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

Wordles – Looking back on the year and more!

At this time of year, it seems everyone is reflecting on “a years worth of tweets/status updates.” So, of course that got me thinking about doing the same. I really enjoy using Wordle, so I decided to make two – one of my most used words on twitter (from TweetStats) and from this blog. Here are the results. First from Twitter:

It’s no surprise that some of the largest words involve “band”, “music”, and “students.”

Here’s the wordle from this blog:

Again, very similar.

I’m pleased with the results, and it’s fun to reflect back on what I have been tweeting/writing about. Try it out for yourself! I’d be interested in seeing what you come up with!

Here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2010!

Why My Students Make Me Cry

The best advice I ever received in my teaching career came from another band director in the area. He is kind of a mentor to all other band directors around here, as he has been around for quite some time, and has a marvelous program. In fact, I can remember looking up to him as a young middle school student back in the early 90s. I will never forget seeing him at a band show during my first few months of being a band director. I said, “Well what words of advice can you give me as I embark on this endeavor?” He said, “Make sure that you love your students. And, make sure that they know that you love them. Tell them.” So, I did. And I continue to do it to this day. Frequently.

I’m not sure how this relates to my concert last Tuesday night. I guess I just feel like they are willing to work really hard for me because they know that I care about them. Now, my students would be the first to tell you that I am pretty easily moved to tears by them, but last Tuesday was the first time it actually happened while I was in the middle of conducting a piece. We worked on the first movement of the Holst First Suite for the entire semester. This was a huge challenge for us on many levels. Mainly, it was the first time any of those students had even attempted to perform a piece at that difficulty. You see, we finally got a new rehearsal schedule this year…I see all of the 9-12 band kids every day for the whole year. I used to see them in two different periods and only 2-3 times per week. I knew that the students had the capability of playing music of this difficulty, we just never had the time to put it together in rehearsal. So, we worked on that movement almost every day from September through the beginning of December. Believe me, there were some days that weren’t so great. In fact, there were many days that I was not proud of myself as a teacher. But, I knew I had to push them, because I knew that they could play it great. And, I won’t ever accept anything but their best effort.

So, we began the concert with Charles Carter’s Overture for Winds, which the students played very well. Then we continued with Grainger’s Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Doon, and it was just beautiful. They have come so far in their ability to play with control and expression. So I was already feeling great for them. We were truly seeing all of their hard work pay off. Then we came to the Holst. Of course the woodwind sixteenth-note section was not as clean as it could have been, but it was certainly the best they have ever played it! And that is what got me about the entire performance of that piece – It was the best they had ever played it! I think as performers and teachers, we always want ourselves or our students to have the best performance possible at the concert. But, much of the time, this does not always happen. We lose some of our preparation to nerves, and we always have little errors here an there that we wish we could get back. But, during the Holst, the kids played marvelously, and then I began to think about the blood, sweat, and tears that we had all been through TOGETHER in preparing the work.

I looked at some of the faces of these students that I had been teaching for the last 6 years, thinking back to their abilities when I started working with them and their abilities now. I was overwhelmed at that point, and I could not hold back any longer. The tears just began to flow. I looked at them and remembered how mad they made me on some days, and how absolutely wonderful they were on other days. I started to realize, maybe a little bit, the impact that I may have had on them as a music teacher. Maybe they actually were learning something from me! I realized how far this program had come in 6 years. I could remember just hoping that my senior high band would end together on middle school-level music! I could remember what these kids were like when they had just started playing their instruments in the elementary program. And now look at them…Look at how much they have grown as musicians, and as people. It was easily the highlight of my career thus far.

After the concert I made sure that I told them how much I loved them, and how proud of them I was.

Fostering Musicality and Creativity in Rehearsal

150301737_3776586bbc_oEver since I started teaching music, I have wanted to teach my students how to play musically and creatively. I have always wanted my students to play with emotion and feeling. However, these are pretty advanced concepts that I think are pretty difficult for many young students to grasp, even in senior high. I think a lot of this stems from years and years of directors telling students how to play musically and expressively and dictating emotions to them. They have not been encouraged to make musical choices on their own.  I don’t think this is something that you can explain. Anyway, I came up with an interesting idea “on the fly” today during my senior high concert band rehearsal, and the results were exciting!

First, I had put the students in a circle (we only have about 15 winds) in order to work on our listening skills for a previous piece. Then we began rehearsing Grainger’s “Ye Banks and Braes ‘O Bonnie Doon”. The students actually did a really good job with ensemble pulse and I didn’t conduct time, just phrases. But, what I really wanted them to do was play expressively. What inevitably happens is that while they play in time together, in tune, and with a really nice blend, it is almost always the same dynamic level with little or no expression.

So I told them that they were going to go out of their comfort zone a little. I told them that in the next section, I wanted them to play with expression wherever they thought it was appropriate. I told them that no matter what they did, it couldn’t be wrong, and that they should do whatever they felt was right. I stepped out of the circle, because I didn’t want my conducting or gestures or anything from me to influence the way they played at all. I sat outside the circle and just listened.

Then, really exciting things started to happen. I heard a little dynamic change…I could tell a few of the students were really trying to play with some expression and dynamics. So then I asked them to do it again, except this time to make what they were doing more obvious to the audience, which was me. As I have told them many times, in order for dynamic contrast to be evident to the listener, it must sound almost extreme to the player. So, they played it again…and I about fell out of my chair!!

Here were a group of students that I have been trying for years to get to play expressively doing it right in front of me! The best part was that they were making these decisions completely on their own! I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I sat and listened as my students played more maturely than I have ever heard them.  They were making musical decisions on their own that were not only appropriate, but beautiful as well! I could even tell that as some students made some musical choices, it influenced the rest of the group, too! It was so exciting!

When we got to the final fermatta, I told the student to fade into nothing, after holding the chord for at least 8 counts. Guess what? It was probably the best release they have ever played!!

Why did they play so well today? I took my conducting and gesturing out of the equation. I allowed them to make musical choices on their own without my influence. I think that if I want my students to make appropriate musical choices, then I have to allow them to do it on their own, without my influence. How exciting!!

Dr. Willard Daggett – Preparing Students for the 21st Century

What follows below is my archive of tweets from a staff in-service presentation that I had the pleasure of attending yesterday. The presentation was given by Dr. Willard Daggett of the International Center for Leadership in Education. He touched on a wide range of topics and his presentation was very thought-provoking. He gave us all food for thought, and I wanted to share them here. Of course, if you want to read these chronologically, start at the bottom with number 33. You don’t have to do that, though.

  1. Love the kids more than the discipline you teach and more than the adults you work with. #daggettabout 17 hours ago from txt
  2. Great presentation by Dr. Daggett! Lots of good things to think about! #daggettabout 17 hours ago from txt
  3. Increasingly kids are coming to school to watch their teachers work. #daggettabout 17 hours ago from txt
  4. Our schools have become museums. #daggettabout 17 hours ago from txt
  5. Every industrialized nation has changed the qwerty keyboard to be more efficient, except the US. #daggettabout 17 hours ago from txt
  6. Can you find a field that has been less impacted by technology than education? #daggettabout 17 hours ago from txt
  7. Showing Siftables ! Sweet! #daggettabout 17 hours ago from txt
  8. We are so into the institution of our past that we dont even know where we are. #daggettabout 17 hours ago from txt
  9. Within 3 yrs. there will be technology for computers in jewelry. #daggettabout 18 hours ago from txt
  10. Teachers – If you dont have a pda, u r pretending to teach in a world u dont know. #daggettabout 18 hours ago from txt
  11. Our schools are more like 1950 than unlike it. we are not preparing our students for the 21st century. #daggettabout 18 hours ago from txt
  12. The US has 5% of the worlds population but more debt than the rest of the world combined. #daggettabout 18 hours ago from txt
  13. Wal Mart is the US’s largest corporation…8 times the size of Microsoft. #daggettabout 18 hours ago from txt
  14. Two percent of the US gross domestic product is spent at Wal Mart. #daggettabout 18 hours ago from txt
  15. China has over 100 cities with 1 million or more people. The US has 9. #daggettabout 18 hours ago from txt
  16. India has 168 million pre-schoolers. That could be the 4th largest nation on earth. #daggettabout 18 hours ago from txt
  17. In America we are totally focussed on standardized testing as the outcome of our education system. #daggettabout 18 hours ago from txt
  18. Who pushes our school reform? Business & industry. #daggettabout 19 hours ago from txt
  19. All anchors & eligible content are not equally important. #daggettabout 19 hours ago from txt
  20. When whats best for students comes in conflict with whats convient whos winning? #daggettabout 19 hours ago from txt
  21. Highest performing schools have looping staff #daggettabout 19 hours ago from txt
  22. Most rapidly improving schools encourage participation in the arts. YES! #daggettabout 19 hours ago from txt
  23. Relevance makes rigor possible for most students. #daggettabout 20 hours ago from txt
  24. these schools have “rigor & relevance” #daggettabout 20 hours ago from txt
  25. Highest performing schools structure their instruction differently…. #daggettabout 20 hours ago from txt
  26. The US is no loger the sole superpower in the world. Our fiercest competitors in the next decade include Brazil Panama & indonesia #daggettabout 20 hours ago from txt
  27. …when our focus should be on application to real world situations…we have permitted tests to become end line #daggettabout 20 hours ago from txt
  28. We have an ed systen focussed on knowledge in one discipline and application in one discipline…about 20 hours ago from txt
  29. US schools graduated more 18 year olds last year than ever in our history #daggettabout 20 hours ago from txt
  30. What makes a school a highest performing school is not transferrable to other schools. #daggettabout 20 hours ago from txt
  31. How do u commit to excellence AND equity? #daggettabout 20 hours ago from txt
  32. “Preparing Students for the 21st Century” – Dr. Willard Daggettabout 20 hours ago from txt
  33. Going to live tweet some thoughts from preso by Dr. Willard Daggett @ staff in-service.

What motivates students to practice?

untitledToday, I watched a YouTube video that a friend had sent to me of a girls’ high school band from Japan. The group was playing a composition by Claude T. Smith and it was amazing! You can watch it here. Anyway, it got me thinking…

We are all familiar with great programs, whether its band, orchestra, choir, etc. What makes these programs different than mine? The students are the same age. Sure, they may come from all different backgrounds, living conditions, etc., but what is the real difference between students that are just average musicians, and those that are incredible? Is it that those students are really dedicated to practicing?

Let me digress for a moment. Yesterday, during my senior high concert band rehearsal we were rehearsing the first movement from Holst’s First Suite in Eb. If you are familiar with the piece, you know that woodwinds have a significant 16th note run in the beginning of the movement. Now there is nothing overtly difficult about this run. Most young students will just need to spend some time working out the technical aspects of the run. I may be stubborn, but I am refusing (at least for now) to work on this during rehearsal time, because it is something they can easily learn themselves with a little time in the woodshed.

So anyway, after seeing this amazing video of this girls school, I started really thinking about students and their motivation to practice. I know for me, I only became motivated to practice when I could see or hear the benefits of my practice. Then it became like a snowball effect. Once I realized that my practice time was really paying off, I could easily see how much better I was getting. This led to more enjoyment in playing music, which in turn led me to practicing more. I was intrinsically motivated.

How do I get my students motivated to practice? I really believe they have to be intrinsically motivated. That is, they have to want to do it for themselves. They will not do it just because I tell them to do it. In fact, they may just not do it for that very reason. I really think that if I can get past that first hurdle, and they can begin to realize the fruits of their labor, they will then be intrinsically motivated. Is this something that has to start in the elementary program? Should I be a stickler about their practice time at that age? Will this turn into a habit when they get into middle and high school? How do I get to the point that all of my students just practice out of habit? When will my program get to the point that students just practice because they know that it is expected of them? If this point in time ever does arrive, then I think we could really have an incredible group!

Your thoughts?

How social media has helped me come out of my shell

I am the quiet observer type. But, I have found that using social media outlets, especially Twitter, has made it much easier for me to communicate with my colleagues, and especially people that I am just meeting for the first time. I find it easier to have meaningful discussions with new acquaintances.

Here are my personal observations. 1. I am more comfortable and confident holding conversations with colleagues & new acquaintances. 2. While holding these conversations, I feel that my thoughts are more succinct and clear. 3. I actually feel like I can communicate more effectively to my students. 4. I am no longer reserved about sharing my thoughts and comments with people who I hardly know.

I know there is a lot of talk, especially in education circles, about the use of social media by students. Some fear that using these online communication methods are somehow destroying students’ abilities to communicate effectively and properly “in the real world.”

My question would be this. Why then, have I found that my communications skills have improved? Is it simply because I previously learned proper social interaction before this whole social media thing happened? Or, has social media actually influenced the way I communicate?

I have always been a shy person, but I would no longer put myself in that category. Perhaps writing this blog has helped, too. Maybe through writing this blog and using twitter, I have realized that “putting my thoughts out there” isn’t a bad thing. In fact, maybe it’s a good thing…a really good thing. I have learned so much and had such great conversation with other educators and professionals through these social media outlets.

I don’t know that I can draw any conclusions about young people, but I know that these outlets have helped me to communicate more effectively and more comfortably. Just food for thought.

The Marching Band Effect

xl1The title of this post may be misleading. You may be thinking, “Ah yes. I’m familiar with this effect. This is when students play with poor tone quality and intonation, etc…” But, this is not exactly what I’m talking about.

Over the last several years, I have noticed an interesting phenomena that occurs when I have young middle school students play in the marching band. They get better. Way better. Quickly. It’s almost mind-boggling.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I preach all of the same principals of good musicianship to my marching group as I do to my concert band. It’s just different music and a different venue. I still tune the group carefully. I still expect them to play with good intonation. I still expect them to play with good characteristic tone quality. I still expect them to play correct dynamics and articulations.

For the first few years in my program, I only allowed select 8th grade students to join the marching band. Given the situation that the program was in, the marching band band played much more difficult music than the middle school. But, if I felt that students were “up for the challenge” then I would invite them to participate in the marching group. After a year or two of this system, I started to invite 7th grade students into the group as well. Admittedly, this was an attempt to get more bodies in the marching band, as I was feeling some pressure from my community as to how few students were in the group…about 30 musicians. Over the next few years, I began to notice a trend.

These middle school students that participated in marching band got to be much better musicians very quickly. Students that were previously on par with the rest of the middle school students ability-wise, were now far surpassing their peers at a rapid pace in the concert band setting. Now, I am at the point that I will take any 7th or 8th grade student that is interested into the Marching Pride.

Here is what I have found this year. A flute player that was average at best last year has improved immensely in note-reading, and rhythm-reading ability. I have 3 middle school trombone players that started off the season pretty weak, but are now incredible. They now play with immense confidence and a great sound! I have clarinetists that could barely play over the break last year, let alone with a good tone. Now, they do it easily and sound good too! These are just a few outstanding examples.

When we then get together for concert band at the beginning of the school year, they find the concert music easy. I can see that their peers that aren’t in the Marching Pride are struggling with notes, and finger placement, and slide positions, while they are playing the music with no problem. As you can imagine, this has greatly improved the quality of the middle school band (not to mention the marching band!)

I don’t know if I can put my finger on what exactly it is, but here are some factors that I think are contributing to their success:
1.They like the music. I really went out on a limb this year, and picked “popular” music – Fallout Boy, Rihanna, The White Stripes, Katy Perry – I think this motivated them to learn the material.
2. They have no choice. When they get to band camp it is kind of like, “Here’s the music (which is much more difficult than anything you’ve ever played)! Good Luck!” They have their peers to help them learn the music in sectional rehearsals, but they are basically expected to learn it. They are forced to step it up.
3. They want to belong to the organization. I think what is really key here is that they are excited to be a part of this great group, and have a sincere desire to do the best that they can. I attended a summer class co-taught by former University of Illinois Director Gary Smith. One of his main philosophies about marching programs was “System + Spirit = Success.” I have really made this a guiding principle for my group too. The idea is that if the students really buy into your system, i.e. how the program is run, and it’s philosophies and procedures, then the group will be successful. I really believe that nearly %100 of my students believe in our system and are passionate about it.

Having middle school students join our marching band has been an outstanding experience! Without fail, those students have improved immensely as musicians at an impressively rapid rate. This is something that I will continue to do, and I know that the quality of all of our middle high school band groups will improve because of it!