Words Matter, More Than You Think

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Words Matter, More Than You Think

Eric Booth, Founder of the ITAC Collaborative, Contributing Editor at The Ensemble News


If I were named King of Arts Education, I’d post an edict banning five words: amazing, fantastic, unbelievable, outstanding, incredible.

Most music educators use those words a lot, and always with good intent. They want to encourage, celebrate, and motivate their students. The words express the enthusiasm and affection they feel for their students. The King supports all of that. The edict has its eye on the cost of that impulse when it results in hyperbolic acclaim. Cumulatively, the cost is high.

Those who know about Growth Mindset practices (which are profoundly valuable in Sistema-inspired programs) as well as the research on intrinsic motivation realize that the way you praise and reward students matters. A lot.

Education research firmly establishes the fact that motivation is the single most important factor in long-term learning success in the arts. (In any subject.) The student who invests herself in music because she has a hunger for it, the student who practices because of the sound-feel-challenge-beauty of it, is the one who grows fastest and furthest. That’s intrinsic motivation—doing the work/play of learning for your own personal reasons, to get your own intimate rewards.

The author speaks at a New York Seminario in 2011. Photo courtesy of Eric Booth.

Extrinsic motivation gets students to do things for other people’s reasons—often perfectly good reasons, such as “the teacher wants you to improve your intonation.” Praise from the teacher is an extrinsic motivator. Students adjust their work to deliver what pleases the teacher, and praise guides the way. Praise is reward, and what you prioritize with reward trains your students to deliver more of that kind of work, until it becomes a habit of mind and heart. Praise guides students toward compliance, which is the opposite of passion.

The same is true of other extrinsic motivators, like status rewards (the first stand in the orchestra), or release (“You can leave if you get it right”), or food rewards, or staying out of trouble. But praise is perhaps the most powerful extrinsic motivator because it’s the hardest for teachers to resist. And students willingly sacrifice their own budding artistry, the very capacity for self-determination that is key to the mission of Sistema-inspired programs, to get told they are great, or amazing, or fantastic, or unbelievable in the teacher’s eyes.

Most of the time, when teachers let fly those intoxicating adjectives, the work is not amazing or unbelievable. It may be great by comparison, or amazing to the teacher in terms of improvement, but the students know their work is not unbelievably great. The adjectives undermine your long-term power and credibility as a teacher. If you hype small accomplishments, they get the message that you may be excited, but you aren’t telling them the truth. So don’t distribute sugar pills.

Give them nutrition instead. Put the focus on their process and effort. Not: “That was amazing.” But: “I noticed you sustained your attention all the way through that hard section—how did that feel?” Not: “Cellos, you did a fantastic job that last time.” But: “Cellos, what has been going on in your sectional work that seems to be building your confidence and accuracy?” This is straight out of the Growth Mindset teaching toolkit: turn the energy back to the inner motivational engine of the students; let them find greater ownership of the quality of the effort; put the emphasis on the pleasures and interests of process. Give them a mirror that lets them see—not that they are always fantastic, but that they are growing over time.

You did an unbelievable job reading this article!

How does that feel?

In contrast, how about this: So you pressed through all the way to the end; is there a specific idea that stays with you?

See what I mean?

If I were king, the realm of arts learning might be a little more muted, might sound a little less enthusiastic. But we would love the students just as much—they’d know it—and we would help them grow faster and further.

To learn more about the ITAC Collaborative, visit their website.


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