Columbia University Interview with Muzology's Founder Dr. Lana Israel
News > Columbia University Interview with Muzology's Founder Dr. Lana Israel

Dr. Lana Israel is the founder of Muzology, a platform that uses the power of music and videos to make math fun and accessible, while challenging students to learn and retain the math concepts critical to their progress.

Lana Israel

How did your education and previous professional experience shape your work at Muzology?

Since early childhood, I had two passions: music and memory. I wrote my first song at ten years old, was in a rock band in middle school, and cut and pasted (with scissors and glue!) music charts from the TV guide (remember those?) to make my own running "Billboard" chart.

At the same time (thanks to my father who was a training consultant with a focus on brain-based selling techniques), I developed an early fascination with mnemonics. This led me to conduct more formal research on learning/memory from 7th to 12th grade, by means of my school science projects. A product of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, I had spectacular teachers from elementary school through high school who provided great encouragement and guidance. My research on memory and learning ultimately garnered the Grand Award at the International Science and Engineering Fair and a trip to the Nobel Prizes.

Along the way, I was invited to lecture around the world, with my first talk taking place at a global education conference in Sydney, Australia. In preparation for this conference, I created an illustrated book, Brain Power for Kids: How to Become an Instant Genius, as an actionable handout that educators could share with their students. Little did I know, but within days of arriving in Sydney, I would appear across national media. Within a week, I had a book publishing deal. By the time I graduated from college, I had lectured on memory, learning, and creativity across five continents, self-published two books on Mind Mapping (the second book addressed how to apply Mind Mapping to mathematics), and created award-winning multimedia content on learning.

I did my undergraduate studies in psychology at Harvard, where I had the good fortune of working, starting my freshman year, in the lab of Professor Daniel Schacter, a renowned memory expert and fantastic mentor. Having worked with applied aspects of learning and memory for years already, my education and training at the undergraduate level provided a fascinating inlet into the theoretical underpinnings of learning, memory, and cognition. I continued to research theoretical aspects of memory during my graduate research at Oxford University, where I studied as a Rhodes Scholar.

Still, my love of music and songwriting continued. While doing post-doctoral research at Oxford, I ultimately took a leap of faith and decided to follow my other passion—music. I moved to Manhattan and began working with Billy Mann, an incredibly talented songwriter/producer/music executive. Songwriters and music producers are the heartbeat of the music industry; accordingly, I obtained first-hand exposure to every facet of the music business, with breakthrough artists to global superstars. During this time, I realized that music was the "holy grail" of learning. As a former memory researcher, I’d get excited by small to moderate boosts in outcomes that were replicable and systematic. Yet, music powered remarkable feats of memory that would be unheard-of in academic settings. For example, someone could hear a song they hadn’t heard for decades and still remember ALL of the lyrics. Suddenly, both of my childhood passions merged, and I became fascinated with the intrinsic power of music as a learning medium. This fascination became the basis for Muzology.

How do you hope your work at Muzology will motivate students to learn and maintain an interest in math?

Since working with learning as a teenager, I’ve been a staunch believer that all people have immense capacity and ability to learn. When we see abysmal test scores related to mathematical proficiency, we might consider that there are ways of teaching and engaging students that resonate with them—not that there is a fundamental deficiency with students’ ability to learn, en masse. We are born to learn.

Accordingly, I started Muzology to harness the intrinsic power of music to supercharge learning and engagement. Music acts directly on brain regions that control memory, emotion, motivation, and attention. When students experience our math music videos, we see remarkable transformations. Within weeks of using Muzology, students who previously state that they are "dumb," "hate math," and have no desire to learn algebra or go to college, subsequently exclaim that math is now their favorite subject, they can’t wait to take algebra, and Muzology has given them confidence.

Confidence is key. If a student has checked out of the learning process, doesn’t pay attention, and lacks desire to learn, s/he will struggle. Amazingly, we see students go from failing to passing quizzes in a single session on Muzology. This is an absolute game-changer motivationally. Suddenly, students experience themselves as agents of their own learning and get a taste of success, often for the first time in their lives. Once students experience academic achievement, they want more of it. In turn, students pay more attention, engage with the material, and feel motivation to learn. As one student, who had previously failed 8th grade math, said, "Muzology has not just given me confidence in my ability to do math, it’s given me confidence in my ability to do anything."

What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?

Education is experiencing a transformation akin to what the music industry encountered with the rise of digital technology. Today, in theory, anyone can create powerful education solutions, forego gatekeepers, and scale. In practice, there are still formidable challenges that new companies and innovative products face in terms of access and adoption. However, all indications are that personalized learning, adaptive learning, project-based learning, distance learning, micro-credentialing—powered by the accessibility (and even commoditization) of information, sophistication of hardware/software, big data, AI/machine learning—can impact the education space.

At the same time, it’s critically important that learning solutions are evidence-based and effective. Taking inefficient off-line pedagogies/approaches and making them available at scale doesn’t necessarily solve underlying issues, which include engagement, retention, and motivation, as well as relevance of material and learners’ ability to truly understand and apply what they are learning. Finally, I’m a firm believer in learning how to learn, which will be increasingly critical as we move into shifting economies whereby future jobs don’t exist today.

What, if any, are future plans for Muzology?

Our whiteboard walls are full of future plans; however, what I’m most excited about is the work we are doing with the support of the National Science Foundation. We have begun formal research into the mnemonic optimization of music and songs. Better understanding the theoretical drivers of music-based learning, as well as the parameters for its creation, is essential to establishing music as a credible pedagogical tool. Hopefully this type of research will help shift the perception of music from classroom novelty to valid learning methodology. Stay tuned :)

Who are the most interesting people you are following on Twitter?

I’m fairly new to Twitter; however, here are three people whose work I respect:

  • Alice Walton and Sandy Edwards (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) for their important efforts to integrate arts into learning and identity formation.
  • John Carver, Director of Tullahoma City Schools, for his fierce commitment to innovative integrated tech in the classroom as well as ‘rethinking’ the aim and architecture of American schools.
  • Graham Fletcher, a rock star math teacher who thinks creatively, expansively, and deeply about what constitutes effective learning and classroom instruction—and then puts it into practice.

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