Motivation in Education

“Can we help students to want to learn?” This is a question that I have wrestled with for the better part of the last 6 years. After this weeks’ assignments, I think I have finally begun to understand some of the answers to this question.

I believe we can indeed help students to want to learn, but it will definitely not be by offering them extrinsic motivators, as Dan Pink would tell us. We can no longer “dangle the carrot” of a good grade as a motivator to do quality work. Sure, there will be students that will do it, but are they really doing the work because they love the topic, or are they merely working towards that grade?

I have struggled with this question for the last few years, especially in my position as an elementary and high school band director. For years, I have been trying to figure out how to get my students to practice their instruments. At the elementary level, I have tried every type of motivational tool that I could think of. I now realize that all of those tools were exclusively extrinsic motivators. I have tried sticker charts, “band bucks”, prizes, and even candy. At the middle and high school levels, I have tried things like playing tests. All of these techniques were an effort to get my students to practice more. It was not surprising to find that every one of those techniques failed miserably. Then I decided to make a major change in my elementary program. We changed our schedule around so that band students could now meet twice a week, instead of once. And, they get to meet as a whole band during one of those sessions, instead of only a small group. This has led to a much higher level of enthusiasm within the students, and many more of them are practicing than ever before. Why is this the case? It is because they are intrinsically motivated. They really enjoy coming to band because they get to play in a large group. They really enjoy the music, because it is appropriately challenging and fun to play. The students are enjoying their musical experience, and therefore are more motivated to learn their music and practice.

I would suggest that in other subject areas, we find a way to possibly de-emphasize the reward of the “good grade.” I do not claim to be an expert in other areas of education, but I believe that in order for our students to be intrinsically motivated, they need to believe in what they are working towards. And, perhaps they just need to enjoy it more. How can we get our students to enjoy what they are learning? Maybe it is as simple as trying to get them to enjoy being in our classes. As Csikszentmihalyi suggests in our reading, “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” (p. 215) Our students need to be appropriately challenged in our classes. In my elementary band class, I am now able to give my students music that is just challenging enough for them to be interested. But yet, it is not so challenging that it is beyond their ability level. Another important factor in motivation can also be our ability as teachers to provide goals that are clear, and provide immediate feedback. These factors are essential to what Csikszentmihalyi calls achieving “flow.” (p. 217) Clear goals and immediate feedback allow us to focus on the task at hand and to block out unnecessary distractions.

As far as having all students meet the same high standards, I still do not think it is possible for this to happen. I think the more appropriate question would be to ask if all students can reach their potential. I still do not believe that it is realistic to hold every single student to the same academic achievement score. If each person’s brain is indeed wired differently, then how is it even possible that every student will be able to reach the same academic score? I believe it will take a monumental shift in the way that education in our country is structured before we see any change in the world of high stakes testing.

Pink, D. H. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future. Riverhead Books: New York.

TED (2009). Talks: Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation. Retrieved February 16, 2010 from

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2005). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The Norton Psychological Reader.

TED (2004). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow. Retrieved February 16, 2010 from

Trying Out SmartMusic

I have recently begun using SmartMusic, mainly with my elementary band students. I am LOVING it, and my students are really enjoying it as well. In fact, on the 2nd day of using it with my small sixth grade group today, when I asked who wanted to go first, all hands immediately shot up in the air. I have never seen students so excited to play in class! The more I learn about the program, the more impressed I am with it. The integrated online gradebook, called “Impact” is really amazing. When students complete assignments, they are sent directly to your gradebook, and it calculates everything for you. You can even add other assignments that are not necessarily SmartMusic assignments.

Right now, I do not have any students currently enrolled in my classes, but most students have shown interest in getting the program at home. We are currently using the program on my personal laptop. I also am using the program weekly for graded assignments with the students. However, I am not factoring in these SmartMusic grades with their report card grades until next year. I still want to find out how much the software will impact their grade before I really “make it count.”

I am already noticing the added benefits while using it in class. First, the students are really excited to work with the program, and I can see this being a good practice motivator. What is also great about the program is that it forces students to play at a steadytempo. This is something that my students struggle with regularly. If they are playing along with the software at home, it will really help their time. Our Standard of Excellence books now come with accompaniment CDs, and I have found that students that practice with those CDs have a much better sense of time than those who do not.

What I worry about with the program is that it may frustrate those students who struggle. I hope that it motivates them to practice more, but I can see it becoming a deterrent. My concern is that those who struggle will get frustrated and lose some confidence as a result of getting “bad grades” on their playing tests. But, I have also found that students who struggle can consistently see improvements in their grades after repeated playing.

I am also a little worried that students will not utilize the “loop” feature that is offered in the software. In other words, I am concerned that they will simply play exercises from beginning to end over and over without just focusing on the areas that they need to work on. I guess I should remember that this software is a practice aid, and does not simply replace the teacher. This brings me to another point. The major drawback to the software is that I don’t think it can accurately measure articulations, dymanics and/or note lengths. Mostly, the program can only recognize correct pitches and rhythms. But this is half the battle, and the teacher must be diligent in still teaching musicianship, not just “button pushing.”

So these are my observations so far in about 3 weeks of using the program. I have also used it a little with my middle and senior high students with concert and jazz band music. I plan on rolling out the program fully in the fall for next year.

What are your experiences with the program? Have you used it? Are you currently using it? I look forward to your feedback.

Grading & Elementary Band

In my district, my 4-6 elementary band students receive a grade for band on their report card.  Even though this is my 5th year of teaching, each year I have struggled with how to grade these students.  For the majority of this time, I have relied simply on a participation grade.  That is, if they show up with all of their materials, they receive the full credit of 10 points.  Let me first state that I do not wish to grade students on their abilities, as all students are at differing levels. However, over the past few years, I have realized some things about the elementary band program.

Students do not take elementary band seriously enough.  – Now, before you accuse me of making elementary band too rigorous and serious, let me assure you that my main goal is for the kids to enjoy being there.  If they didn’t have fun, I would have no students.  But, at the same time, I think the students need to begin taking some responsibility for band – after all, it is a class, and they do get graded for it.  I think keeping the band time enjoyable is all a matter of the teacher’s state of mind. I have found that my elementary students do not practice, and for most of them, the only time they take their instrument out of the case is when they come to their weekly band lesson. I have found that this is greatly affecting not only the ability of the elementary band, but it is also affecting the students’ progress at the middle school level.

With all of these thoughts swirling in my mind for the last few weeks, my student teacher and I have come up with a new grading policy for the elementary band students that is based half on participation (similar to how they were graded before) and half on their assignment, or what I’ve been calling it – “homework.”  The participation grade is broken down into 10 points – 2 for attendance, 2 for bringing an instrument, 2 for bringing their book and pencil, 2 for getting their practice journal filled out and signed by a parent (more on this later), and 2 for behavior and attitude.  The other 10 points is based on their ability to play the assigned excercises or song(s). Of course, this grade is based on their improvement, and not just ability.  As other veteran music teachers know, it is very easy to tell if a student has practiced or not, and that is how I base the grade.

The other thing that I have resolved to do this year is to communicate better with elementary parents.  At the end of the first 9 weeks, I sent out an individual progress report to each student’s home, indicating the student’s current grade, and where their strengths and weaknesses were.  So far, I have already had great response, as I can see students are now practicing and some have even improved their behavior.  Imagine that! Some students have even commented about receiving the progress reports, and a few parents that I talked to really liked receiving them.  One teacher friend even suggested to make the process easier that I could have the students’ teachers put them in with the report cards when they get sent home, instead of mailing them.

So, other elementary teachers out there…what are your thoughts?