“The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Each month we will meet one and hear their story

Allison Cameron is a PhD candidate in the School of Education in the Faculty of Social Sciences, whose research investigates the effects learning music has upon language and literacy, in particular for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. She strives to help young children and their parents discover the wonder of learning music.

Allison was also part of the Global Challenges supported team that drove the Smile Sensory Room project. Drawing on international experience and research, the Smile Sensory Room project looked at the benefits of developing multi-sensory environments (MSE) and culminated in the establishment of a community-housed Sensory Room at Horsley Community Centre in the Illawarra. This project fosters the involvement of people with disabilities, their carers, families and disability services to assist in the development and design of the space to best meet the needs of the whole community.

When did you commence HDR study and what is the working title of your thesis?

I am doing the PhD Integrated and started the coursework for this in 2015 and my research proposal was approved in the second half of 2016.

The working title of my thesis: Making music speak: The role of the “Tuning In” music program in developing preschool children’s oral language skills

Please give a broad description of the topic or question you investigated as part of your research

There is substantial research showing that learning music from an early age has positive effects on brain development and function and also affects aspects of language and memory abilities Positive effects have been found in children as young as three years taking part in informal music playgroups. It has been suggested that music might be used as a form of intervention for children with language development difficulties but little research has been conducted in this area to date. I used a mixed methods study to compare the effects of the “Tuning In” (TI) program, which is the music education program of the Shoalhaven Youth Orchestra, with regular music programs provided in early childhood centres.

The study was conducted in four early childhood education and care services. A weekly 30-minute TI music session was provided in two centres for five months, while children in the other two centres received the regular preschool music programs provided. The language skills of the children in all centres were pre- and post-tested, using measures of phonological awareness and phonological memory. These aspects of language are important indicators of the development of skills needed to develop literacy. The second part of the study was a multiple case study, which investigated the changes in the TI group’s use of language in the early childhood settings, and their experiences of participating in music.

Overall there was strong evidence that participating in the TI music program improved children’s phonological abilities and this was supported by evidence from the case study, which showed children became more confident and capable communicators. Additionally, the TI children engaged strongly in the sessions and they became an important element of the centre routines. This suggests music programs similar to TI may provide a useful and practical form of intervention to support language development to complement traditional forms of intervention.

Can you provide some background on how you came to HDR research (e.g. undergrad degree & university studied at – honours project – PhD + any breaks in between)?

I’m an “older” (but I’d like to think wise!) PhD student and the first in my family to go to university. I had breaks between my undergrad degree (University of New England) and Masters (Edith Cowan University). I loved doing my Masters and one of my lecturers encouraged me to consider doing a PhD. I thought that was nice of her to say but the compulsory research subjects had put me off the idea of research completely! You should never say never though, as I learnt. The work I was doing with children with very poor language development and their reactions to participating in music started to make me think I needed to know more about whether learning music really did impact upon language development.

In one sentence, describe the ‘journey’ of your PhD study at UOW?

It’s been an incredible journey of learning, full of challenge and great satisfaction.

How did you and/or your approach change over that time (how you imagined it would be when you began, how it actually was, and how you view it now you’ve finished)?

I’m almost finished, so I don’t know yet how I’ll view it when I’m finished. I think my approach probably hasn’t changed too much, in that I’m still as passionate about the research and my area as when I started. Actually I’m probably more passionate now, because I see the evidence, the value of the research and particularly how it can really have a positive impact upon a child’s life. That is pretty special! What has changed is my understanding of what goes into actually conducting a meaningful and useful piece of research, the challenges and obstacles along the way. It’s a complex process.

What were some highlights of your HDR study?

I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve been able to do my own study, so I’ve actually been able to research the subject that drove me to do this and do everything myself (of course with the help of my three wonderful supervisors). I conducted the intervention was such a joy because I was the music teacher and got to do something I love. Working with the children, as well as the educators in the centres was wonderful. The other two important highlights were seeing my quantitative results and qualitative results and realising that they were both strong. There was probably a sense of relief as well as excitement about that!

What were the lowlights?

Sometimes your plans just don’t work out. Two forms of data collection that had been planned turned out to be in one case impossible and in the other, impractical. Frustrating but as it turned out, I think the changes that were made to deal with these setbacks actually meant I ended up with a stronger study. You just don’t know that at the time! The other lowlight, although I don’t think I’d quite call it that, is just that the writing up can seem endless. Let’s say I am looking forward to getting my life back…

Describe the most important things for PhD study.

Obviously, having a passion for your area is essential, but there are lots of other important things. Persistence, a willingness to be the apprentice and to learn from your supervisors, being able to accept that constructive criticism is part of the process of ensuring good research, self-discipline, trying to stay organised, understanding it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Try not to neglect your health. Be kind to yourself. I haven’t been looking after my physical health very well and am now trying to remedy this (do what I say and not what I’ve done).

What advice do you (or would you give) to those considering HDR study or currently studying?

If you have a passion and a drive to understand something that isn’t well understood, a PhD might be for you. The passion is extremely important, because you need a real commitment for what you’re doing. For current students, if you get an opportunity to go to something like that

What are you doing now and/or how do you plan to utilise your research degree in future? What has it given you that will help in your future career?

Maybe because I’m an older student I’m more focused on making a difference in my field than having an overarching career “plan” but I do have lots of things I want to do post-PhD:

  • Communicate my research as far and wide as I can, both to academics and to practitioners and writing some journal articles.
  • To provide professional development for early childhood educators, so help ensure high quality early childhood music education is provided in the Australian early childhood sector.
  • It would be great to do some further research in the area of music and language development, particularly focusing on children with language disorders or learning disabilities.
  • I also hope to continue teaching music to students in the Early Years degree here at UOW because it’s very rewarding to be able to help students develop their confidence and skills in teaching music.

How do you think your research can change the world?

The preschool years are a vital period for identifying children at-risk of language problems and providing effective interventions. The earlier intervention begins, the more successful it is likely to be. Language skills influence literacy development and life trajectory. Music making is a universal human endeavour and brings us joy.

There is mounting evidence that learning music from an early age elicits developmental benefits, including to children’s language skills. High quality music education that involves active music making (not simply passive listening), provided in early childhood settings would be a practical and engaging way to help ensure that children start school with the language skills that support their learning, social skills and life beyond school.