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Strategies to Help students Develop Ownership and Persistence

Nancy Jackson


Thoughts from my presentation at the Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference

I have often been amazed at the persistence of children when they are learning to ride a bike; no matter how many times they fall and skin their knees and elbows, they get back up and try again. I wondered why children are so willing to persist in learning to ride a bike, but maybe not so willing to persist in studying their spelling words or their violin practice.

Last spring I had a front row seat to watching my next door neighbor try to teach his 6 year old daughter how to ride her bike, and in listening and watching from my front porch, I finally understood what was so different from the other times I had watched kids learn to ride.

This girl screamed and cried and didn’t want to try again. Even her older brother was involved, trying to encourage her to get back on the bike. And then I heard the 6 year old’s response to her brother: “I don’t care about learning to ride my bike!”

Well, that comment was the difference: the girl had not yet taken ownership of the process, so she wasn’t willing to endure the skinned knees and bruised elbows.

In her book “Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance” Angela Duckworth interviewed and researched many people know for their persistence - in her words “grit.” One of those was Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks, who stated in his autobiography, “Personally, I have learned that if you create a vision for yourself and stick with it, you can make amazing things happen in your life. My experience is that once you have done the work to create the clear vision, it is the discipline and effort to maintain that vision that can make it all come true. The two go hand in hand. The moment you’ve created that vision, you’re on the way, but it’s the diligence with which you stick to that vision that allows you to get there.”

If we, as teachers and parents, want our students to be persistent, and involved in the process of learning to plan an instrument, we first have to help them develop a sense of owning the process; that this is THEIR process, not their parent’s process. In the words of Pete Carroll, we are helping the student develop a vision of themselves as violinists.

How do we do that? How do we help them own the process? Let’s start at the beginning.

1. The student needs to be responsible for carrying the case! This seems like it is unimportant, but it is really the first step for the student in taking ownership.

2. The student needs to be responsible for getting the instrument ready for the lesson; doing such things as putting rosin on the bow and getting the instrument out of the case. Yes, the student may need some help with putting the sponge on the violin or adjusting the endpin of the cello, but they are perfectly capable of doing the other things.

Why are these two steps SO important from the early stages? Because it allows the student to start saying to himself, “Now I am getting ready for MY lesson.” Going through these steps allows the student to mentally prepare for the coming lesson or group class.

So many times I hear parents say “Oh, I know - he usually does it but we were running a little late.” Or they say “Well, it is so much quicker if I just do it for him.” Allowing your child to zip his jacket on his own, or tie his own shoes, does take more time, but he learns to be independent.

I also have a couple of suggestions for ways to encourage ownership during practice:

1. Ask questions, don’t always give information. This allows the student to provide their own feedback. The student has to be engaged to answer the questions, and in the future will be able to ask themselves the questions, which leads to independent practice.

2. Offer limited, guided choices, like “What part of your assignment would you like to do first?”

Find role models for your child, whether it means contacting one of the teenage students to practice with her once a week, or getting to solo recitals and other performances offered by WSSTE. The Chicago Symphony has a remarkable Family Series that is well-programed and not expensive - it even includes discounted parking!

My last suggestion is to use feedback that creates a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset.” These are terms used by Carol Dweck, who spent years researching the positive and negative impacts of praise. Feedback should be directed at effort, which is something you can change, rather than intelligence or talent, which are things that can’t be changed.

In her book “Grit”, Angela Duckworth said “A fixed mindset about ability leads to pessimistic explanations of adversity, and that, in turn leads to both giving up on challenges and avoiding them in the first place. In contrast, a growth mindset leads to optimistic ways of explaining adversity, and that leads to perseverance and seeking out new challenges that will ultimately make you even stronger.”

I would highly recommend two books:

“Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance” Angela Duckworth

“Mindset” Carol Dweck

They have both also done TED talks that are available on YouTube.

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