with Why’, is the third most popular video of all time on TED.com, with more than 35 million views. Although discussing the corporate, business world Sinek’s approach seems to fit perfectly with many of the contradictions that exist in education. Indeed, his perspective on the finite vs infinite game seems to resolve conflicts which have exist within certain elements of school.

An important basis for understanding is what Sinek describes as the distinction between the finite and infinite game. In a finite game the rules are clear, and the requirement for victory is understood by all. Furthermore, it is also clear who the opposition is. A good example would be a game of football. There are clear rules, which are policed, by which everyone must abide. It is clear who the opposition are – they are even colour coded for clarity. Finally, everyone knows that the team who has scored more goals by the end of the match has won. After 90 minutes a clear winner emerges from these criteria. In an infinite game, these elements do not exist – there are no clear rules in which the different sides engage, indeed it is not clear who the other players are. There is no timescale as it is never ending, and no winner. Indeed, the only requirements in an infinite game are to keep playing and to do better.

Within this definition education can only be an infinite game – how can we tell when a school has won? Even if this were possible, surely the loss required for a win would depend on students underachieving, a consequence which no-one would advocate. If this is then understood, it makes little sense for schools to compete. All schools are different and pertinent to thought own context. Although we all do it, comparisons between schools are revealed to be at best meaningless and at worst a waste of both time and resources. The consequence of this is that schools should use this time to focus on what will continue to improve what they do.

However, Sinek does raise the concept of the ‘Worthy Rival’ – a supposed competitor that you know does something or somethings better. He argues that in order to improve, it is important to recognise when another organisation does something better than you, to seek to understand how and then adopt this performance for yourself. This is simply an articulation of the oft used ‘Sharing good practice’ which is so common within schools but seemingly frowned upon between them. If schools, and owners, were able to recognise that schools are not able to compete but can all contribute to the wider performance for children, just imagine what could be achieved.

Sinek also discusses the need to focus on wellbeing, particularly the need for staff to know that their voices are heard. Sinek uses the example of someone he talked to in a US hotel who was able to explain in real detail about how much he loved his job. However, the same person had an identical role in another hotel but hated it. The difference was that he felt heard, included and valued. In recent years, schools have started to consider wellbeing as a consideration, but this has accelerated markedly as a consequence of schools’ responses to COVID and lockdowns. We are all familiar with ‘student voice’ and gaining staff feedback – but Sinek identifies this importance of this. With declining numbers of teachers and leaders, as well as increasing generations of staff who expect their views to be heard, this is now a clear opportunity for schools to embrace a culture where all feel included.

Moving an organisation’s culture is never easy and takes time. Indeed, as Leithwood et al observed,

“In the best schools, with the best resources, and the most skilled leadership, the timeframe for transforming culture, structure, belief and practice is years.”

However, as Sinek demonstrates, learning lessons from the corporate world can help schools to accelerate this process and improve student outcomes.

In the third article of the series, Simon O’Connor will investigate how school-based research has highlighted specific interventions which schools can use to develop their culture.



Simon O’Connor is the Director of Deira International School with oversight over both the primary and secondary schools. Simon is also Chief of Education for the the Al Futtaim Education Foundation, working across their portfolio of schools. Simon has over 25 years of experience in education and joined DIS in August of 2020. Prior to this he was Principal of Jumeirah College, an outstanding school in Dubai, since 2013.

Simon is passionate about learning and ensuring all students are challenged in lessons for them to achieve their full potential. He strongly believes that if this is to be achieved students should be happy at school, and therefore the wellbeing of community must be a key focus for all. He is also very interested in school leadership and is currently studying for Doctorate with the University of Buckingham, researching the impact of a focus on organisational culture in international schools.

Prior to moving to the UAE, Simon taught History and Politics for over 20 years in a variety of different school contexts. In his last role in the UK, Simon worked as a school leader in a very successful grammar school in Kent. His role there was curriculum lead and was also responsible for the management of a teaching school and working across an academy chain of schools which he helped to found.

As a student Simon studied for a BA in History and Philosophy at the University of Wales, College of Cardiff where he was a choral scholar at Llandaff Cathedral. He then studied for a PGCE at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was also a choral scholar. Simon also holds a Master’s Degree in Education Leadership, and a National Professional Qualification for Headship.