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Albert Shagimardanov


The anxieties of giving our children the best possible education are amplified in the age where artificial intelligence is threatening to replace most jobs we know today. While traditional subjects like math and science offer a foundation, is it enough? Should we focus on specialised subjects such as coding to guarantee success in a world shaped by algorithms or is the answer hiding in plain sight?

In 2019, the Ministry of Education made what at the time seemed to be a secure bet in an attempt to forecast the direction of educational priorities: computer programming.

A Straits Times article from the time opened with these words:

“All upper primary pupils will have coding classes from next year, as part of the government's goal to develop a healthy pipeline of tech talent for the digital economy."

Only a year later, however, the CFF (Code For Fun) project was downgraded from being mandatory for all students to an optional enrichment programme that individual schools can apply for.


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When asked about the reasons for this unexpected change of heart, the Ministry's response sheds light at the very core of the problem at hand. To paraphrase, despite it's importance, coding is a skill set that is hard to pin down and standardize because of the backbreaking speed of its evolution.2

And indeed, it is the impossible pace of this evolution that makes one's head spin. Just last year, the explosion of artificial intelligence tools like chat GPT has rocked the world of computer programming, displaying uncanny competence in writing complex code and solving programming problems in a matter of seconds.

Perhaps, continues the MOE's response, it will be best to focus instead on the “underlying skills" that are “developed through the learning of subjects, particularly mathematics and science."  The response concludes by saying that a strong foundation developed by these subjects, a student can easily tackle new paradigms evolving in the computer programming space.

What Next?

When considering the complexity of this issue, it is little wonder that the MOE has opted to fall back on traditional subjects that develop the core skills instead of going all in on a specialized skillset that may one day become obsolete.

While it is indisputable that language skills and mathematics are an indispensable part of the school curriculum for all children, scientific data actually points to music as the subject that might be best for developing overall mental abilities. This has been a known trope among parents for a while and potent motivation fuel for tiger moms worldwide.

However, diving deeper into the research, one finds that casual music classes actually do little good and the real brain changes that are so sought after take place over several years of learning an instrument and only when pursued with some degree of seriousness.

Mental Workout

So why does the experience of learning an instrument has such profound long-term effects on the brain? Let’s look with rhythm as an example. The child’s brain learns to keep track of time by subdividing it into beats similar to how we count seconds but more flexible. Keeping the beat as mental measuring devise, the child than subdivides musical elements in relation to this beat and performs this feat in real time. These rhymical elements can form complex patterns that require mental focus akin to doing calculations in your head during maths class.

Then there is musical phrasing which require the child to understand musical elements in relation to each other. This works exactly like language in which notes are letters which combine into syllables, motives are words and phrases are sentences. The act of playing music is the act of communicating emotional meaning using these elements similar to poetry.

Like science, classical music follows well defined laws which can be simple rules in the beginning to more complex ideas as the child progresses in their understanding and capabilities. Solving musical problems requires creativity in relation to these laws and is paradoxically more a science than an art.


These are all mental tasks similar to what students do in school already but of course playing an instrument is a physical act that has no analogies in academic subjects. The fine motor skills required of musical students maps our bodies onto the brain like nothing else.

These are just few of the elements most people can relate to in music and as you can imagine fully mastering an instrument takes time and effort. This investment however reflects in brain development that pays off outside the domain of music and makes classical music students excellent polymaths. This shows up most clearly in neuro-imaging studies of musician’s brains and so far, nothing can light up a human brain in an MRI machine like the act of playing music.

Returning again to thinking about the education priorities for the future generation, I would call on our leaders to explore music as our greatest asset and a tool for forging great minds of the next generation.

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