HomeOpinion & AnalysisHappy birthday to you

Happy birthday to you

By Tim Middleton

Some readers of this article may be celebrating their birthday today and in doing so they may well be serenaded by family and friends with a beautiful version of the most recognised song in the English language (according to the 1998 Guinness World Records), the well-known musical ditty Happy Birthday To You, (with its second verse, “How old are you now?”), a song that was first penned in 1893 by American kindergarten teachers and sisters Patty and Mildred J Hill. Who knows, if they are lucky, it may well be sung in four-part harmony! It may even have a keyboard accompaniment! But are we aware that there are many different ways to play Happy Birthday To You?

Victor Borge, a brilliant musician and comedian, once famously did a piece (later copied by others — all worth watching on YouTube) whereby he played the tune of Happy Birthday To You in the different styles of famous classical music composers — so he played it in the manner of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Chopin. Even the musically-uneducated of us will recognise that each composer has their own style. Daniel Ramjattan, of the University of Toronto, for example has explained that, “Bach’s music is highly intellectual, covered in overlapping melodic lines… It is the perfect blend between math and emotion… Mozart’s music is instantly agreeable. He’s like a pop star of his time. You can’t listen to a symphony or a string quartet or any piece by Mozart without hearing catchy tune after catchy tune… Beethoven’s music characterises the romantic hero. His music is more about motifs (little seeds of an idea that get repeated over and over and transform over time) than they are about melodies.”

What then has this to do with education? We can start by saying that education is meant to be happy and enjoyed! Education is not always heavy and serious (like many people might find classical music to be heavy)! Education is meant to be celebrated, as we do birthdays. The great thing about education is that it does not come along once a year but each new day is a day of new birth in learning. The day we were born was the day we started to learn and the day we stop learning is the day we die. As the ditty repeats the same simple words Happy Birthday To You four times, so education is often going over the same central truths again and again. Education comes in every day experiences, even as we sing Happy Birthday To You, as we are currently exploring.

There is a bigger message to all this, though. Just as the simple Happy Birthday To You song can be played and enjoyed in different styles and ways, so too education can be performed in many different styles or ways – a fact that is all too often forgotten, ignored or even simply not understood. Education can be done differently! Indeed education is done differently in different classrooms, in different schools, in different subjects.

It has famously been said that we learn “10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss, 80% of what we experience and 95% of what we teach”. As an aside, that means there is only a 10% chance that people who read this will learn the points that are being shared here (even that may be over-estimated)!

Of course, we do not need to be too learned to realise that different people learn best in different ways. Some learn best in a formal, structured environment while others gain more from a more informal one. Some have found it easy during these lockdown months to learn online while others need the physical presence of their teacher to maximise their learning. Some need a face-to-face, one-to-one learning opportunity while others flourish in a group context with interaction and participation. Much learning may be achieved in a classroom but equally a great deal of learning takes place on the sports field, on an expedition, on a visit.

In one sense, education is the same as it was hundreds of years ago. All we have done is modernise it, keep the same tune but play it differently. We need to keep doing that and help our children discover the best way for them to learn. Play it again, ma’am! We can add harmonies, for sure; we can adapt the style, definitely. Happy days! So let us celebrate music, education and the birth of a new day of learning. Happy learning day to you! So then we may add: How wise are you now?

  • Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS].
  • The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS. Email: ceo@atschisz.co.zw; website:www.atschisz

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