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4’33” (Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds): What Our Brains Need

4’33” (Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds): What Our Brains Need

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Brain and Gears

As my students know, their brains fascinate me and my colleagues. If they think about it, it is the only learning tool that they can never forget for our classes. Students can forget their homework, laptop, pencil or books. But there is no way they can forget their brain. But having their brain in our classes, on the athletic fields, or stage, does not mean learning or a strong performance will happen. Our brains are just not that simple and, at 3 lbs., the brain is pretty incredible and cannot be ignored.

Throughout this school year, I have been fascinated with memory, especially after reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. All teachers should desire to have what they teach and have students experience, not just stay in their brains for a test, but also for a future moment when they might be at a social event and they need to recall who the Great Compromiser was in American history (Henry Clay) or who was LBJ (hopefully you will not say LeBron James).

But what do we ever truly remember? For example, why do we never forget how to ride a bicycle? Even if we have not done it in many years, most of us could get on a bike and head off somewhere without a problem. I went to Dickinson College. Recently, I was asked what one of my favorite college classes was and I recall it being Music 101 in which we listened and talked about the great symphonies in the context of the historical period in which they were written.

Most of you don’t know that I have a “man crush” on Bruce Springsteen and know the lyrics to nearly all of his songs. I also often claim that because of Music 101 I know all the words to Beethoven’s 5th and 9th symphonies (the latter actually has German words that I don’t understand), Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition” and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. But there is one symphony that I was introduced to in that college class that is particularly memorable and pertinent to our brains. It is one that we should play more often in our lives as teachers, students, and parents. It is titled 4’33’’ and is delivered in three movements and was composed in 1952 by John Cage. Take a listen.

Our brain never stops working, even in our sleep. But it needs time to catch up, to think and ponder. But hardly do we, teachers, students or life, give it such “catch up” time. Have you ever wondered how much information a student’s brain receives each day, whether in class, at lunch, on the playing fields, or via social media. Our brains are constantly receiving, filtering, and pruning away information, making choices. We don’t need the next Taylor Swift or Bruce Springsteen song to calm our brains, we need 4’33’’ each day, a silent symphony, from which new ideas can emerge, opportunities can be evaluated, or momentary peace can be sought. Our brains deserve this and research shows that such a symphony is good for us. Moreover, this is a great time of year to make 4’33” a consistent part of your pedagogical practice. Let’s give students time to reflect on what they have learned this year, to assess the goals they established for themselves and their current progress, and what their current learning strengths or weaknesses might be. Or better yet, let's build silence into our instructional practice. After initially freaking out most students, they will probably come to appreciate and welcome each of the symphonies movements.

Therefore, my challenge for each of us is to make 4’33’’ seconds more a part of how we teach, learn, and live each day. Recalling the words are easy, the melody is catchy, and it is one symphony that all of us can actually play on any instrument of our choosing, even my personal favorite, the air guitar.

Thank for reading and hopefully remembering!


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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Glenn, Thank you for your thoughtful post. I work with a colleague who consistently reminds our staff to breathe OUT as well as in. All too often educators run around scrambling and are mostly breathing in, often at a very fast pace, forgetting to breathe out deeply. We usually wait to breathe out until June don't we? But it is those deep breaths that encourage us to be sure to reflect throughout our day, not waiting until a vacation or end of school year. I have found the mindfulness work I do with my students benefits me greatly as well. I have so many first and second graders that enjoy those moments of silence to just breathe and process their day. Thanks for the reminder to let our brains have the time to process, live, and learn effectively. Tomorrow I will have to see how long my young students can last just listening to the 4'33" symphony. ;)

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Glenn Whitman's picture
Glenn Whitman
Director, The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

John:
Thanks for your comment. Discussions around mindfulness with my colleagues have ranged from full on embrace of its importance to learning to a fear of losing teaching time. I have also been challenged by some parents who feel that deliberately building quiet/reflection time-- whether about oneself or one's learning--takes away from a class being "academically rigorous." Let me know how your students enjoy the symphony.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

I have discovered great potential in having my students reflect on their work and learning, but as with so many other tasks, I have also seen that "reflection" is new to many of them. Although they have been in school and (presumably) learning for 9 years, many are unfamiliar with what it means to reflect on their learning. And we teachers need to be patient and take the time to teach them. But your suggestion to take time for the 4'33" symphony seems different to me than having them reflect on their learning -- do I read that right? Reflection can be hard work, as they think back to what they've done and learned, but the symphony seems like a quiet, clear-the-mind kind of practice. Both valuable!

Glenn Whitman's picture
Glenn Whitman
Director, The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

Laura:
Thanks for reading the post and your reply. I cannot agree with you more that we need to train our students how to reflect on their learning in meaningful. It was interesting, but I had a great conversation today with a school leader in Dallas who reminded me that today's students will experience many more jobs than most of us and thus will need to constantly be learning and relearning. Thus teaching students how to reflect on their current strengths and weaknesses as learners is a critical role of schools. While I recognize that 4"33" is not enough for quality reflection, it is more time than most teachers currently give to it. I also have found that after some training, students can reflect on specific parts of their learning in that time. This said, I have often had students sit still for 4"33" and then ask them what they were thinking. A fascinating conversation often evolves that reflects the competition teachers face for each student's brain space.

Virginia Pratt's picture
Virginia Pratt
Lead Teacher for Gifted/Talented @ Red Cedar Elementary in Bluffton, SC

I find it really amazing that there is so much research that indicates that two of the most important things students need in order to really learn and remember are 1) have time to reflect and 2) have opportunities to discuss-- to say what they are thinking and be heard as well as hear the thoughts of others. (Even without the research I would know this was true because of my own experiences with learning-- how much better I do when I have time to "process" what I've read or heard and get to discuss it with others.) Yet, most teachers feel very uncomfortable allowing for these two things because they take something that teachers feel is scarce-- time. I'm amazed at how many times I hear people talk about the fact that they didn't have time to allow students to reflect or discuss. There's such a fear that we won't "cover" everything in the standards that we fear giving up "teaching time". We have to start to rethink this and trust in doing what best practice says is essential. Thanks for a great post that has certainly made me think!

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

So I did this with my first and second grade students and they were mesmerized by the video. It was quiet for the entire time....the ONLY time this year! Thanks for the idea.

Glenn Whitman's picture
Glenn Whitman
Director, The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

John:
I applaud your efforts and love the results. It would be great to know what the students were thinking during the symphony.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

We didn't have time to reflect in our journals (as you can imagine that takes quite a while in a 1st and 2nd grade classroom.) But we did have a discussion where they reflected using only one word. They shared things such as "relaxing" "calming" "peaceful" "centering" and "made me sleepy" That last one came from a kiddo who always used 3+ words during our 1 or 2 word share outs. :)

Glenn Whitman's picture
Glenn Whitman
Director, The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

Thanks Youki for suggesting this article. I too found it useful. I appreciate such collaboration around identifying research to further validate the need for more reflection and disconnection by students and teachers.

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