No More Negatives

I’m always trying to improve as a teacher and as such am constantly picking up advice or tips from others on how to improve my work. Several years ago on a trip to New York with the high-school choir that I accompany, a colleague shared a concept from educational psychology that I’ve been working hard to incorporate this year and it involves eliminating a whole set of words from my teaching vocabulary. Say goodbye to the negative!

When working with students of any age, but especially with younger students, the specificity of our language is important. Once words leave our mouths we have no ability to take anything back or change the message we’ve planted in their heads. When a teacher speaks, it’s like putting a drop of food coloring in a glass of water, the color may become diluted with more words, but it a portion of it will always be tinted.

What I learned from this colleague, who has his doctorate in educational psychology, is that teachers should only show the right way to do a skill. Often, music teachers like to show a student how they performed a skill that needs improvement (modelling the “wrong way”) followed by showing the way the teacher would prefer it be done (modelling the “right way”). It seems like a great idea and makes practical sense, but can have detrimental effects on the student.

When showing a student both the “right” and “wrong” ways to perform a skill, the two versions can become mixed in the student’s mind, muddling them and leaving a student more confused than they were to begin with. Also, we tend to remember the first thing that we’re shown more than any later iterations, so beginning by modeling the exact thing we’re trying to eliminate can do more harm than good. So, we always want to start with the “good” and just stick with it.

Knowing that we should only model what we want is much easier to know than it is to put into practice. It requires to teacher to do a couple of difficult things:

  1. Immediately know what is wanted. Sometimes it’s easier to identify what’s wrong than it is to know the solution to the problem. By modeling the “positive” we have to know the solution quickly and lead with that.

  2. Police our own language. Have you ever tried to change an unconscious habit? It’s hard! I’ve been working hard on implementing this teaching technique over the past year and every day I still find myself slipping up.

It’s okay to come to grips with the fact that this skill won’t take root instantly. I’m constantly finding myself catching a slip-up immediately after the fact, but that’s one of the steps to fixing the habit.

The effects of this kind of change in teaching technique are hard to measure, but I’ve noticed some helpful side effects already. For one, it’s always great to cut out negative language. Students can be sensitive, especially in our current world where positive self-image is an important topic in schools and in the home. Critiques of technique and performance are often taken personally, so viewing mistakes solely as areas for improvement can help a student feel good about their development. I’m not advocating giving undeserved praise, but if a criticism can be given in the form of construction it will usually go over better. You’ll also find that you can be more concise when giving lessons. Cutting out half of your statement means we’re left with fewer things to remember.

I’ll continue to work on affirmative messaging and modeling with my students (and in the rest of life as well) and I encourage everyone else to give it a try as well. You won’t get perfect at it right away, but it’s worth giving a shot!

Photo by Keith Dodrill on Unsplash