Founder's Blog

Comparing ourselves to others (part 8 on motivation)

Eric, a 7-year old violin student, loved coming to lessons. But the music did not come easy. When he first started lessons, he struggled with both rhythm and pitch. I would clap a simple pattern and he could not match it. When I played 2 different notes, he could not distinguish if the 2nd note was a higher or lower pitch.

Yet, every week, Eric (not his real name) would come to lessons smiling and have fun learning. And slowly, steadily, we made progress.

When he learned to sing Mary Had A Little Lamb, we were giving each other high fives.

But I did not realize that a chart on my wall was slowly damaging his motivation.

It was a chart that told me what songs students had completed. Eric saw pins above and below him on the chart moving to the next song while his stayed stubbornly in place.

Relative standing — how we compare to others around us — is a way that we are able to determine our competency. And competency influences motivation.

We are motivated to do things that make us feel competent. We avoid things that make us feel incompetent.

Once I realized what was happening, I took the chart down. But it was too late. When the teaching year came to end, his motivation was gone and he quit.

There are 3 ways we measure our competence — testing, relative standing and progress.

I love sports and competition. And I want to know that the electrician working on my house passed a test that qualifies him to do that work.

But music is a creative, social activity that does not require us to compare ourselves to others or be evaluated by a testing authority.

My work as a teacher, alongside parents, is to make ‘progress’ a more attractive gauge of competency for students.