Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Learn More: Show What You Know

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Learn More: Show What You Know

Article excerpt

Can the prospect of public performance motivate student learning? One school found that it did.

Learning requires effort. One of the most challenging questions educators face is how to motivate students to put forth adequate effort. A potent source of such motivation is performing for an audience. Observant teachers and parents know that students put in substantial effort to master a skill or increase their knowledge in preparation for a performance. Young thespians stay up late and practice obsessively as opening day approaches. Budding scientists spend scores of hours perfecting their experiments before a science fair. Child musicians who seldom practice their instruments suddenly start practicing intensely before a recital.

Consider one author's daughter who wanted to play the piano, but did not want to practice. During practice, she rushed through pieces, not bothering to stop and correct passages; she played badly and sighed and rolled her eyes if parents made her rework a section. She was content with slipshod work. However, a radical transformation occurred near recital time. She suddenly practiced intensely. She got up early to practice before school and practiced multiple times after school. She paid closer attention to her teacher. In every recital, she surprised her parents with how well she played.

This same motivation for performance applies to adults. For example, we know a former concert pianist who immigrated to the United States and no longer has a venue for performance. She occasionally rents a music hall and invites friends and neighbors to a self-hosted performance. She says she does this because she is motivated to practice more deliberately for a performance than when she is playing only for herself.

These observations raise several questions: Would the prospect of performance motivate children to in crease their effort in learning? If so, how might this be implemented and sustained in school settings? We were able to explore these questions through a natural experiment at an elementary school that devised and implemented the Above and Beyond program.

Going above and beyond

Above and Beyond was a program for K-5 students at a Missouri inner city, art-oriented elementary school. Half (54%) of the students receive free/reduced-price lunches, many live in Section 8 housing, and 20% are black. The program derives its name from students going "above and beyond" the school curriculum. Students conducted creative learning projects of their own choosing, on their own time outside of school, following their own schedule.

Teachers and administrators were concerned that students were acting out themes of violence and sex on the playground, on buses, in the cafeteria, and in classrooms, mimicking what they saw watching TV and playing video games after school. In addition, the school was under pressure to increase state proficiency test scores, particularly in writing. In response to those concerns, the school developed Above and Beyond to:

* Reduce excessive time that students spent using media, much of it inappropriate, while increasing opportunities to learn outside of school;

* Increase writing skills; and

* Increase motivation at school so students would begin to feel ownership for their learning.

Participation was voluntary. Students could do as many or few projects as they wanted, but averaged three per year. Students generated project ideas themselves, but teachers could help students by providing examples. Each student had an adult mentor, a parent, other relative, teacher, or adult volunteer from the community. Students could choose learning projects based their (or their family's) personal interests. Projects included writing components, such as a proposal and a personal reflection after the project was completed. Teachers encouraged students to explore their interests through various media, including art, music, movement, and technology. …

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