Learner Motivation in El Sistema Inspired Programs

By Eric Booth
December 2012

The moment you totally commit to something, everything changes.

Everything changes inside you—the quality of attention intensifies as if your life depended upon it, because it does. The usual jumble of thinking and feeling that informs your doing reorganizes around your intention. Life choices, large and small, align to feed the passion. I have a hunch that brain scientists will soon affirm that even synaptic development changes as a result of that moment. Also, I believe that in some mysterious way, the world begins to rise in support of that pursuit when the spirit makes such a commitment.

This moment lives on the high end of the motivation continuum. When the inner energy of participation tips from the extrinsic motivators of compulsion and compliance that run such a high percentage of our lives (and of a child’s school life) into a ripple of interest that awakens curiosity, the range of intrinsic motivation opens. Motivation grows in the “flow experience” of full engagement, and deepens into passionate investment, sometimes leading to the total commitment that changes lives. As intrinsic motivation increases, the impact of a learning process moves from “good for you” to “life transformative.”

This life transformative impact flashes in every corner of arts education. Some child in a dance program in a rural town will catch fire in ballet class, and the direction of her life will change. Some young man (this was me!) will try out for a play in college, and his subsequent life path heads another way, through a theater career and beyond it. Some fourth grade boy falls in love with the clarinet, studies it through school and college jazz band, eventually becomes a corporate CEO, and at age 55 credits his study of clarinet for developing the skills that led to his success. I believe that nearly every child who finds her way into intrinsically-motivated engagement in the arts has a positive learning experience. And some small percentage of them find their way to the total commitment that transforms lives. This is how it works in our culture, and it has been this way for a long time. I taught at Juilliard for a decade where I worked with the marvelous young musicians who were at the top of the commitment and achievement pyramid. Those Juilliard students and I worked with young beginners in NYC public schools on the entry end of the musical commitment continuum, and very few found their way into intrinsically-motivated musical experiences or other artistic pursuits, and none (that I know of) found the moment of total commitment. This is how it is in our tradition—exposure (hopefully) interests many (with a skew toward kids who grow up in greater affluence because they have more experiences), and a rare few catch fire and pursue a path of commitment.

Enter Venezuela’s El Sistema. Their accomplishment is that: so many young people find their way into intrinsically-motivated musical study (over 400,000, mostly from economically struggling neighborhoods); they invest themselves so enthusiastically and intensively (consistently over 20 hours a week); and the result is that a high percentage commit themselves totally to the endeavor of achieving musical excellence with their orchestra and a lifelong investment in music, even though only a modest percentage will have professional music careers. I have studied Sistema in Venezuela because it ignites and positively redirects the trajectory of an almost unimaginably high percentage of the kids involved. How?

The answer, of course, is not simple, but includes a variety of contributing factors in their learning environments and teaching practices. El Sistema is a social development program. Its goal is to nurture responsible, joyful, productive citizens, and to redirect the trajectory of communities. It accomplishes these goals through intensive music making and the aspiration for excellence in music. It does not use a national pedagogy or uniformly replicated program; it is a group inquiry. Based in the same set of values, each local program follows the same beacon of aspiration. They adopt and adapt ideas that work successfully elsewhere, put things together in their own way, and seem to achieve the life transformative goals with almost-inconceivably large percentages of their students. How?

This is the big question in the laboratory of El Sistema programs in the U.S.—how can we achieve similar results for our struggling young people, changing lives through a commitment to making excellent music with their ensemble. I see many promising efforts on U.S. soil in which young people are having good experiences. We are beginning, and so are not yet achieving the true goal of this work, life-transformative impact on a wide scale—although I meet some individual children who seem to be catching this fire. Perhaps we won’t know for years to come if we are succeeding. I do know that the kids making music in our U.S. El Sistema inspired programs look like they are having good experiences, but they do not appear as invested or hungry as their peers in Venezuela.

I urge us to keep our focus on learner motivation. The study The Qualities of Quality from Harvard Project Zero (HPZ) in 2009 asserts that the greatest determinant of quality in arts learning is the motivation of the learner. That may seem obvious, but do we take it for granted? Are we keeping our eye on that prize, elusive as it may be? Do we place the cultivation of intrinsic-motivation, yearning, above all else in our programmatic experimentation, planning, and thinking, as its primacy demands? Have you teased out what you personally know about nurturing motivation? What do we as a field know about nurturing motivation and about the things that discourage intrinsic investment? Are you aware of the decades of research available on the subject? We must gather and apply what we know; we must read about intrinsic motivation; we must think and talk about it.

The same HPZ study cites the second most important determinant of quality in arts learning as the social context that influences the motivation of the individual. This makes intuitive sense—a child must feel safe to invest herself in a group endeavor, must feel the energy of the group aspiration, and must thrive in the paradoxically safe-yet-charged atmosphere of the learning center to deepen her commitment over time. Are we continually experimenting with ways we can intensify the atmosphere to encourage engagement without losing the sense of safety? What is the feel and life of a musical learning center that strengthens a child’s courage toward personal investment and total commitment?

Intensity is one of the most evident features of El Sistema practice in Venezuela— motivation, more than any particular features of curriculum or schedule, fosters that intensity. The intensity appears in the quality of attention, in the investment in each minute of the work. The commitment fuels the twenty-plus hours a week of the typical El Sistema student’s time in rehearsal. It drives the demand for more and bigger special projects, seminarios and summer camps, festivals and extra lessons. Their programs do not transform kids lives because of their pedagogical practices, nor because of the particular music they play, nor because of some secret attribute in their culture (although a hard work ethic helps). They succeed because they are somehow inspiring kids to choose to pour themselves into the ensemble music making with everything they have got, every hour of every day in the program, and more. Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of ten thousand hours (proposed in his book Outliers) posits that it takes about ten thousand hours of highly-attentive invested practice in any complex field to achieve basic mastery, enough that one can begin to do innovative and meaningful work in the field. Tens of thousands of Venezuelan youngsters reach the ten thousand hours marker just after puberty. No wonder an orchestra of 14-16 year old Venezuelans can electrify an audience with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The moment one totally commits oneself, everything changes.

This life-transformative commitment can happen in many arenas of endeavor in a child’s life—in sport, or a gang, or a musical ensemble—but that moment of commitment is the one that begins to change the trajectory of that young life. Maestro Abreu and many other inspiring speakers can articulate why an orchestra is a particularly potent medium for commitment, in the ways it challenges and rewards in exquisitely human and deep ways. But without the fullness of commitment, the potential of the work cannot be achieved. Yes, it is hard to know how to do this, and almost inconceivable to accomplish it on a wide scale, but the Venezuelans have succeeded, and we have much to learn from them.

Kids in traditional youth orchestra work in the U.S. (a tiny percentage of all our youth) are interested in their musical projects, and often perform beautifully. Some percentage of them commit with the kind of totality that changes their lives. El Sistema orchestras in the U.S. now mostly provide more hours of instruction than other youth orchestras, but we have yet to learn if the percentages of kids who move from compliance, to enjoyment, to intrinsic motivation, to total commitment is particularly different than in other U.S. youth orchestras. In Venezuela, it is a high percentage. This is why we must strive to learn everything we can from them.

I urge that we keep our focus, our collegial dialogue, our study, and our ongoing experimentation prioritized on student motivation. There is much to be read, and we would do well to have a nationwide El Sistema inspired book club that starts with Daniel Pink’s Drive, which summarizes (without turgid research style) much of the psychological research on intrinsic motivation. The findings are as sobering as they are illuminating in terms of things we do as teachers, parents, and program designers that do and do not align with what is known about nurturing the growth of intrinsic drive in learners.

I would urge every faculty to have regular conversations about this issue in their meetings: What are you noticing about student motivation? What have you experimented with lately and how did it work? What indicators of motivation should we keep our eyes on to document and assess? What can programs try out as practices to boost student ownership and commitment? I urge faculty members to keep motivation development as a key internal question they ask themselves throughout their teaching as they make the hundreds of small decisions that comprise a class period. For example: How, in this moment, can I nurture that child’s motivation? Did what I just did discourage their intrinsic hunger?

And I urge us all to keep these five factors in mind, inspired by the example in Venezuela.

1. We seek a delicate balance. Individual intrinsic motivation within a group endeavor. The Venezuelans say their program seeks to develop creative, responsible, contributing, joyful citizens—internalizing this dynamic balance of being a fully expressed and committed individual within the collective agreement of the orchestral quest may be the inner capacity that achieves their youth development goals. Total personal commitment within community endeavor = responsible, joyful citizens. And this hunger and relentless striving is toward beauty, as if their lives depended on it. No wonder they succeed in changing the trajectory of young lives and communities.

2. Social context—when every child in a group is striving out of intrinsic motivation, together, toward shared goals, in this delicate balance of personal-social commitment, educationally-atypical behaviors break out: a feel of group responsibility intensifies instruction; emotional bonds deepen; peer instruction appears organically and widely; competition appears but as an accelerant and not a destructive zero-sum game. It is said that in El Sistema they never forget fun; and the fun is in the work. The group learning is playful but concentrated, the fun is in the ambition of musical improvement and solving hard musical problems.

3. Multi-year continuum—a single powerful experience of total commitment doesn’t redirect a young life, especially a young life that faces many circumstantial stresses. It takes a repeated cycle of positive experiences to build the inner capacities and resiliencies that will enable a young person to create a life apart from her conditioning, cultural norms, and entrenched cycles of poverty. We have much to learn from the Venezuelan progression that starts with very young children and grows through an intuitive developmental sequence that naturally builds the capacity toward wholehearted commitment. We would do well to study the motivational throughlines of their multi-year arc of learning, using different kinds of experiences along the way, beautifully attuned to where the child is fascinated and growing, always nurturing both individual motivation and part-of-the-ensemble motivation.

4. Outrageous ambition. Another crucial element of the life-transformative impact is a pattern of outrageous ambition. In Venezuela, programs consistently aim unreasonably high in their aspirations, adults and children recognize that the goal is so high they could fail, and time and time again they succeed because they work so hard, together, to create something beautiful and important to them (and their community), something personally and socially valuable, together. Again and again, they invest themselves, together, in an outrageous aspiration, and succeed again and again. And over time, they come to believe they are capable of doing difficult things, like make life choices never made in their family before. They construct a new belief system about what is possible in life.

5. The Law of 80%. This adage of mine is called a “law” to give it a sense of importance, and the specific percentage is an invented number that captures an actual truth: eighty percent of what you teach is who you are. Most of what a student is going to learn about intrinsic motivation and total commitment will be learned from the example of the teachers, which includes the teaching artist faculty, mentors, and peers. Faculty must authentically live and breathe their total commitment to the students’ high achievement; they must radiate success in reaching excellence and triumphing over difficulty, under pressure and with pleasure; they embody living life’s full potential, invested the beauty and importance of music. And they must personify it, joyfully, in every moment of their teaching and functioning with the students. Recently, a Venezuelan teacher had a chance to work with an orchestra of U.S. students at the first New York City seminario; he began by saying, “This is a great day in your life. You begin to discover a great happiness. Music will bring the greatest happiness into your life.” He then authentically exuded that joy throughout a day of the hardest musical work those students had ever experienced; and it carried them through to their own experience of joy and accomplishment by evening.
This is why I often say that the “gig mentality” is the biggest challenge we face in our faculties = show up, do the work well, and that’s it. While understandable enough, given the realities of musicians’ lives (where a number of jobs are required to make a living), a limited commitment of the heart and gut dilutes the most important kind of instruction (by living example) of the most important aspect of our programs. I feel great compassion for the real-world employment challenges for musicians in the artistically ungenerous U.S. culture; but we can’t abide a gig mentality in this work, because a model of partial commitment undermines the deep life-changing opportunity of too many kids. I don’t suggest that musicians donate their time, but I do see a necessity for wholehearted commitment, even within part time hours.

There is one further reason to prioritize experimentation in nurturing student motivation—our responsibility to the larger music education field. The El Sistema inspired movement is in a fortunate position: we have more hours with students than traditional programs; we work mostly in after school settings with freedom to try new things; we have newness, momentum, visibility, the stupendous example of Venezuela, and rock star Gustavo Dudamel that give our work extra (perhaps temporary) excitement; we are mostly working with students who have little background in ensemble music, so we can begin with a clean slate. Our fortunate position enables us to serve as a laboratory for the larger music learning ecosystem as we pursue our El Sistema inspired goals. We are able to pilot, develop, and refine approaches that achieve the youth development goals we seek above all, goals that all music learning programs also hope to provide. As we distill new understandings, we can and will share them with our colleagues in other music learning programs—to contribute our best to music learning for all young people. As the Harvard Project Zero research reminds us, and as we know in our bones, there is no more important area for experimentation in our fortunate laboratory than ways we can more effectively nurture students’ intrinsic passion to make beautiful music with others and for others.

I would love it if every U.S. El Sistema inspired site handed this essay to every teacher and discussed it at their next faculty meeting. Or in an online forum. Yes, I am challenging you and your practice! How do you respond? Am I full of it? Do you think you are already doing everything possible to achieve this goal? Do your colleagues agree? Does the research back you up? Do you believe motivation just happens or doesn’t in individuals, and can’t be influenced?—are you sure? Can you identify a more important focus for our growth as a field? Yes, I know it is hard—it is hard for the Venezuelans, and for the teachers in 55 other countries that have begun this international aspiration. This is the inquiry we have signed up for in joining this work, and this is the prize we might just be able to win for our students, our communities, our movement, our culture, and ourselves.

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