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Lighting a Fire in Kids

Monday, December 4, 2017

When I was a young teacher, I didn’t think about student engagement. Survival was my primary goal. I was happy if I was able to get through my content while the kids sat quietly. After some time, I began to realize that engagement is more than kids just sitting quietly while words wash over them. Engagement is messy. Engagement at times can be rambunctious, exciting, and yes, loud. It’s not the message we give that is important; rather, it’s the message received that is vital. As educators we must consider the perspective of the learner and arm ourselves with the best research in order to engage our students.

In Daniel Pink's book Drive, he makes the case against external rewards and punishments, which he refers to as "carrots and sticks." He shows how current businesses and schools still operate on "Motivation 2.0,“ or the idea that the way to improve performance, increase productivity, and encourage excellence is to reward the good and punish the bad (Pink 19).

Four decades of research has shown that this is not what motivates people. In spite of these findings, our schools still use this system of operation. Gold stars, food treats, verbal praise, and grades are used as extrinsic motivators. Rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin; they try to coerce children into doing what is wanted.

As an instrument music educator, I am often asked, "how do you get kids to practice?"

When I first began teaching I did what I knew -- practice charts. I’ll never forget the first time I collected my student’s practice charts. As I walked past Charlie’s music stand, I noticed him furiously writing down “20” in every box followed by a quick forgery of his father’s signature. This is not the sort of outcome I had intended. With all the best intentions in mind, I summoned Charlie to my office and promptly called his father.

Sure that this would lead to a positive outcome, I proclaimed, “sir, your son just lied on his practice chart and forged your signature.” To which his father replied, “no, I signed that this morning.” Needless to say, I learned that not only would students lie about practice, but so would the parents. At that point I began to see that my students would do the minimum amount of work needed just to get the grade. It was obvious that requiring practice time charts would not work, so I resorted to candy and stickers to reward kids for practice. And again I learned quickly that this led to students asking, "what do I get if I practice five extra minutes?”

So how DO we encourage practice? Through real engagement.

I tap into the desire and natural human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create, and to do better. “The reward is the activity itself—deepening learning … doing one’s best—there are no shortcuts” (Pink 51).

I operate around Pink’s three elements to intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Autonomy means that I allow students to have a say in what they do, when they do it, and how they do it. Mastery means that I help students become better at something that matters. And purpose means that I help my students find a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. I teach the students that talent is not born, but rather is created.

I show them what myelin looks like and how it wraps the neural circuits in the brain. I emphasize that to become good at any skill, you must put in time -- patience is key. However they need to do what Coyle defines as "deep practice" to get the best results. My goal is to show them the science behind "talent." I want them to truly understand WHY practice is important. We look at examples of professionals in many skill areas, how they strive for mastery and what keeps them going. We learn HOW to practice by going over the concept of "deep practice." Students help to create their own goals and assignments and to reflect on progress each week. Students are also asked to reflect on how their own progress benefits the entire ensemble.

Is it possible to light a fire in our students? Yes. In fact, students begin school naturally curious. As Sir Ken Robinson states, “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.” Our goal as educators should be to nurture this curiosity -- to fan the flames. By considering perspectives, utilizing research, and promoting autonomy, mastery, and purpose, we can light a fire in kids.


  • Kohn, Alfie. Interview. Vicky and Jen: What Really Matters Podcast. 2008.
  • Pink, Daniel H. Drive. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.

Subscriber Submission: Written by Chris Gleason, 2017 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year