Foundational Ideas of FiddleQuest

Motivation and the violin – Part 3

Early into my teaching, I started looking for rewards to give students. Stickers. Magnets. Any sort of Dollar Store item you can think of.

Then I decided it was easier to simply give them money. But not real money. I created a currency called Fiddle Bucks. A few kid-friendly stores in town agreed to accept Fiddle Bucks. Each one is worth a dollar. Every few months, I go and buy the Fiddle Bucks back from the stores for 50 cents each.

Young students love these rewards. And they have been very successful as a motivation tool. Plus, I get to give them an early lesson in economics, currency and the Federal Reserve (me).

This model of motivation — behavior that is shaped by a stimulus — was how motivation was viewed for many decades. B.F. Skinner and his experiments demonstrated how it was possible to shape behavior and motivation through the strategic use of stimuli.

But, I soon learned that Behaviorism has its limits as an explanation for motivation.

Around age 11, earning a Fiddle Buck for completing a song begins to lose its effect on students. When I first noticed this decline in motivating power, I increased the ‘payout’ for higher level songs. But it didn’t work.

Students were clearly being motivated by something else. In fact, my increasing the payout of Fiddle Bucks seemed to reduce the value of their accomplishment.

Edward Deci studied this phenomenon of external motivation and the limited power it offers. Through creative experiments he came to understand that there are different types of motivation and some are better than others.

I still give students a Fiddle Buck for learning a song. But by the time they are 12, we are laughing about the payment. And because they know that I know that is not why they learned the song, the Fiddle Buck still holds value.

The Fiddle Buck has become an ironic sort of currency for my older students. It is a symbol that they learn the songs because something inside them makes them want to learn.