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After hearing an NPR spot on Radio Lab featuring Charles Duhigg’s new book titled Smarter, Faster, Better, I knew I had to make the purchase. Ever since picking up his first book The Power of Habit during a long DFW layover (interestingly purchasing books during layovers has become a habit of mine) I had already been a fan of his. Something about this radio spot really struck me, though, as something that could change the scope of my teaching. It is the idea that one of the greatest motivators is the ability to have choice.

As an applied instructor of trumpet I often feel at odds with the idea of motivation. Part of success in my job certainly rests on my ability to motivate students to do excellent work and diligent practice. For some students this is easy. They are always diligent and well-prepared, eager to get into the practice room as often as they can. For others…well…it is a much different story. What strikes me is how unpredictable this can be. Often the most talented are the least motivated and vice versa. Could I be doing something with my most talented students that actually inhibits their motivation?

Part of what Duhigg uncovered is the idea of “locus of control” or the degree to which people believe they have control over the outcomes of their own lives. He quotes a team of psychologists as saying, “Internal locus of control has been linked with academic success, higher self-motivation and social maturity, lower incidences of stress and depression, and longer life span. In contrast, having an external locus of control–believing that your life is primarily influenced by events outside your control–is correlated with higher levels of stress, often because an individual perceives this situation as beyond his or her coping abilities.” (Duhigg 24)

So I wonder, am I controlling too much of the outcome of my students, particularly the top ones? Do I do this by insisting on assigning particular pieces, etudes, a starting place in a lesson? Could higher levels of motivation be something I could obtain by simply giving a small list of pieces from which a student can choose? 

Beyond this, could students have more motivation to practice if they gave themselves more choice? For instance, with two free hours where one could practice, would a student be more likely to do excellent work if they gave themselves a choice between the two rather than planning (and feeling pressure to) practice in both?

What about you? How much do you utilize choice in your teaching? Does it have an impact on the motivation of your students? Leave a comment and let me know.

In the meantime I’ll be attempting to give my students a menu of items from which to choose and see if there are better outcomes for motivation and performance.