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Parenting and Pedagogy: Keeping Students Motivated

As a young musician, I grew up with the attitude many share when it comes to learning a new instrument. Even Rubinstein, the world-famous concert pianist, admitted that he loved to play, but hated to practice. [1] This dilemma begs the age-old question: “how do we keep young students motivated enough to not quit?” Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this, since it seems to be a challenge for both the innately gifted artist as well as the merely curious amateur.

A well-known study released in 2008 showed that, on average, it takes approximately 10,000 hours of “mindful, purposeful, mistake-focused” practice in order to achieve mastery in a given skill. [2] That’s nearly 60 solid weeks or 417 straight days. Malcolm Gladwell illustrates his study further by examining the young Mozart. His early works were nothing special and were likely improved upon by his father. In fact, the only one that is now regarded a masterpiece wasn’t even composed until he was twenty-one—and by that time we can easily assume he had reached the 10,000-hour quota.

This study extends beyond artists in music. Neurologist Daniel Levitin says that “basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, chess players, master criminals, and what have you” all require the magic number before they can take on the title of a world-class expert [3]. The overall conclusion is that, ultimately, mastery has less to do with ethnicity, IQ, or even “talent” and everything to do with persistence and highly motivated practice over an extended period.

Reviewing this fascinating research brings to mind that one logical reason that people give up could be that somewhere between novice and expert, students simply lose motivation due to the long and arduous path. However, after conducting more research of my own, I discovered that students lose motivation throughout different periods of their life for different reasons.

For example, during the initial stages of child development, focus and persistence are biologically and psychologically against children’s nature [4]. However, as they grow into adolescence, the challenges become more complicated. From what I’ve observed, there are two major stumbling blocks that occur in the life of the 2015 student.

First, the academic expectations for high school students is ever increasing. Kelley Benson, the supervisor of University of Michigan’s Piano Pedagogy Lab Program, suggests that school counselors are reinforcing the need for students to become overly well-rounded in order to continue their studies at reputable universities. [5] Every student should have high aspirations and a desire to achieve their goals, but when they feel pressured or even threatened to excel in all areas all at once, they develop the notorious “Jack-of-all-trades” syndrome, where their focus is spread so wide and thin that they typically burn out in one or more areas.

Second, society as it stands promotes the philosophy that big rewards can come with little effort. Fast paced lifestyles, social media, and the ease of technology all make this an even more convincing argument. However, it is contrary to the true way of obtaining a life-skill. Benson has also discovered from years of experience teaching music that students these days seem to require more mental stimulation from exterior sources rather than to stimulate their minds from within. [6] Focused practice requires large amounts of self-discipline and serious thought. Students of our day face more distractions in this regard than ever before.

These issues that children are facing, particularly in pursuing specific skills, will never have just one remedy. However, the initiative I suggest is one that increases parent involvement with their children at home—not just that they become involved, but that they do so in a particular way. It may seem like common sense, but the key ingredients that parents should follow when interacting with their children may not be so obvious at first glance.

Dr. Christopher Fisher, a piano professor at Ohio State University, suggests that piano parents have the important role of supporting, encouraging, and guiding their children if they want them to continue studying their instrument and ultimately have a rewarding experience. [7] All children need this type of parent, regardless of their area of study. Parents should take a stand somewhere between being overly permissive and overly disciplinary. In other words, they have the important responsibility to set up circumstances that will insure their child’s success, but at the same time not result in an excessive amount of praise. [8] In fact, recent studies have shown that too much praise might actually be a negative thing.

A statistic provided by Columbia University shows that “85% of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart.” [9] More recently, a study performed within the New York City public school system revealed that too much praise could actually lead to a child giving up later in life, or when it comes to education, giving up on their 10,000 hours of practice. Too often, parents these days are setting a bad example by living chaotic, fast-paced lifestyles themselves, taking the easy route by simply giving their children the answers, giving them money, and giving them undeserved and non-specific praise in hopes that they will “guide” their children to success. This kind of parent behavior will only further the notion that success can happen by doing the minimum. Truthfully, the only things that will help children stay motivated throughout their education are those same things that require a lot of time: teaching, patience, and love.

The devastating reality is that it is possible within today’s society for even the innately gifted children to slip through the cracks and never achieve their true potential. The world needs future Mozarts, Michelangelos, and Michael Jordans. Some parents might just need to be educated on how they can stick to their roles best, rather than mirroring the role of their child’s school counselors, thus only increasing the pressure. Other parents can set a better example for their children by leading organized and well-balanced lifestyles themselves. Whatever the case, this one thing is for certain: as parent-student relationships are strengthened and developed properly, so will be the future citizens of our society. There will never be one solution to such complicated issues; however, one good step forward that all people have the power to take begins within the walls of their own homes.

Works Cited:

[1] Richards, Cynthia V. How to Get Your Child to Practice…Without Resorting to Violence. Provo, UT: Advance Publications, 1985. Print.

[2] Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown, 2008. Print.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Richards, Cynthia.

[5] Benson, Kelley. “The Challenges That Students Face in 2015.” Personal interview. 8 Apr. 2015. University of Michigan’s Piano Pedagogy Lab Program.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Fisher, Christopher. “Lessons Learned from a Tiger: The Parental Role in Piano Study.” Piano Pedagogy Guest Lecturer. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 19 Mar. 2015. Lecture.

[8] Richards, Cynthia.

[9] cited by Bronson, Po, and Ashley Merryman. NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children. New York: Twelve, 2009. Kindle book.

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