“I REALLY LOVE THAT!”
“I really love that!” is one of the most dangerous comments a teacher can give a student.
Acknowledging how correct your student’s behavior is in the form of “likability” causes harm in several ways. It implies that…
1. If they do something incorrectly you won’t like them
2. Their success is dependent on someone else’s evaluation
3. The reason we do something is because someone else decided it was correct
Let’s study how the a typical bow-building lesson segment unfolds…
– Teacher: can you make a bow hold?
– Student makes a bow hold
– Teacher: “Uh oh, that one’s not quite right. Can you do it again and think really hard about your bent thumb?”
– Student makes another bow hold, carefully checking pinkie and thumb and wrapping middle fingers over the stick
– Teacher: “That’s beautiful, I love that one! Way to go!”
So on the surface it appears a great teaching moment just happened. The student did something wrong, the teacher suggested a correction, the student made the correction, the teacher praised the student, the student will be more likely to make the correct bow hold in the future.
But consider the way in which the teacher in the scenario needed to withhold praise in order to effect change. Not only is this an inefficient method, it is not ethical.
The student becomes dependent on the teachers continual dispension of loving affirmation in order to perform every aspect of their skill set. It is by using the phrases “I like … ” and “I love…” when evaluating student behavior that we find students continually checking their teacher’s face and body language to decipher the correct sequence of correct behaviors. Students are paralyzed — unable to differentiate excellence without the help of their teacher.
In other words, the locus of control is with the teacher and not the student.
To avoid this, offer honest feedback without a value interpretation. Just say what you see.
- Say “Your thumb is bent!” instead of “I like your bow hold!”
- Say “Your feet are together!” instead, “I don’t know about that play position…”
- Say “Your fingers are tall because you are playing on your inside corners!” instead of, “I like your violin hand frame!”
- Say “Your D was sharp every time you played it!” instead of, “I didn’t really like your intonation this time.”
By only saying what you see, you hand the locus of control back over to your student. It is then their job to interpret what your comment means, what must be changed, and what to look for/listen for/ or think about in the future to cause a different outcome.
INTERPRETATION REQUIRES KNOLEDGE
You might have had to spend an extra second above interpreting whether the exclamation “Your feet are together!” was a good or bad thing above. Indeed, it requires more work to understand what a fact implies than it does to take action on a provided interpretation of fact.
Therefore, in order for your students to be able to do the work of interpreting you must equip them with the knowledge to do so. You must teach them why what they do matters. Which means that you must understand what matters.
If your student understands intellectually, kinesthetically and aurally why standing with feet together keeps violinists from making great sound on their instrument, then the only information they need to change their stance is “your feet are together!”
Though it might seem like you are going the long way around — teaching understanding before providing feedback takes planning, time, and diligence — you are really cutting down on the work of the journey by empowering your student to travel on their own.
They can transfer what they’ve learned to any situation.
Instead of testing every iteration of play position feet for correctness, they know that the body is best balanced over feet shoulder width apart. Then to make a correction, all you need to do is describe what you see. The statements “your body is unbalanced,” or “your feet are close together” is a fact that your student would then have the power to interpret and take action on themselves.
And furthermore, because they are able to interpret your honest feedback they are also able to interpret their own honest feedback. You’ll find by teaching for understanding and giving direct feedback that your students will come into lessons having made their own corrections without your help.
ACTION IS DIVORCED FROM WORTH
Efficiency and efficacy are advantages of direct, say-what-you-see feedback. However, I think the most important aspect of direct feedback is the separation of your valuation of your student’s worth and the actions they perform.
When teachers say, “I like you bow hold,” students hear, “I like you!” As soon as they struggle to perform an action correctly, the students internalize the opposite of praise as, “I don’t like you.”
By separating evaluation from feedback, we make sure that students don’t understand their worth in terms of their actions. I believe that my students, no matter what sounds or posture or behavioral decisions they make are beautiful, whole hearted, capable young human beings. Nothing they do will change that.
Their actions don’t reflect their worth, and because of that we can name, understand, and change student ability without doing emotional damage.
THIS TAKES PRACTICE
The “I like…” habit is a dangerously strong. I encourage you to spend the next few weeks practicing it out of your teaching vocabulary.
Watch videos of students playing and practice your direct, say-what-you-see comments. What needs attention? What is working well? What isn’t working well?
In lessons, put a sticky note on your stand with a reminder to say-what-you-see. All of your feedback should be framed in these terms. And while you are teaching, go ahead and record yourself. Watch the playback and count how many times you said, “I like…” instead of just naming what you saw.
Finally, don’t forget to hold space for increasing your student’s knowledge bases before you give feedback and allowing them to make their own decisions in interpreting the feedback afterward.
Focusing on this small aspect of your teaching can have profound impacts on your students’ ability to effect change in their own playing, and ultimately their own lives. Shift the locus of control back to them, so they have the opportunity to shape their own development.