Offering Students Rewards
Ginny W., Western Australia
Regarding ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’ motivation as a teaching practice, I am one of those teachers who doesn’t like to use what I consider to be bribes (i.e. lollipops, smiley faces, whatever) to get a child to practice. I can see the distinction between a ‘bribe’ and a reward, such as a certificate at the completion of each level, which is really just a tangible statement reinforcing the verbal praise and validation they get from me.
It seems to me that the thrust of the Simply Music philosophy is to instill some sense of ‘consequences’ in a student; and this is more in line with both my own experience in life, and my belief about what works, on the whole. Where I see a student (especially a child) losing interest in coming to lessons, it seems to be because they have a relationship with their parents which is based on being cajoled and nagged a lot. In other words, there is a lot of pressure on the child to achieve, which appears to be more about the parent’s issues, anxieties and agenda. I can see that our role as Simply Music teachers is perhaps about offering a way for students to experience their ‘success’ internally as well as being about pleasing or appeasing a parent or me. I am also aware that it doesn’t always work that way and, while I can do so much to offer an alternative, the rest is out of my hands!
I remember being highly amused at a dinner during a training, where Gordon recounted a very funny story about his bowl of ‘entertain-mints’ and ‘accompany-mints’ :). I find that humor a very powerful teaching strategy.
Sarah H., Western Australia
Personally I don’t agree with rewards for practicing. I have a concern that it creates a situation where the student is coming just for the reward and nothing else. Also, wouldn’t the reward “wear off” after a while? I have concerns that children in our society today are rewarded big time for what they do, not for who they are.
I have had issues over the years with students practicing, and have been able to rectify it without reward systems.
Lyndel K., Western Australia
I have a student who at the conclusion of the lesson says, “so what about my sticker”. It completely robs the joy from both giver and receiver. This is obviously a pattern she has learned at home, and I’ve struggled with having the freedom to speak on the delicate issue of parenting skills. Another student’s Mum tried to slip a chocolate behind my bench with the whispered instruction “Could you just pretend it’s from you…It’s the only way I can get her to cooperate with me!!!”
I’ve never used a regular reward system with any of my 4 children, nor with my students because I have found it robs both of us of the pure joy of spontaneous, unexpected affirmation. When I do give them, they are completely at my discretion (not hinted at or manipulated from me) and they are not an expectation. (I feel that as soon as you cross this line it has become a bribe). I try to always verbally label rewards, in terms of “this is for a particular attitude”, or a “positive way of handling a challenge” – heart values rather than only for achievements. This reinforces the desired principle that children should be praised and loved for who they are, not what they do, as Sarah was saying. It also means all children can experience the joy, not just the high achievers. I may have to be on the lookout a little harder with some, but it’s always there to be found!
I love to look for the heart of my kids, both my own, and those briefly on loan to me.
Rhea P., Western Australia
I also do not provide regular rewards. I make sure that I describe something positive about the song they played (the even beat, the touch, the speed, the feeling behind it, the fluency, etc.) And I hold their hands and look into their eyes while I’m doing it. I make sure that they get the message that it is their work that has given them this improvement.
I also say things like – “You know, with that sense of rhythm/ dedication/feeling for the music (choose one of many!), you’re going to be a great pianist/ you’re always going to love playing/ you’re becoming a wonderful musician!” This gives them a sense that music will be in their future, and that to cultivate the abilities they have is all they need to do- which for me is true – it’s all we have and therefore it’s all we need.
I also get them to raise their right hand above their head, turn their palm towards the back and bend their elbow – getting them to pat themselves on the back (did I get that from Neil?)
Sarah H., Western Australia
I realized that when I first started teaching, I was no way near being clear enough about exactly what I expected from my students. Now, I specifically state what I want my student to be doing at home as practice and then get them to repeat that back to me. For example, I say, “I need you to play for about 20 minutes most days, and in that time, I need you to play your current projects and some songs from your play list…etc, etc.” Then I get them to repeat that back to me. I am always reinforcing this and am always on top of it now.
More recently, to make it even easier for some students who have practice issues, I have been drawing 5 small boxes in their notes book at each lesson. I get them to put a check-mark in a box every time they sit down for a 20 minute session and sometimes have their parent sign it too. I make it very clear what they must do during this time (current projects, reading projects and play list). For some students I even write the name of the days they choose to practice above the boxes so they know exactly when they have to sit down to play. (Though, I have not checked this out with Neil.)
I used to make an assumption that because my students were making the effort to be in lessons they would organize their practice schedule accordingly, but now I make no assumptions!!
As a student myself of the Simply Music method I was a very diligent student (just ask Kerry Halbert!!), and was very challenged indeed by this whole issue when I started teaching. (In fact, I was troubled by it for a couple of years.) As time has gone by, I have learned so much, and a lot of learning happened in hindsight.
Jane D., Western Australia
As a mother of six and a homeschooler, I have always felt uncomfortable with rewards/bribes whatever you wish to call them. A treat is an occasional surprise which I love to give but with no expectations or prior knowledge for the receiver.
If we need to give treats as a reward for practicing, and hence as a reward for achievement, I feel very strongly that the achievement is actually diminished.
I’m with Rhea. My way of acknowledging effort is to look straight at them and say things like, ”Doesn’t that playing make you feel good” or, “I hope you’re proud of yourself, I would be.” Such comments I don’t give out lavishly, and I choose carefully when and to whom.
Another way of saying I value your efforts is to really take a genuine interest in something that has happened to them that week. I ask them about their lives and what makes them tick. I don’t hesitate to spend 5 minutes of a 25 minute lesson getting to know my students. That to me is my way of saying, “You’re a great student and I like teaching you.”
I feel rewards get in the way of the natural unconditional and honest relationship you may wish to build. I would rather my students receive a message that regular practice is a natural occurrence and simply part of the deal. Not something I intend to bribe them to do.
And besides, we all have bad weeks when things go wrong and practice just doesn’t happen as much as it should, so are we going to give them the message that they have failed because they haven’t earned a treat? Doesn’t sit all that well with me.
Music and the joy it brings the musician, that’s the reward.