After years of practicing strategies to boost students’ self-esteem, it seems that there are more discouraged, disinterested, demotivated students than ever. Students are increasingly unwilling to face and conquer challenges, and quickly convince themselves that success is beyond their ability. Because strategies to boost students’ self-esteem were supposed to lead to opposite results, an objective evaluation of such programs must lead to the conclusion that these strategies have failed. They have failed for one overriding reason: they link self-image with achievement. Telling a child they are smart because they have done something well can only mean they are stupid when they do something poorly. Telling a child you are proud of them because of something they have done well means you are ashamed of them when they do something poorly. By rewarding product, we have discounted hard work that more often than not is needed to be successful, and convinced children that they succeed or fail not based on hard work and perseverance, but on their natural abilities. So where does that leave those who are lacking in natural abilities? It leaves them with no hope of success. But that hopelessness is a lie. Hard work and perseverance will almost always bring anyone success.
When students succeed, they must see a relationship between the effort they put into the project, and the results that they obtained. This means that projects or tasks teachers give their students must be enough of a challenge to require strenuous effort to complete, without being so difficult that they lead to discouragement. Students must believe the promise of success that effort makes, and when they believe this, the promise of success becomes a motivator to keep trying until the promise is fulfilled. When a student has excellent work, the teacher should commend the effort and praise the work as evidence of strenuous and persistent effort. It’s the hard work that led to an applaudable result that we want to encourage so that the child will learn to believe they can succeed, and that when they haven’t succeeded, it is not that they cannot do it, but instead that they have not done it yet.
Csikszentmihalyi explained a state of flow that represents a learning environment in which there are always outcomes, the student feels positive, pleasant, joyful and satisfied about what s/he is doing, and is focused and absorbed in the task. For these conditions to exist, there must be clear goals, the goals must be attainable yet challenging, the student’s skill set must be well matched to the challenge level, and the student must receive clear and immediate feedback so s/he can adjust his or her course. Through proper planning and assessment, all of these conditions can be met and when they are, students will have strengthened confidence and self-image. The student succeeds by applying a skill set acquired through learning to meeting a challenge. Satisfaction is present throughout the process of working and trying to meet the challenge, and culminates in the successful completion of the project.
I will now give an example of using flow in the music classroom. Last week, my eighth grade classes practiced their music reading with a percussion ensemble piece. None of the students play in band or orchestra, and rarely read music except in general music class; therefore a review of rhythm notation was necessary. Then students selected or were assigned instruments, each of which had a dedicated part in the score. The students played their part in the ensemble until it was correct, and then switched parts so that in the course of the activity each student played at least three different parts. The goal was to accurately play the piece from standard music notation on each instrument. While most students succeeded on the first instrument fairly easily because they had the benefit of the notation review on that instrument, they had to apply the knowledge from the review and that they already had to the playing of the second and third instruments. The challenge level was in this way increased after the first instrument. They received immediate feedback on the accuracy of their playing, and made corrections based on the feedback. Finally, they all had sufficient skill set to succeed, gained from previous experience playing these particular instruments.
This week, these same students are returning to the same set of instruments. This time, they will compose their own compositions for the instruments, and then perform them from the notation they themselves write down. This will again increase the challenge level because this time not only is music reading needed, but music composing and notating too. This will involve the additional skill sets for composing and writing down music. These students love to improvise, so the creative side is not the challenge but is a joyful and satisfying part of the activity. The notational part of the activity is challenging. In some instances, skill sets need to be increased before the created music can be written down. The need to increase skill in order to write down what has been created is motivating enough to create flow. Increasing skill at notating music outside the activity easily becomes boring, because there is no immediate application and very likely a worksheet involved resulting in the undesired effect of destroying flow. The skill level and the challenge level must always be well matched to avoid boredom or discouragement.