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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Good Enough?

My studio began offering fall semester lessons two weeks ago. The first week I thought I had come up with the perfect plan to encourage the start of a daily habit of practicing. I told each student and his or her parent that if the student were to practice every day between lessons, I would give the student a “prize.” I showed the student what the prize would be for practicing every single day until the next lesson: a single page of a color-by-number picture.

This was no ordinary color-by-number item. This page called for ten different color shades and must have had one hundred or more places to fill in for the picture to be complete. This was no simple prize, I assure you. I started filling in a picture for myself, fully intending to hang it up on the studio front door as an example, but I spent so much time coloring that I did not finish my picture.

The students responded well to my announcement, I thought. They seemed very excited about the possibility of getting a prize for practicing daily. Notice that I did not set a time frame for the practices. It was up to the student and parent to structure the practice sessions. I was merely interested in building a daily practice habit. I did not concern myself with how much time was spent or what items were practiced. That would be a subject for another day.

In anticipation of the success of this plan, I prepared 30 copies of the picture that I planned to give as prizes. I have more than 30 students, so I thought that 30 was a good estimate of the number of students who would require a prize. I could not wait to hand out the prizes this past week and to reap the benefits of all those daily practices.

I eagerly greeted each student who entered the studio with, “Did you practice every day this week?” Since I was excited about the prize (it really is an awesome thing!), imagine my surprise when students answered that they had not practiced each day. One by one, I went through my lesson schedule each day, and the majority of my students had not met the daily practice challenge. All told, maybe one-third of my students practiced daily. I was very disappointed in the results of my carrot-dangling, but this is not what disturbed me the most about my experiment.

There were three conversational exchanges that took place about the prize. First came my question: “Did you practice every day this week?” Second came my student's answer: “No I didn’t,” or “I missed one (or two) days.”

Third, a number of parents followed the students' answers with remarks such as, “He almost practiced every day,” or “We practiced a lot this week, just not every day.” I could hear the defensive tone in the parents’ voices, and I wondered at that a little bit. I guessed that most of the parents recognized that they had failed the assignment to help their child get the prize. What disturbed me though were the parents’ unspoken expectations that practicing “almost” every day or “a lot” would be good enough to warrant my capitulation into giving the prize anyway.

I felt pressured to give in, but I held my ground because I had been very clear as to how the rules worked. In order to get the prize, the student needed to practice every day. There were no time expectations other than to practice something every day. I was bothered that I even felt any pressure at all. The rules were so clear, weren’t they? If you contract a builder to build you a house, but the builder only builds 80% or 90% of the house, would you expect to pay the builder the full amount that you had said you would pay when the builder built the house? If you order a meal at a restaurant but eat only 80% or 90% of it, would you expect the restaurant to allow you to pay 80% or 90% of the bill? I think not, and I am surprised that many parents seem to think that this would be acceptable. (I suppose  that I could have torn away a part of the prize and presented the student with a picture that represented whatever percentage of the days that the student had practiced, but that seems mean to me.)

As the week went on, I puzzled over why parents would think that giving out the prize when the student had not met the requirements to earn the prize was okay. Where did our society get the idea that it was alright to expect a reward for doing less than all of the work? Was it a TV show? A movie? Finally, not being able to come up with an acceptable answer myself, I began asking other parents – the parents of the students who did practice every day and who did earn the prize. One mother came up with an answer that sounded right to me.

This mother explained that everyone seems to have been conditioned to expect a reward just for “showing up,” as she put it. "No one gets a perfect attendance award anymore," she told me. "Awards are handed out for participating -- showing up -- not for participating completely." This is a sad state of affairs in my opinion. We seem to have lost touch with what it means to actually earn something. We seem to have learned that putting in a good effort will be good enough and that we should be rewarded for our effort, not for whether our effort actually produced the desired end result.

There was a video floating around Facebook and YouTube a while back. I cannot seem to find it again, but its message was so powerful when I first saw it, that I believe I can reconstruct the content. The short movie was about what I recall was a middle school band. During the performance the band director talked to the audience about the importance of music education because it was the one subject that demanded 100% in order to be "A" quality work. The director talked about our grading system, where 90-100 points qualified for the letter grade A award.

As a university instructor, I can tell you that the subject of the number of points that comprise a final grade award of an A is often brought up by students who miss the bottom line. A student with 88 or 89 points will often try to argue that he or she is entitled to be bumped up into the higher A level category. After all, the student is merely one or two points below the A level, the students argue. The student does not think through this issue far enough to recognize that this request is not fair to the students who not only reached the A level line but in some cases far surpassed it by many points. This point spread represents the difference in the quality and effort level between the 88-89 point student and the 98-99 student, and there is a difference in the quality and effort, let me assure you.

The most powerful part of the video message was when the band director offered the demonstration of what it would be like to hear a music performance with 90% of the notes played and 10% missed. The students and director had planned ahead and prepared a piece with 10% of the notes marked incorrectly. When the students performed the music, they sounded awful. The band director made the point, in my opinion. Music study reinforces the concept that 100% is the worthy goal. I can only imagine how horrible the performance would have sounded if the students had missed 20% or 30%. And yet, these are acceptable standards in our society. We are given the message that attaining 70% is “average,” and that 80% is "above average," signifying that the middle ground and slightly above is good enough. But is it? Should it be good enough to merely strive for 70% or 80% or even 90% rather than 100%?

Maybe. There are times when it may be a reward to be able to reach the middle. There are times when I have not been able to summit South Sister mountain in Central Oregon, maybe because I was not feeling well or I was not in optimum shape. Although I might have been pleased with my progress up the strenuous mountain (a respectable amount of exercise in one day!), I still walked down from that experience with the recognition that I did not finish and could not therefore experience the “high” of having accomplished the climb successfully. I also did not finish my first and only attempt at doing a 50-mile trail run race. Did I expect a medal when I called it quits around mile 27? No, I did not. I expected to see a DNF (Did Not Finish) listed after my name. The runners who actually completed the race were entitled to the medal, and I did not want to lessen the accomplishments of the other runners who actually did finish the endurance event by insisting that I be given an award for my efforts.

These past two weeks have opened my eyes to the possibility that we may be allowing our standards to slip. I hereby resolve to refocus my efforts on achieving 100% of whatever task I set before me, and I will encourage my students to do the same.

Who would like to join me in this?


  1. My fall semester just began last week, and I have also been pondering how I could help motivate my students to practice every day. Like you, I do not have a time requirement or expectation, but I hope to help establish consistent practice. Thanks for your post.

  2. If the parents didn't ask if their child could have the prize, why would you assume that was the goal? Maybe they just wanted to let you know they didn't completely neglect to practice. I agree with much of what you say, but filling in the gaps of communcation with your own assumptions might not be the most helpful thing.

    1. Oooh, guess I did not write that exchange as clearly as it happened. That was the parent's expectation, not my assumption. The parent was trying to minimize the child's disappointment by asking for the prize. I wasn't very clear in how I wrote that. So sorry, but that wasn't much of a gap.

  3. I hear ya. This is something I've really been exploring with my students as well.

    A thought I've been toying with (like I don't really have a set opinion, just mulling it over):

    I'm not sure the end justifies the means. Like they could have practiced every day but really this boils down to having the standard of bettering themselves. Like I would almost rather they have quality rather than quantity?

    Of course there's also the argument that quantity can breed quality when it comes to practicing.

    So if they're practicing every day but they're totally tuning out, not paying attention and not caring about really working on technique, what's the point? Like I would rather they practice three times a week but really put some effort into their instrument.

    Obviously, I would PREFER they have quality practicing every day. But this does not always happen.

    1. I agree, Danielle about quality versus quantity. I have found though that when it comes to exercising muscles (the brain is a muscle too!), that daily manipulation is important. Whenever I did the 100 days club for myself, I noticed an incredible improvement, even when I wasn't spending a great quantity of time in my practices. The frequent practices kept my muscles warmed up, my brain cued in to what I was doing (not so difficult to remember what I was working on), and my discipline turned on. I notice as a teacher that when students (and their parents) skip a day, pretty soon it becomes easy to skip two days. Then three, well, you get the idea.