Educational Hip-Hop: Creativity and the Curriculum

Tomcfad & MrT
Tomcfad & MrT

Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with the Rhymebosome, Tom McFadden (@Tomcfad), famous for his Tomcfad YouTube channel of academic hip-hop, as he ran a workshop for students at Kyoto University. After he gave a performance at the Clock Tower, we met for lunch and got talking. At lot of what we discussed tied in with Science education and communication, and into some of the current discussions around education, curriculum and creativity.

He became well-known as a graduate and teaching assistant at Stanford University in the Human Biology department a couple of years ago. His model of academic hip-hop builds on known, credible tracks, creating a more authentic lyrical work than the cringe-inducing teacher-rap that can make kids laugh for the wrong reason. At the moment he is working on a Master’s degree in Science Communication, while “riding the wave” of his internet fame and getting a positive message about science out to students in New Zealand and California, as well as Mexico. Here’s one of his ‘greatest hits’:


We talked about what makes a good science music project, from choosing appropriate tracks to avoid the embarrassing dad-dancing-at-a-wedding image of a teacher ‘doing music’, to making sure that the target conceptual understanding is sound and avoiding misconceptions. We moved on to talking about how the songs are constructed, as well as how to facilitate this with students constructing their own. After lunch I visited the room where a few Kyoto students were working with their Dr. David Dalsky, their Academic Writing professor, on their own lyrics on nature vs nurture.

Tom’s songs, as well as many others on the internet, can be excellent tools for adding humour, reinforcing concepts or reviewing material with students. It is great if they have visible lyrics for ESL students. Sometimes students even remember the chorus or a verse or too. But it becomes far more powerful when they create their own.

The potential for building a solid conceptual understanding – as well as engaging cross-curricular learning and having a great time – is obvious in this kind of project. To do it well takes an incredible amount of mental heavy-lifting and the results can be impressive. This video is the winner of Tom’s Science Idol competition in New Zealand, “Covalent Love” by James Mustapic. A similar competition (“Geek Pop“) is currently running in the UK.

Update October 23 2012:

Tom previewed “Fossil Rock Anthem”, with its nutty dance, at Kyoto. Here it is in all its animated glory:


Constraints of Curriculum

Conversation quickly got to what we need to do for students to encourage this kind of constructive learning, risk-taking and creativity. To produce a strong piece of work takes a number of elements. There may be more that I’m missing:

  • Engagement with the content and the song to be transformed
  • Solid conceptual understanding of the content
  • Mastery of the use of the terminology of the content
  • Awareness of and vigilance against misconceptions
  • Patience in writing and proofing lyrics
  • Continual feedback loops

And then there are the many hours required to produce and record songs and videos.

And with all this we can get stuck.

I find it hard to believe that any teacher wants their subject to be procedural and dull, yet it all to often becomes that way. Eduvangelists like Ken Robinson argue that schools are killing creativity, but I don’t agree. I think restrictive curriculum smothers creativity.  With content-driven and dogmatic approaches to a huge syllabus, we restrict the time students can spend on true mastery of the subject. We limit the scope for creative projects, be they musical explorations or authentic inquiries in science.

I would love to see more imagination, more authentic modeling instruction, more student-driven inquiry and more meaning in the curriculum. We need to think about how we build a curriculum that facilitates all this, whilst still developing our students into recruitable, useful and compassionate young adults.

Students shouldn’t have to wait until after class to be inspired. 


If you need any more convincing that creativity inspires in the curriculum, check out this video that he highlighted: “Snakes are Born This Way” from the second grade class at the Conservatory Charter School in Boston:

And one which Tom worked on with a 5th grade class on the water cycle:


References and Resources

Update Nov 21 2012:

Thanks Julie Lemley for sharing this:






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