Daniel Pink’s “Drive” and Motivation in Piano Lessons

There are two kinds of piano teachers regarding the problem of candy distribution to their students: those who reward at the end of the lesson (or at some point) and those who do not. (Feel free to substitute candy with another form of reward for a behavior that does not include verbal praise when appropriate)

As a newer teacher, I could only see the benefits of the first alternative: 5 year old comes in for a trial, “survives” their first lesson and then voila, here’s a candy to reward him/her for the efforts. Makes sense right? The child will associate piano lessons with candy and therefore like piano, practice more, love me endlessly, continue to reach the full potential... Isn’t this what my Psychology 101 professor taught me about behavior? (*I even got Vitamin C lollipops from Whole Foods a couple of times, so it was healthy sometimes- I promise).

The other pro of the “Candy Distribution Project” was learning more about the personality of the child. I noticed that the students who listened and paid attention in the lesson would wait for my permission to get candy at the end of the lesson. Some kids would ask kindly to get a candy for their sibling or parent, which showed generosity or maybe selfishness, depending on the fact that the candy was actually for their parents or not. Now, why should I care about this? The more I know about the student, the better I can assist them in the lessons.

OK, long story short, I used candy to motivate students to do well in the lesson. BUT, all changed when I came across this book at the local Barnes and Noble:

Pinker argues that when it comes to motivation, “there’s a gap between what science knows and what business (piano teachers) does.” He continues by saying that our current operating system is built around external, carrot-and-sticks motivators, which are so last century.  So, based on the 21st century research, we need an upgrade which has 3 essential elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Pinker divides people into two groups after he explains drive in humans: Type X (motivated by external factors) and Type I (motivated internally). The people who are motivated by outside sources do well with “if-then” rewards (if you do this, then you get this). However, this approach not only does not work for Type I people, but it does the opposite. According to Pinker, all kids start out as curious Type I’s, but many end up as Type X’s. “Why? Well, maybe the problem is the adults who are running schools and want to equip young people for the work of work. Science knows that if you promise a preschooler a fancy certificate for drawing a picture, that child will likely draw a picture for you and lose further interest in drawing. Schools are redoubling their emphasis on routines, right answers and standardization and they are using “if-then” rewards. We are bribing students into compliance instead of challenging into them engagement. If we want to raise more Type I kids, we have to help them move toward autonomy, mastery and purpose”.

So, this is when I find out that I was encouraging “if-then” behavior in my studio. What is to be done regarding drive and motivation for our students, despite their music goals? Here is what Pinker suggests:

  1. Ask yourself these questions

  • Am I offering students any autonomy over how and when to do this work? Are you letting them choose any repertoire? Are you giving them any options or guidelines to practice?

  • Does this activity promote mastery by offering an engaging task as opposed to rote reformulation of something already covered in class? Is the student practicing at home just to check it off, or is he trying to master the material covered in class? *This is a hard one, especially for younger kids.

  • Do the students understand the purpose of this assignment? How does this assignment contribute to the larger enterprise in which the class is engaged? Make sure to explain to students the benefits of piano playing, practice and recitals, so they understand how this relates to their world.

     2. Have a “Set Aside” Day

Set aside a day where you ask students to come up with a problem and then report back on it. This could mean to ask the students about a song they want to learn or have a “Compose a Song Day”. You can come up with a way that will motivate students based on your studio size, personalities, goals etc.

     3. DIY report cards

At the beginning of the semester, ask the students to list their goals, which you can review at the end of the semester.  Celebrate sucesses and review fall backs. If the student is young to come up with goals, you can help him/her decide. Maybe you can ask “how many pieces do you want to be able to play by the end of the semester”.

   4. Give kids an allowance chores but don’t combine them

This one does not apply to piano playing and practice, but it is so interesting to hear Pinker’s point of view and the current research. Why an allowance is good: having a little of their own money offers autonomy and teaches responsibility. Combining them is not good- by linking money with the completion of chores, parents turn an allowance into an “if-then” reward.

  5. Offer praise the right way

Done wrong, praise can be an “if-then” reward that crushes creativity and intrinsic motivation. According to Carol Dweck, here’s how we should praise kids to promote Type I Behavior.

  • Praise effort and strategy, not intelligence

  • Make praise specific

  • Praise in private

  • Praise only when there’s a good reason for it (I particularly struggle with overpraising)

 6. Help kids see the big picture

Be sure students can answer: why am i learning this? How is this relevant to the world i live in now?

If any of this sounds interesting, I strongly recommend you read the book. I wanted to share some of my thoughts after reading it and I am by no means an expert of drive/motivation. If you have figured out a system/tool that motivates your students, let us know in the comments: What do you think about all this Type X and Type I stuff? :)