University of British Columbia study explores why students with learning disabilities excel in opera

Americas, May 31 2013

University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers have launched a study to explore why students with learning disabilities shine in the University’s demanding opera program. The study, called Libretti of Learning, will be presented at Congress, a national gathering of 7,000 researchers that begins June 1 in Victoria.

UBC LogoPreliminary findings of the study, which is led by education professor Marion Porath and opera chair Nancy Hermiston, suggest that students respond well to the multi-tasking required for opera, particularly when they bring their own passion to it.

“In opera you have to act, sing, dance, watch the conductor, respond to the audience, and work in a foreign language, all at the same time,” says Hermiston. “It means training the brain to think in a different way.”

Hermiston and Porath, in collaboration with Laurel Parsons of Quest University, are working with a small group of students in UBC’s award-winning opera program who have a range of learning disabilities.

Porath explains that students with learning challenges often benefit from complex learning that requires full concentration. In a program requiring intense discipline, they need to be immensely committed.

By identifying the key elements of opera education that are helping students with learning disabilities thrive, the researchers hope to find ways of improving education for learning-disabled students in any field.

“It is possible to have a learning disability and be immensely gifted,” says Porath, who will present the project on June 5. “Our early findings suggest that students’ passion carries them through many of the challenges they face and gives them the drive and determination to succeed. But they also need to be understood and supported in areas where they’re challenged.”

“At universities, we need to remember that we might be overlooking the next genius somewhere because they learn in a different way,” adds Hermiston. “We can’t be so set in our ways that we won’t try to find a way to reach that student. It’s always possible.”

The opera study is one of hundreds of UBC research projects being presented at Canada’s largest annual social science and humanities conference. Organized by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress will occur June 1-8 at the University of Victoria.

Study background

In her 18 years teaching opera at UBC, Hermiston wondered if there’s something special about opera for students with learning disabilities.

“I had one student who came to the program and took months to learn just one excerpt,” Hermiston says. “By the time they graduated, they could learn a whole opera in just two weeks. That’s what made me say, OK, there’s got to be something going on here. The more they’re on that opera stage, the less that disability seems to affect them.”

In addition to multi-tasking onstage and passion for their craft, the researchers say positive reinforcement could also be a key factor. Some students who grow up with learning disabilities lack self-confidence, so being praised for excelling on the opera stage can be the boost they need to unlock their full potential.

Another factor seems to be the coping strategies learning-disabled students develop from struggling through the regular school system, where they grew accustomed to thinking differently.

Related research by Marion Porath

Porath will be presenting work on another project on June 5. She appeared in a 2004 documentary, Superkids, directed by Harry Killas of Emily Carr University, and is now undertaking a follow-up study and film with Killas.

The original video featured gifted pre-teens, some of whom were trying to gain admission into an accelerated program in order to finish high school years ahead of their peers.

The young men and women are now in their 20s, and Porath says those who sped through high school are happy with the choices they made. One of them, Brian Wong, graduated from UBC at age 18 and has since appeared on newsstands across the globe for being the 22-year-old CEO of a multi-million dollar startup company.

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