Thursday, October 2, 2014

Motivation in the Music Classroom

In his book Helping Students Motivate Themselves, Larry Ferlazzo reviews and recommends strategies to encourage intrinsic motivation in students. Ferlazzo warns teachers of the damaging nature of incentives and rewards, citing that they discourage student autonomy and therefore damage students’ ability to be self-motivated. While he does acknowledge that rewards have proven to be effective to get people to do simple routine work, he feels strongly that they don’t promote growth in anything that requires a higher level of thinking in the long run. Ferlazzo also acknowledges that everyone expects and needs “baseline rewards” for good work, but he says to use these as surprise bonuses—not as motivation to complete a task.

Instead Ferlazzo suggests that teachers should regularly reinforce student self-motivation in the following ways:

1. Acknowledge the effort of the students (You worked really hard today!) and praise specific actions (You are holding your mallets the way the professionals do!).
2. Build relationships with students and learn about their interests.
3. Use cooperative learning groups so that students can further explore a topic (think-pair-share).
4. Convey to the students the advantages of doing well in school, both economically and health-wise.
5. Create opportunities for students to make classroom decisions.

The music classroom provides a really neat look into intrinsic motivation. In my classroom, the students play the Orff instruments and other classroom instruments A LOT! Each student learns everyone’s part and I always give students short amounts of time to practice after I introduce a new phrase. This also enables me to give private help and encouragement as needed. After the students practice, I am always sure to acknowledge their effort and focus. This acknowledgement, coupled with the sounds they're making and their overall ability to create music, motivates the students to continue working hard. 

I also like to ask the students for their ideas on how to begin and end the piece that we are playing. They love having ownership and this motivates them even more. They regularly have lots of ideas about how to embellish what we are doing—movements, adding another instrument part, adding a rhythm or a chant—just to name a few. Great moments have come out of giving students a voice in my classroom.

However, each of these individual musicians is part of a larger ensemble (i.e., their class). And, in order for an ensemble to play well together, a community of learners must be established. Even though a music teacher sees a ton of students each week, it is imperative that they get to know their students. It always makes a student smile when I make a connection between them and their younger or older sibling that I also teach. Everyone likes to feel special, and, in my opinion, the pay-off for knowing a student to a greater extent is worth any extra effort on the part of the teacher.

I absolutely love using cooperative learning groups in music class. By having the students in small groups I not only get to see them create something together, but I also have the opportunity to more closely assess their individual musical skills. As most of us music teachers may see a class only once a week, students working together in small groups provides an opportunity for us to observe student interaction with each other. This is a great time to learn more about each community of learners.

I strive to be the kind of teacher that enables my students to think rather than to simply deliver them knowledge. Over the years I have had thoughtful conversations with students about music, composers, musical themes, musical likes and dislikes and more. But I have also talked with students about life, goals, challenges that they will face along the way, and why their choices affect their overall present and future well-being. Education and hard work is always the answer, and my hope is that they find music to be of assistance along the way. My students have intrinsically rewarded and motivated me a thousand times over, and I hope that they can say the same for me. 


Donna Dirksing Doran is an elementary music specialist in Cincinnati, Ohio. She holds a B.A. in Music Education from Transylvania University and a M.M. in Music Education with a specialization in Orff-Schulwerk from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Holding all three levels of Orff certification, Donna has previously written ancillary materials for the McGowan-Hill Music textbook series and is a frequent presenter of workshops and clinics at the local, state, and national levels. Donna is also the Education Director and host for the Linton Chamber Music Series Peanut Butter and Jam Sessions, which present chamber music concerts geared at children age birth to six years old and their families. Donna is also on the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's Advisory Committee for Education.


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