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Who is responsible for motivation?

Nov. 4, 2008 at 12:13 AM


There are many interesting discussions on this list about getting kids  to practice,  the problems of motivation and practice habits etc.   However,  what I often sense in them is that   an underlying negative perception of children  that drives much of the debate.  That is,  rather than seeing kids as entities perfect in their own way,  at their own level,   we see them (roughly speaking) as `lesser beings` who need disciplinary measures applied in various guises to make up for their lack of hard work which we euphemistically call lack of motivation etc. 

This has the effect of taking the spotlight off what the teacher is doing which is often where much of the problem lies.  As adults we have learnt to set goals,  figure out what needs doing by when and how to work independently.  This learning most often took the form of failing as a result of not being able to do these things initially at an adult level.  It’s  quite a hard way of getting to point b.  However,  what would happen if one tried to remember and respect the students sense of the world which is much more `now` orientated.  Is it possible that they are unaware of the idea of daily practice and its relationships to goals?   Is it a conceptual misunderstanding rather than `laziness`?   

Then one might look at the goals we have supposedly set.  The classic education problem is getting children to learn by an appropriate breaking down of an activity into steps of a relevant level for the individual.. This is a central factor in the creation of what is now called flow.   As adults we often have a clear goal derived through experience and extensive practice that translates into `play me this movement next week.`   But we have somehow forgotten that the child has absolutely no idea what you are actually asking.  Or,  perhaps more commonly,  you have taught them so well to pay attention to details of intonation,  rhythm and dynamic in the lessons that the idea of putting everything together in one go is totally daunting to the child who then makes a brave stab but is overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of the global task set and thus loses motivation.   If the goal is wrong then the motivation will dissipate within seconds. Anyone who has taught kids anything know the truth of this ;)!

This is where I found the practice revolution  book and  web material so helpful.  It is suggested that clear and consistent goals are established at the end of every lesson (the part we most often pay cursory attention to and then berate the student later) that reflect realistically the capabilities of a child attempting to acquire a very complex skill.  The clearer he goal the better. Thus it may be to play a specified passage through at a given metronome mark with correct rhythm patterns by the following week.  If he goal is negotiated between teacher and student so much the better although I recognize that this level of communication takes time to build up.  However,  even planning a week into the future may be way to much for a young child so setting intermediate goals can then be implemented.

Furthermore,  at this point a more helpful role for the parent can then be phased into this approach.  That is,  in order to reach the weekly goal the child may need a secondary goal halfway though the week.  This would be at a lower level than the main goal but en route,  as it were.  The secondary goal is the responsibility of the parent who hears the passage in question ,  perhaps at a lower tempo and minus the dynamics three days after the lesson.  The beauty of this is that the child learns in a motivational was that the days after a violin lesson cannot be spent in relaxation.  Why do kids so often not want to practice after the lesson? Could it be because they get so uptight about having to prepare this global goal in some manner for the lesson that afterwards they just Collapse and take a breather which is a very human response. 



From Laurie Niles
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 5:24 AM

This is a huge issue, and I'm seeing it now, not just as a violin teacher, but also as a parent who struggles to understand why math is taught the way math is taught. Basically, they introduce a lot of big concepts and then dole out homework that hints around "understanding" those concepts. But where is the basic drill? Then I find private tutoring programs like Kumon, which has the kids work through these highly-doable pages of math, pages designed to intuitively pattern those concepts. They lead the child, step-by-step, to a conclusion that seems totally obvious by the end. This is the kind of learning that sticks for children. They need that patterning; they can't be expected to just see what an adult sees.  And yet adult teachers too often see such things as a "crutch."

To open a can of worms, I see this in things like finger tapes, which I can't remember if you agree with, Buri. But in emphasizing that a child must use his/her ear, a teacher discounts the fact that the child also must learn fine-motor target practice in ADDITION to refining the ear. If your ear is strong but motor skill weak, the tape helps your finger find repeated success and trains it to hit the same spot again and again. If your ear is weak but motor skill strong, the tape ensures that you'll hear the right pitch repeatly. If both are weak = a long time with the tapes. If both are strong = take them off in a week.

I digress slightly.

Having a very specific plan is so important, especially when everyone is totally frustrated, and that's perhaps the hardest time for everyone to calm down enough to come up with a plan. You want to say, "You didn't practice, just GO PRACTICE!" But to practice, the student needs to feel he/she can bite off what the teacher is asking him/her to chew. I still remember, the most empowering lesson is the one where you leave feeling like, "This is totally do-able, I know I can tackle this!"

From Stephen Brivati
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 5:56 AM


Laurie,  funny you should bring up the subjwetc of math;) Just sat though some classes for six year olds in Japanese public school.   It was really striking how difficult the avareage student  was finding learning how to add 3 plus 8 even though they had been given a very clear symbolic method on the blackboard which they had then copied into their books.  Only in the violin part of the lesson where they wheer handling blocks to figure out an approahc to 7 plus 8 did they seem to gain some confience.  Made me wonder about soe of the things `ve said to six year olds in the past.  

The original inspiration for this blog wa sactually a version of snakes and ladders I made for Halloween. In order to stimulate practc eof language the 11 yera old classe shad to roll dice and then say the name of each square they landed on as they moved their counter.   Tried it with the 8 yera olds and notice many students couldn`t hold the image square six  of six squares and say the words out loud to get there.  Thus, when playing with the 6 year old I modified it so they counted the numbers and only said the word of the final square they landed on.  It jsut struck me that if it was so diifcult to hold what to m e is miniscule info in my hea d(multitask if you will) then violin playing verbalized is really quite somehtign for youngsters...



From J Kingston
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 6:50 AM

Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Essays in Social Psychology) by Carol Dweck is a great read and the best source I have found regarding research regarding motivation and theories of self. This work represents aproximately 20 years or so of Dweck's work and you don't need to be a psychologist to understand it. It will change the way you praise and scold your children and how you define expectations. One of the most interesting studies involves why very bright children often underachieve. Very revealing.

As per the math discussion, understanding a concept is far different than demonstrating skill. The issues many children have with math is that it is often taught as a "spiral". One digit addition in first grade, two digit in second etc. versus all of addtion at once. While a child may understand the concept, it takes a huge amount of time to build the fluency and automaticty to demonstrate advanced skills (missing numbers, carrying, etc) in math. So too in music I suppose.

From janet griffiths
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 8:16 AM

I find that children will only practice at home if they understand completely what they are supposed to pratice.Thus I always go new  through new concepts thoroughly in the lesson.I usually have my students read through the new material in the lesson.If they cant play it then it is useless giving it to them to study as I know they won't make the effort to work it out themselves.Inspite of this there are always one or two who seem to understand everything in the lesson but come back the following week in a confused fog.Problems arrive with reading in new positions , understanding semi.tones and reading sharps and flats and converting major to minor.Sometimes it takes months for some children to really understand these concepts in a way that they are capable of working through material by themselves.Even something simple like a two octave G major scale and the introduction of the low second finger can stump some whilst others catch on immediatly.I dont think we can have an umbrella idea on motivation as each student has a different level of understanding and a different personality and like all aspects of teaching motivation comes from trying to understand the individual student.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 11:36 AM

Buri, can you provide a link to the practice revolution web material? 

Also, have you met my daughter? (I know you haven't, but it reads like it)  Your blog gets to the heart of so much that we've been dealing with over the past couple of years.

From Jerald Archer
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 11:41 AM

It would truly seem that for a student to first become motivated, they must possess the initial interest in the particular subject or task at hand. A certain amount of reward may be offered to the progressing student, on occasion, and with a grain of salt at that. The praise should include a slight reminder that they could do a little better in the future. This action is considered motivational in itself, and prompts the student to be conscious of the reality that they have not reached the top of the mountain, just yet. Students who would not naturally want to practice have no interest, and therefore should seek another academic discipline to master. Interest is the key to success and mastery in any subject.

From Anne Horvath
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 12:52 PM

Karen, the website is

From al ku
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 2:22 PM

who is responsible for motivation?  everyone!

for children, i think it is the responsibility of the parents for the most part and to some extent, the teachers in school.  my children in the very beginning see no merits or interests in brushing teeth.   are your children any different?   with education, time, patience, and reeducation, they have come to see the importance of brushing teeth and have since developed motivation to maintain good oral hygiene.  are there tooth brushing prodigies out there with born self motivation?  maybe,  but if  our goal is to help most kids most of the time,  it is better to develop a routine early, with or without children's own affinity in place yet.  music, math, whatever, is very much like tooth brushing.  we can set long range goals as well as daily goals.  imo, setting daily goals with close monitoring of  the process is more effective.  it is not that hard after each day of playing the violin to ask the kid, what do you think you have learned today,,,what do you plan to emphasize tomorrow...well, the teacher said,,,,stop right there, forget about the teacher for a moment,,,tell me what you did you apply the teacher's teaching in your own way today and what is your own plan tomorrow...

unfortunately, it is logistically impossible to follow up in details like that with a large class of students.  with limited amt of time and space, we MUST first share with them the CONCEPT, that is,  the basics of how to catch a fish.  whether they can catch a fish or not with only the concept is of secondary concern.  there is a time and place for practice,,,,later.   

for instance,  with violin practice, it is extremely important  to individualize the education because it allows the teacher to share concepts and monitor practice.  on one extreme, mehunin as a child had 5 formal violin classes per week; the rest of the time the entire family circled around him, exerting more musical influence, with an intensity that can turn monkeys music literate.  but for most folks, weekly lesson is the norm.  when children do not progress as expected, we wonder: is there a better way, a better way to motivate the kids, a better way to teach the concept, a better way to practice...that is all good because we need to constantly reflective on what, how and how good the parents/teachers are doing.

unfortunately, the sad part, also the very obvious part, is that the best way is for the parents to spend more time with the children, which, in this day and age, seems almost impossible.  for a parent to stay at home completely devoted to the kids' special interests is hard to arrange.  with all the great plans and schemes and intentions on the shelf,  there is not enough TIME for adult supervision because often both parents have to hold fort at work. 

with music, with math, with whatever that seem to be mental blocks to the kids, if the parents can really find and devote more TIME with the children as they go through the process of learning, the efficiency of the learning will accelerate.   in fact, some have recognized this void and  those afterschool supplementary programs mentioned in fact help serve this purpose: to be that tireless surrogate parents, to be there for the children when the parents cannot be or do not have the expertise.  this phenom has been quite popular in asia for a long time and is catching on in the states.  for some kids, i think it is quite necessary if the kids do not find the regular school format informative enough and the parents do not have the ability/time to DIY.

or, before we reinvent the wheels,  swallow the pride and go up and consult with families of children who seem to excel at a faster pace.   how do they study, how do they practice, what book do they use, how do their kids spend the time...

no children can be motivated going hard into a deadend.



From Helen Martin
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 5:02 PM

1. I thought the Tower Hamlets project, under Sheila Nelson, that began in London in the 70s, was the most realistic approach to motivation. But I returned to the US in 1984. Can anyone update me re this project or did Maggie T. kill it?

2. The Gordon Audiation approach contrasts formal vs. informal study with the latter (informal) offering an essential foundation so that drill as well as visual detours, such as tapes for decoding, become superfluous. But this does make the string teacher responsible for an awareness of the student's responses and development re singing and movement. Is this what we have in mind when we teach?



From Corwin Slack
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 5:45 PM

We lack adequate government programs to help children see the value of practice and achievement. We need additional government programs.

Or perhaps that isn't the problem. Maybe motivation is just an artifact of archaic authoritarian patriarchy and a code word used to demean and vilify people who have been under-served by compensatory programs including trips to the ice cream store, Disneyworld, etc.  :)

From J Kingston
Posted via on November 4, 2008 at 9:16 PM

The more a child is affirmed as being talented or smart, the less they will risk that identity by taking risks. If we acknowledge accomplishment as a product of hard work we acknowledge to process of building and demonstrating skill. On the contrary, if we say a child has talent or is really smart, why would they jeapardize that label by trying something more challenging where they might not be successful, or "as smart" or "as successful. Low achievement is a reality that parents may not acknowledge. The notion that you can be anything you want to be because you are bright, is a common mythology. Valuing hard work and trying different ways to meet a particular end fills the gap between being bright and actual achievement.

From al ku
Posted via on November 5, 2008 at 12:20 PM

j, that is a brilliant post and thanks for the earlier mention of that book which i will try to take a look.  not sure if this is also the age of psychological correctness, i also sense a general trend toward giving compliments as a way to get people going, sometimes rather nondiscriminatingly.  depending  on how they are applied i guess, it can cuts both ways.

with my older one, because earlier on in her life that kids in school consider her to be "smart", she has since continued to push herself to excel in school, imo, partly to live up to that image.  as parents we never have to bother to check her school work and somehow she manages to get A+ all the time with an occasional slip to A .   often, she will set alarm herself to get up early to review school work before everyone is up, which we are not that thrilled about.  she also exhibits similar level of internal drive and focus with golf.  because of her level of play, she competes in a league among older boys and this past season was named the league's player of the year, an honor indeed well deserved considering how she handles herself under pressure, disadvantaged by size and distance, but not by control, touch and course management.  but life is fair.  piano continues to be an unnecessary or necessary evil in her life.  we as parents still feel she can benefit from the experience and to drop it right now is a waste.  because of her maturity, i think she understands that , or shall i say, tolerates that part of her life.  may be it is a good way to learn the art of making compromises and striking balance. 

corwin's mention of ice cream and disney world brings smiles to my face because in the war chest, those 2 items almost never fail to motivate my kids, internally or externally, or whatever.  i literally bribed my violin kid with ice cream when she was younger and it worked better than sticks or even carrots:) 

if we tranpose that system to adults, we see similar responses.  workers rewarded with a bonus try even harder. those not given trust and responsibilities slack off.  as my younger one said a few years back,,,if i am happy, i will practice better. 



From J Kingston
Posted via on November 5, 2008 at 8:26 PM

Thanks for the kind words Al. Just a ping on Dweck. She writes about preteen, teen girls in some detail. You might be interested as large numbers of young ladies will hit a point where the risk is just too big. They are brilliant and then fold their hand like in high stakes poker. Just not worth the risk anymore. Praise and compliments are great. Dweck just says that the way we praise makes a big differences. For example, many average boys really blossom as teens. They never consider that they are "not smart enough". If they try something that does not go their way, they just figure they should try something else. The point is, the problem is not who they are, but the strategy or approach they used. They end up being very flexible and try something new until they find what works. The gifted, who expect things to go their way, sometimes just decide they are not smart or talented enough. My guys will sometimes have a recital where they are not pleased. I encourage them to re examine how they practiced and work with their teacher on a way to make the practice better. The focus is never on the bit they messed up. I try to keep the outside and not a part of who they are.  Your daughter sounds really great.

From al ku
Posted via on November 5, 2008 at 10:01 PM

in addition to the usual gurus:) on,  i have benefitted a lot from reading posts from you, jennifer and e,,,,something about mother parents of violinists.   may be it is hormonal!

on that, interesting you have mentioned the psychology of  teen girls vs teen boys .  of course it is a generalization, but i also share that observation.  littles girls usually are obedient and pay more attention to instruction and end up sprinting off the starting line a little faster, but when teenager years approach, some boys decidedly catch up and overtake the "little girls".  some say the more "disobedient" the boys are when younger, the more focused they can become later, when/if  they can channel the energy into better focus.  could be a hormonal thing, too! :)

i can just imagine that if my kids were boys,  studying violin might be a totally different journey:)  could be scary.


From Tess Z
Posted via on November 7, 2008 at 5:08 PM

Lol at your post, Corwin.  : )

J. Kingston...we have lived through your theory with our oldest. 

On the topic at hand...what has worked best with my kids, for music practice, is to make a chart for every month.  When they finish their practice they cross off on the chart.  They enjoy doing this.  The key, however, is getting them to understand that practice isn't just sawing out notes and they're done.  As a parent you have to be proactive with their instrument practice and help them understand concepts and work on them.  For kids whose parents can't or won't take the time to be proactive...boy...they are really on their own.  That's not to say a kid can't be successful without parental involvement, but they sure are going to have to be highly  motivated to learn the instrument and pay attention to their teacher during lessons because they'll only have that positive feedback once a week vs once a day.

I take notes during my kids' lessons, writing in language they can understand once they are at home practicing on their own.  I write not only instruction's but any praise the teacher has noted during the lesson; better use of the bow, improved intonation on a scale, etc.  The child can read and reread those comments all week.

Practicing is a tough subject.

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