Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Teaching as Manipulation, Manipulation as Teaching

Last night my daughter was asking me to explain how reverse psychology works, because she noticed that when her friends try to use it on her, it doesn't work. I explained that it was a form of manipulation, and really only works when the person doesn't know that they are being manipulated. We have an innate resistance to manipulation, though the line between that and education is a slim one. When designing my classes, I first determine the optimal outcomes: what a good student should know or be able to do at the end of this class. Then I try to figure out how best to get the student to that outcome, and finally how to evaluate for that outcome. The evaluation is fairly basic, and the thing I hate most about teaching. The process to the outcome is fascinating, though, particularly when talking about skills.

In my musicianship classes I am working with the students on how to understand what they hear, and how to translate music notation to musical sound as efficiently and creatively as possible. And what I find is that I need to manipulate my students to get them to develop these skills. I could just say, "1) Practice singing every bit of notated music you come across, using a system that forces you to think about pitch and rhythm relationships. 2) Practice transcribing every bit of performed music you come across. 3) Practice manipulating musical sounds, both in notation (composing) and in performance (improvising)." And then I could evaluate their progress at the end of each semester or month, and find that they weren't practicing enough, if at all. Because it is hard to motivate oneself to practice something difficult, unless there is a clear payoff.

So first I increase the motivation by explaining why I have designed these outcomes, and why all professional music programs include aural skills training. That helps somewhat, but isn't enough. So I assign particular bits of music to practice singing, particular bits of music to practice composing, and particular bits of music to practice improvising. I play particular bits of music for them to transcribe. This requires less self-motivation on the part of the student, some of the work has already been done for them. Then I manipulate them into practicing these assignments through the threat of regularly occurring grades. Each grade is a small percentage of the final class grade, but the good students cannot stand getting a low grade of any sort. Thus they are manipulated into regular practice, which is the best way to develop these skills. Cramming doesn't work, just as it doesn't when learning how to speak a new language.

These grades may be thought of as evaluation, but they really aren't. For me, evaluation comes at the end of the semester, when I see how the students perform on the final exams. That is why I weight the final exam grades much more heavily than any other grade. For me, these regularly occurring grades are manipulation tools, forcing the students to practice what I want them to practice.

The point of this post is to ask if there is a better way. I hate grading, and the students hate grading too. Is there some way to create an environment of encouraging students to do the activities that will lead them to the outcomes of the class, without using grades as a threat? Is subtle manipulation the answer? I don't use reverse psychology on my children, both because they are too smart for it, and because I don't like the inherent dishonesty. Rather than manipulating by lying, I'd much rather go for the brute approach of saying "Do this, or get punished." I suppose that is the equivalent of "Do this, or get a bad grade" in a teaching environment. But just as I rarely have to punish my kids with timeouts, and only have to threaten punishment occasionally, I'd really like to reduce grading to a minimum, left mostly for true evaluation rather than brute manipulation.


Carolyn-Anne Templeton said...

This is a big question, and I'm far from qualified to comment on it. But I'm a loudmouth, and always have been, so I'll comment.

Maybe the question is what is a productive punishment? Are grades an effective threat? The good students who are obsessed with grades certainly will be manipulated into regular practice. But then again, the good students who are obsessed with grades would've been practicing anyways. I've had you as a musicianship teacher and I've had other musicianship teachers who were far inferior. You weren't a better teacher because you graded harder. You were a better because you cared enough to work with us. And the good students were practicing diligently before they you as a teacher- they just weren't practicing effectively. And I think the fear of bad grades is perhaps worse if the intention is to reduce cramming. I know from personal experience that I'm more inclined to cram when I'm scared of a bad grade. The smart students who don't care about grades certainly aren't effected.

My greatest concern is for the students who come to college without any theoretical background. There are quite a few musicians who simply don't have the same basis as everyone else. Music isn't like math, unfortunately. Some students can barely read music when they get to college. Trying to throw the whole concept of musicianship on them is like expecting a toddler to give a speech when he's still trying form words. What I really admire about you is that if a student comes to you with a problem, you always take the time to work them personally. But, frankly, there's only so much you can do. You have to keep the class moving. In the meantime, the student who really didn't have enough skills in the first place feels worse after every assignment because s/he is getting worse and worse grades. That's not always because of lack of practice.

I wish DePauw had a remedial theory/musicianship class. One of my pet peeves about DePauw is that theory and musicianship are thrown to the wayside, despite your best efforts. The system has gotten exponentially better since I was a first-year, but it's still not right that what should be the core of the music department is given so little thought. But I'm ranting about politics...

Back to my original thought, would it be possible to have mandatory study sessions for students who fall below a certain level? At Interlochen, we had biweekly individual musicianship quizzes. If we fell below a B, we were required to go to tutorial sessions. The theory tutors had a bigger role- they led these sessions, which I think was good for both sides, but the teacher was always down the hall for harder questions. As far as the annoyance of grading goes, first level and remedial theory homework was graded by the theory tutors.

At DePauw I'm not sure you could require students to go to extra study sessions. But I think that it makes more sense to have students be punished in time rather than grade. Or have it be an option- either you attend a one-on-one session with a tutor or you get marked down. That wouldn't be all that different from a student getting credit in French class for French table or French club. Besides which, I always learned musicianship best in group collaboration environments. I could practice all I wanted on my own, but, oddly enough, it wasn't until I was working in a practice room (cramming for a musicianship test at 3AM) with Lyndsay and Shani that I knew where I stood. It would be a way to engage students while cutting down on the frequency of assignments.

It's just a thought.

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