Recently, I set out to increase my understanding of students who get stressed when learning new music or techniques. These kids often play guitar well, but I will notice some or all of these reactions during their lessons:
- Not listen to my instruction, but forge ahead on their own. Then when they get it, there is a huge sense of relief.
- Tear up or cry. Then when they get it, they will have a sense of relief or will boast (and sometimes gloat).
- Make excuses: “My hair was in my eye”, “This is too hard” (before even trying), “I’m tired today”.
- Create a distraction: tell a joke, ask to use the bathroom (again), become disruptive if in a group lesson.
- Ask how another student is doing in guitar – always a student who plays as well as they do.
- Quit guitar lessons altogether – even though they enjoy playing guitar.
Identifying the Struggle
These students don’t seem to have a sense of joy in their learning and growing. Instead, there seems a spirit of fear and vulnerability. I also detect a drive towards their needing or wanting to be “the best”. And, these students seem to view guitar ability as a function of talent – either they have it or they don’t.
At first, I thought the problem rested in the way I gave feedback to these students. Perhaps I was praising these students too much, or praising in the wrong way. I try not to focus on talent, but rather on effort and practice. People have often said to me, “you are so lucky and talented on the guitar”. But even at a young age, I knew it took a lot of practice – not luck. It seems that “talent” would be better defined as a natural tendency or desire toward something. However, whether it be sports, arts, cooking, rock climbing, etc., we have to work hard to develop that natural desire.
A student’s mom gave me pause for thought when she stated this:“…(Praise) can be a trap for kids and how they begin to perceive themselves, defined by what they do and how people see them. We try to frame our praise on effort, but we really don’t know how our kids are internalizing their feelings, since the world has a very loud voice – media and images of success are shown very differently.”
How true. The media’s and the world’s cultural views about success are tough to manage. So, I needed to keep digging to figure out how to best guide these students toward finding joy in the process of their learning.
Understanding the Mindset
As I researched “praise” and how it impacts learning, I came across Dr. Carol Dweck’s research on Mindset. I ordered her book and began studying the “fixed mindset” vs. the “growth mindset”.
- In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing it. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.
- In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities. – Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. 2016
I discussed the book with my husband (who is also a teacher), and was reminded of his brilliant way of grading papers. For years he taught high school and college electronics & graded each test problem in thirds:
- 1/3 credit if a student showed the work
- 1/3 credit if the work was correct
- 1/3 credit if the answer was correct
He originally did this to reduce possible cheating, but soon realized a side benefit: students began understanding the process of learning. When students with a “natural ability” or “talent” for electronics would hit a wall in their progress, they did not feel like failures or like giving up. Instead, they knew where they needed to grow and they worked to get there.
After reading/studying Carol’s research and thinking about my husband’s grading system, I resurrected my “Construction Crew” – a method of teaching guitar I first developed several years ago (probably because I watch a lot of Home & Garden TV!). I hadn’t been consistent in using it. It was time to use it again!
The Construction Crew Approach to Learning Guitar
I teach my students that when we set out to learn something new, our brain starts making connections between neurons. In other words, our brain needs to build bridges connecting the pathways surrounding what we desire to learn. To make it easier to visualize, I discuss 8 construction crews that build these bridges. When there is an area that needs work, students know exactly which crew needs to get to work. Together, we come up with tools to help that crew accomplish its tasks.
The 8 “Crews” are:
- The Guitar Position & Tuning Crew
- The Right Hand Technique Crew
- The Left Hand Technique Crew
- The Note Reading Crew
- The Frets & Strings Crew (i.e. the crew that finds where the note is on the fretboard)
- The Rhythm Crew
- The Dynamics Crew
- The Tempo Crew
The crews make it easy for me to guide a student and point out areas that have been mastered (where the bridge has been built):
- “Wow – the position crew has done a great job – look how your elbow is no longer in front of the guitar?”
- “The right hand crew is so.taking.a.break! Your right wrist is bent into the guitar.”
- “Slow down, so your frets/strings crew has some time to find the note.”
The Crews concept seems to make it easier for children to visualize the process of learning. It reminds them that:
- Learning guitar is a process of hard work and dedication in their practice.
- They are not on their own and have my support to identify the areas that need more focus.
- They can overcome challenges through giving themselves the space and time to do so.
- Growth in their ability is the first measure of success.
My ultimate goal is for students to understand what Carol Dweck says so well: Abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.
Since bringing the Construction Crews back into my teaching studio, there have been many smiles, no tears, and a better understanding of the learning process.
Last week, one little guy (who had teared up in previous lessons) learned about the crews. He was able to figure them all out. At the end of his lesson, a new piece of music was blossoming within him! And a bonus: He had faced the challenge with dry eyes. We both talked about how fun his lesson had been, and how much he grew in his playing that day.
Constructing a growth mindset in children has become my top priority in lessons. A growth mindset seems the key to a lifetime of learning with joy, of seeking growth as the first measure of success, and then of appreciating the development of ability, or “talent”.
And that – well, that is a lesson, not just for children, but for us adults as well!
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