Want Smarter Kids? Teach Music, Not Coding, According to MIT

If there’s been a theme to the technology industry’s plans to reform education, it’s that every child should learn to code. This is supposed to allow children to better adapt to a world where computers are omnipresent.

However, there’s not much, if any, connection between coding and today’s point-and-click environment. Almost nobody in business, for example, requires much programming skill beyond, say, creating a spreadsheet.

Furthermore, the basic coding skills taught in K-12 bears no resemblance to how professional programmers produce code. The “teach kids to code” movement therefore justifies such instruction because it supposedly improves math and language skills.

However, that appears not to be the case, according to a December 2020 study conducted at MIT, which found that: “Understanding computer code seems to be its own thing. It’s not the same as language, and it’s not the same as math and logic.”

By contrast, what actually does increase other skills and brain power is teaching kids to play a musical instrument, according to a January 2021 study conducted at the University of Zürich and published in The Journal of Neuroscience .

A summary of the research (which involved scanning the brains of both musicians and non-musicians) published in Inverse explains that

musicians’ brains were vastly more structurally and functionally connected than non-musicians, especially in areas of the brain responsible for speech and sound (especially the auditory cortices of both hemispheres). … The musical group also showed stronger connections from the auditory cortices to other brain areas in the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortex known to be involved in the control of higher cognitive functions like memory, working memory, and executive functions.

This increase in brain power and functionality remains even if the child does not continue to play the instrument. “The earlier the musicians had started with musical practice, the stronger these connectivities,” says professor Simon Leipold, a co-author of the study.

In short, if you want your kids to be smarter, you’re better off having them learn a musical instrument or take music education in school, rather than teaching them to code.

Regardless of how it affects their scores in other areas, every child should receive instruction in how to play a musical instrument right from the get-go. It’s an important part of human culture. If you cannot play an instrument, it’s as bad as being unable to write.

As for improving attainment in other areas, this seems plausible to me, but … over many years I have seen this sort of report come and go. For a brief time, it appeared that you could improve IQ scores dramatically – something which seems implausible to me, but something which is devoutly to be wished for – and then it turned out that the people doing the ‘research’ were just frauds. Listening to Mozart was another flash in the pan. So we should wait for more research here.

As for coding … by the time you’re a teenager, I think your logical thinking ability is pretty well fixed. Maybe if we systematically taught logical thinking at an early age, we might be able to see good results.

Anyone who is interested in this idea, ought to examine the game of New Eleusis. It’s easy for children to learn – you can make a simplified version of it where the rules are printed out so there is no ambiguity – and it teaches one of the most important thinking skills of all – the importance of seeking disconfirming evidence before you affirm a supposition. [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleusis_(card_game) ] I’ve run math/science workshops in elementary schoos with this game and the kids find it a lot of fun.