Let the Music Play: Study Finds Teens’ Listening Habits Help Teach Civics
The pre-Revolutionary tune “Yankee Doodle.” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”
What do these songs have in common? They were all written in response to significant events in American history and have the ability to elicit powerful emotions. Perhaps more important, these songs demonstrate how music is an enduring part of our culture and society.
Mason researcher Anthony Pellegrino couldn’t agree more. As a teenager, he remembers how listening to the music of socially and politically active bands such as MC5, Fugazi, Bad Brains and REM helped shape his own opinions about issues in society. Later, when he became an American history teacher, he wondered if music still had the same impact on students.
This thought led to his most recent study titled “Music as a Tool for 21st-Century Civic Education,” which was published in Action in Teacher Education. In the study, Pellegrino, an assistant professor of secondary education in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, and his colleagues analyzed the intersection of music and civics.
Teaching History Beyond the Textbook
The researchers worked with high school students from around the country to determine the relationship between civically oriented music and students’ civic knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. In addition, the researchers introduced the idea of teaching history beyond the textbook and offered ways in which educators can effectively use music and culture in their history classrooms.
“We already knew that students were listening to all sorts of music genres from pop to rock to country, but we weren’t sure to what extent this music was influencing their perceptions of the world,” says Pellegrino. “By gaining a better understanding of how students are learning about civic issues, educators can use these sources that teens see as being relevant to their lives.”
For the study, Pellegrino and his colleagues surveyed 213 high school students enrolled in social studies classes in public schools in Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina and Utah.
Students were asked to identify the musical artists they listen to on a regular basis. Some of the favorites that emerged were country music artists Brooks & Dunn and Taylor Swift; rappers Jay-Z and Lil’Wayne; and R&B singer Mary J. Blige. Students were also tested on their knowledge of government structure, American history, world geography and social issues.
The study also measured three aspects of students’ civic attitudes: their opinions concerning politics and morality, their willingness to work for a cause and whether they considered voting the responsibility of all citizens. Also measured were two aspects of students’ civic behaviors: whether they were members of civic clubs at school and whether they discussed politics with their friends.
Civically Oriented Music Encourages Learning
For the most part, students scored low on the civic knowledge questions, answering only between six and 14 questions out of 19 correctly. Students also scored low in civic behaviors, with 74 percent indicating that they do not belong to a civic club at school and 55 percent saying they do not talk about politics with their friends.
However, Pellegrino notes that despite the low scores regarding civic knowledge and behavior, 64 percent of students actually had very strong opinions about politics and morality. The researchers also found that 62 percent of students were willing to work for an important cause and believed that voting is the responsibility of every citizen.
“Although students may not actively be participating in civic behaviors, our research shows us that students who listen to civically oriented music are actually encouraged to raise their civic knowledge, initiate conversations among their peers and learn more about their government and society,” says Pellegrino.
Further in-person interviews with some of the students revealed that the more students talk with their friends about civic issues in society, the more likely they are to participate in civic clubs at school.
In the same way, according to Pellegrino, students are more likely to form opinions about issues in society and to work for a cause when they listen to music that informs them of a social or civic issue. In fact, 53 percent of the students agreed that they have learned about a social issue or event from a song or band.
Based on the results of the study, the researchers concluded that while civically oriented music has the potential to arouse intense feelings about social issues among students, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a complete understanding of these issues, nor does it guarantee students will participate in civic behaviors.
“Many of the students to which we spoke admitted that they tend to believe things without actually looking into them,” says Pellegrino. “This is where the responsibility of the educator comes in to ensure that these attitudes are rooted in civic knowledge and lead to civic behaviors.”
A Tool for Educators
Pellegrino and his colleagues argue that students are detached from civics as it is taught in the classroom; therefore, educators should consider using nontraditional teaching sources such as music and music lyrics to help captivate and inspire students to learn.
“Most social studies educators only use music as a hook in the classroom to get students’ attention,” says Pellegrino. “Instead of focusing solely on sources such as government documents, speeches, photographs or other relics, teachers need to incorporate music into their primary source learning materials.”
Pellegrino and his fellow researchers further expanded on this issue in their forthcoming book titled “Let the Music Play! Harnessing the Power of Music for the Social Studies Classroom.” The book offers recommendations to social studies educators about how to infuse music as part of social studies curriculum and use it as an analytical tool in the classroom to help students better understand historical events.
The book explores how both historical and contemporary songs can be used to educate students about noteworthy themes in American history such as race, labor and class. The researchers identified 30 songs per topic and included detailed lesson plans as a resource for teachers to use music in the classroom.
“As educators and researchers, it is important for us to recognize that an essential element of school is to move students to action,” says Pellegrino. “We owe it to our students to use the most relevant sources available that will encourage them to become knowledgeable, responsible and active members of society.”