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Topic: motivation

How much do math grades really matter?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

Photo on 9-5-14 at 8.56 PM #2
“Practicing” wearing a sparkly new outfit!

So you may have gathered… I’m like, all about practice.

And I just can’t stop thinking about the student I told you about last week… the one who was focused on getting straight As.

What do you do when your unique, visionary kid is SUPER FOCUSED on grades?

Is this a practice to encourage, or something to fear?

Especially with kids who are usually very intrinsically motivated – who have their own plans, ideas, and passions – a sudden focus on grades can actually be a red flag that they are terrified of falling behind, not measuring up to their peers, or being excluded from the “smart kids group.”

When this happens, it’s really important to redirect the focus back to where it belongs – on the mastery process.

Grades CAN work like a thermometer. They have the potential show you what you’ve learned, and what you haven’t learned yet. In this way, they can give very helpful information.

But grades in and of themselves don’t give you the full picture.

Did you get an A because you really understood the material, down to your core, so much that it’s part of you? (True mastery?)

Or did you get an A because you turned in your homework, showed up in class, and raised your hand even when you knew you didn’t know the answer? (Being rewarded for appropriate behavior, even if you have no clue about the math?)

Did you get a D because you made a silly mistake, but you get the concept and you can figure out exactly what went wrong once you look over your work?

Or did you get a D because you have no friggin’ clue and you just wrote something down so you wouldn’t leave it blank?

Did you “complete” the worksheet by passively watching the teacher review a problem, thinking that this means you “get it” because you “got it done”?

Or did you complete the worksheet by truly understanding what is going on and practicing it until it’s automatic for you?

Did you get the GPA to be accepted to your dream college by flagellating yourself every night and focusing on fulfilling other people’s expectations, miserable, sleep-deprived, and constantly anxious that you won’t measure up?

Or did you get that GPA and receive that acceptance letter by pursuing your passions, taking care of yourself, and being intellectually nourished?

On the surface, it looks the same, but underneath, it’s much more complex.

This is why I find it’s so important for creative, unique, trailblazing kids to be focused on the true process of mastery, instead of just grades.

Just getting straight As alone doesn’t mean that you actually understand what’s happening.

It doesn’t mean that your dream college will accept you.

It doesn’t mean that you know yourself.

It doesn’t mean that you are prepared for life – especially if you are blazing your own trail.

Focusing on perfection (like getting straight As) can be extremely debilitating and discouraging.

It can make it harder to grow and learn and even suck all of the joy out of life.

But focusing on mastery, regardless of what’s happening with grades, is energizing.

You feel the thrill of understanding something new.

You focus on learning from your mistakes and understand that mistakes are just part of the process.

By constantly engaging with the process of learning – asking yourself, what makes sense to me here? what do I not understand yet? – you develop deep self-awareness.

You come to know who you are – not just how to “get through it” or “churn it out” for a teacher or requirement.

You are resilient in the face of challenges, because you are in the practice of joyfully engaging with challenge just as part of your routine.

You trust yourself.

You understand how you do your best work.

And paradoxically, by focusing on the immediate, incremental process of mastery, the great grades, with time, will just naturally happen.

Just to share, from my own personal experience, in college I had to take French in order to fulfill a requirement, and I had to maintain a certain GPA or I would lose my full tuition scholarship.

I got through it, and I learned French, but the process wasn’t that meaningful to me.

I remember feeling so frustrated that I was expected to speak French perfectly and it made me afraid to open my mouth. This wasn’t how fluent speakers mastered the language! It was so artificial and hollow to me.

In contrast, when I was 23, I studied Indonesian language (in Madison, Wisconsin, of all places) in a total immersion environment. Four hours, every day, all Indonesian, no English. We HAD to make mistakes in order to learn. The focus was just on communicating and being playful…on the process of mastery, rather than on being perfect.

It was the most incredible language learning experience I’ve ever had. I felt so confident and secure!

And when I went to Indonesia the following summer, I was completely prepared to speak Indonesian with the musicians and dancers who I truly wanted to study with – who happened to not speak English at all.

And the Indonesians I met on the street thought I had been living in their country for years because of how comfortable I was with the language – when I had only studied it for 8 weeks.

This astonished me. And it was all because of focusing on the process rather than on perfection.

So if you find your creative, unique, trailblazing kid is coming to you with goals like “I want to make straight As,” shift the focus back to the ongoing process of mastering math.

Do you want your passionate, visionary-of-the-future kid to receive totally aligned support with the process of true math mastery? (And to experience the awesome confidence and great grades that happen as a result?)

Then I invite you to begin the application process for my individual math tutoring programs.

Just click here to get started with your special application. This application process has been meticulously designed to help us both get clear about whether the special, magical way I work is a match for you.

Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to get clear if my approach would be a good fit for your child. I look forward to connecting!


Dancing with my Indonesian dance teacher (who only spoke Indonesian to me)-
this is what can happen when you focus on the mastery process
instead of on “being perfect”!

Related posts:
What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement
What I learned in the streets of Paris, and in a Dutch grocery store
It’s eraser time! (And other math mantras)
Is your kid a creative, passionate, unique visionary of the future?

Topic: motivation

What changes when someone believes in you?

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Math Butterfly

(Here’s a “math butterfly” one of my students and I created during a recent tutoring session!)

What changes when someone believes in you?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

I just had a huge performance breakthrough on my cello with my acting coach, and I’m getting ready for my quarterly business retreat with my business mentor. I’m going to be spending over a week surrounded by people who love me and believe in my highest potential and biggest vision.

In both of these situations, I feel so safe and accepted to really go for it, and I cannot believe how much better my music and my business and teaching gets as a result.

It completely changes my concept of what I’m capable of. It makes me believe that my dreams really can come true, because I can see it already happening.

Let me tell you, though, it hasn’t always been like this! At ALL.

Just as an example, not so long ago, when I was in graduate school for cello performance, I went to audition for two different summer chamber music festivals.

At the first audition, the person I was auditioning for radiated skepticism about me and my abilities. I didn’t feel very comfortable – I could tell she thought I had something to prove. She asked pointedly, “Do you have anything fast you could play for me?” I don’t even remember how I responded to that, but I remember thinking that if she accepted me into her festival, she would think she was doing me a favor, and I would feel seriously inferior.

The very next day, I went to audition for an amazing violinist, and took the commuter rail all the way out to New Jersey to meet her at the festival location. Her demeanor was so warm and welcoming and enthusiastic. I felt so comfortable!

I had fun playing for her, and when I was finished, she said very firmly, “You DEFINITELY have what it takes to be accepted to this festival!”

So guess which festival I ended up attending?

Yes, the one with the enthusiastic and welcoming teacher!

This experience was a real turning point for me. At this festival, I played the Cello 2 part in the Mendelssohn String Octet, which is both one of my most favorite-est pieces of music in the WORLD, and has an unbelievably hairy and notorious cello solo at the beginning of the last movement – that I had to learn!

This amazing violinist teacher went completely out of her way to set me up to really rock it. She even demonstrated how to play this solo holding a GRAPEFRUIT instead of using her fingers! And her musical partner and husband, also an incredible teacher, gave me a great fingering. I learned how to do it!

When we performed, I just went for it. And the audience response was so phenomenal. We were playing in a church, and the audience members stood up and BANGED on the pews, they were so excited! We were riveting!

This experience gave me the rock-solid conviction that classical music can be just as electrifying as anything else – and can truly bring an audience to its feet with RAUCOUS joy, not just polite or intellectual appreciation!

Looking back on this experience, it is so funny to me that that first person I auditioned for was skeptical that I could play fast. Because the second person, the amazing violinist, trusted me and helped me learn a SUPER FAST cello solo that I completely rocked (if I do say so myself)!

So what changes when someone believes in you?

I think it’s really simple.

1. When someone believes in you, they automatically ask you to do more.

2. Ideally, they also give you the TOOLS to actually DO it.

3. You have the opportunity and the tools to go beyond what you thought you were capable of.

4. You experience mastery! Breakthroughs happen! People respond with incredible enthusiasm! You are so excited and happy!

5. You believe in yourself, and you keep going. You begin to inhabit a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT REALITY.

Amazing, right? But – let’s look at the shadow side.

What happens when the teacher or mentor you trust DOESN’T believe in you?

1. They don’t trust you, so they don’t ask you to do more.

2. They usually don’t give you the tools to do more because they actually don’t know how to really help you, or they don’t even think you would “get it.” (A lot of times this is subconscious or unconscious on the teacher’s part, I’ve found.)

3. You don’t go beyond what you thought you were capable of. Your idea of what you can do starts to shrink.

4. Super important: you subconsciously pick up that they don’t believe in you and you start to entrain with that. You start to believe in yourself less, and you don’t do as well.

5. Or you start pouring an enormous amount of mental, emotional, and spiritual energy into defending yourself in your own mind. But inside you really just feel like you suck.

6. Downward spiral continues until you shift the pattern or reincarnate and start over!

Trust me, I know, because I’VE BEEN THERE! I have wasted so much time and energy with people who did not believe in me… constantly feeling insecure and defending myself in my mind. And I did not bloom. If I improved, it was so slow and painful. And I did not shine at my fullest light. This was not helpful for me or anyone else!

Two caveats:

1. Caveat #1: It doesn’t work if your teacher or mentor wants it for you more than you want it for yourself. You have to want it as much as your teacher or mentor, or even more.

2. Caveat #2: Don’t get me wrong. I know that there are times in life where we are going to encounter people who don’t believe in us. I’m not saying that we can only talk to or work with people who are constantly cheerleading us and telling us we’re awesome. (In fact, that’s not really what this awesome teacher did – she challenged me and gave me the tools I needed, which is so different from empty praise.)

But it IS up to us who we choose to study with and learn from. It IS up to us who we trust with our unfolding dreams. And it is so much more FUN and so much more POWERFUL and everything happens like a BAZILLION times FASTER when we choose to spend time with people who believe in us. It’s like the difference between picking crumbs off the floor of a MacDonalds and feasting on your favorite foods with people who love you!

If you or your kid is suffering in math right now because of a crisis of confidence – if you are feeling like your kid’s teacher doesn’t believe in them anymore, or you’re worried that your kid doesn’t believe in themselves, or that they feel deep down inside that “math doesn’t like me anymore” or “I’m not good at math” even though they’re busting their butt and trying their absolute best, I would love to talk to you.

Just click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs.

Once your application is received, and we’ll get you all set up with a super special complimentary appointment, just me and you, to get clear on what’s going on with your kid’s math learning and whether or not it would make sense for us to work together!

Topic: motivation

What I learned on the streets of Paris…and in a Dutch grocery store

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Rebecca and Alex in the Netherlands
Me & my new friend Alex at our training in the Netherlands

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands for a very special training! I got to spend two days in a huge, luxurious barn (now outfitted for humans) and experience the beautiful southwestern Dutch countryside, full of incredible trees…

Rebecca in the forest in the Netherlands

spirited horses…

Rebecca with horses in the netherlands

…unexpectedly considerately quiet chickens that made no noise until long after I’d awoken, and amazing smells! (Unfortuately I don’t have a picture of the chickens or the smells.)

On my way to the training, taking the country-wide commuter rail from the Amsterdam airport, I was checking out the commuter rail map, and I couldn’t believe it.

At the bottom of the map was… Paris!

My heart leapt. This felt like looking at the Washington DC Metro map and finding it went all the way to Cuba or Buenos Aires!

So the morning my training was complete, I did one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. My leaping heart led the way, and I decided that later that day I was going to Paris with absolutely no plans.

I bought myself a ticket and got to experience the European high-speed rail (which felt kind of like a cross between the Hogwarts Express and the Starship Enterprise). On the train I managed to find a hotel room … and the adventure began.

It was a crazy blend of having moments of complete euphoria, where I just felt overjoyed for no reason except that I was in Paris and everything was so beautiful that I felt like my head might just explode. And then moments of complete overwhelm, where I was totally exhausted and confused.

Me & shelly in paris
(That is me and my friend Shelly in the ferris wheel in front of the Eiffel tower, during one of my awesome Paris moments, not one of the overwhelmed moments!!!)

But what surprised and delighted me the most of all wasn’t that I could buy roasted chestnuts from the street vendors at the Christmas market. It wasn’t that there was gluten-free patisserie run by incredibly sweet people. It wasn’t the autumn beauty of the Jardin de Tuleries, or walking into the Sacre Coeur cathedral in Montmartre and realizing that nuns were singing.

What surprised me the most of all was that I could actually communicate in French! After not using it AT ALL, whatsoever, for AT LEAST 11 years.

Me & alex in front of the eiffel tower

Just to give you some context, I had been to Paris before, right after I graduated from high school, and just two years or so after studying French academically.

On that trip, even though my French was WAY fresher in my mind, I didn’t actually have much success communicating with anyone. Plus my parents, who both speak some French, were happy to lead the way.

But on this recent trip, somehow I was having conversations, in French, about relatively complex topics like, is this dog lost at the Christmas market, or does he belong to someone nearby? (In case you’re worried, his name is Elvis and he belongs to the lady who works at the nearby restaurant, and just likes to walk around in front).

Even more surprising to me was how the vast majority of Parisiens went out of their way to talk to me in French, and how patient and lighthearted they were as I expressed myself with my limited vocabulary, and how much we were actually able to talk about together.

I really tried to figure out, what is it that had changed?

Then I realized.

It was my Indonesian language training.

Several years ago, I learned Indonesian in a total immersion environment, that coincidentally also seemed to train me to be extremely friendly, polite, and assertive in a foreign language.

It also trained me to be playful, experimental, and completely not worried about doing something wrong (unlike my more typical French language courses where any mistake I made out loud could dock my grade).

Somehow, this experience was SO internalized that it came out when I was speaking a completely different language!

I noticed it again when I was at a Dutch grocery store, trying to figure out which type of jam I should take home to my family. The grocery store guy spoke great English but couldn’t remember the names of the berries, so I just guessed what I thought it might be and he would tell me whether or not it was right. It was a totally fun game, and he kept exclaiming, “You should work here!” because my berry guesses were somehow so accurate!

At one point, there was one jar we couldn’t figure out. He went to grab a colleague. This guy was a berry expert, and told me what everything was, and what he thought was the best.

Somehow, this completely ruined the game. My heart sank.

Why? Why was it so fun and successful with the first guy who couldn’t remember the English names?

With the first guy, I felt safe, I felt like I could make mistakes, and I was having fun! And I was LEARNING. With the second guy, it was all about his expertise and had nothing to do with me trying to figure it out. It was completely passive and while informative, sadly boring. And I wasn’t learning. I was just watching.

It made me realize that not only is it super helpful as a learner to be playful and experimental, but, that you need to have someone who is willing to be playful and experimental with you. If they just want to tell you everything while you stand there and listen, it doesn’t matter how playful and experimental you are.

For me, when I’m learning, it is so important to be in an environment with someone else where I feel safe, where I feel like I can make mistakes, and where I can have fun.

In fact, these elements are so important to me, that’s how I work with all my own students! (So much so that this is what I think about even when I’m on vacation!)

So, if you or your kid is struggling with math and having a “overwhelmed in Paris moment” instead of a “euphoric beauty in Paris moment”…

if you are sick and tired of being in a math situation where someone just tells you everything and doesn’t help you learn to figure it out on your own…

if you want to not only transform your relationship with math, but also gain skills that help you become way more experimental, assertive, and proactive in other subjects…

I would love to talk to you.

Just click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs. Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to get clear if my approach would be a good fit for your child.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

Related posts:
What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement
Dealing with (Math) Overwhelm (1)
When learning feels like a forced march
Self-Made Heroes: The Dancers of Planet B-Boy

Topic: motivation

Dealing with Overwhelm (2)

Monday, January 10th, 2011

A while back, I wrote about how limiting the amount of material you’re responsible for can be a very effective way to reduce math overwhelm.

But this technique doesn’t just work with math. It works for just about anything. For example, Kenny Werner discusses how he overcame his overwhelm in his amazing book, Effortless Mastery.

For months, if not years, Kenny Werner woke up every morning telling himself he needed to practice for five to ten hours that day. Paralyzed by this expectation, he’d frequently go to bed without practicing a single note, feeling like a total failure.

Until he met an insightful piano teacher who gave him a totally new kind of assignment. A simple exercise he only needed to practice for five minutes a day. That was his only duty. Any practice beyond that was just a bonus.

But his new teacher’s five-minutes-only assignment seemed so feasable that Kenny actually did it. And once he sat down at the piano with the intention of practicing for five minutes, sometimes he would practice for much longer. Gradually he learned to practice effortlessly for hours and hours a day—not because he was obligated or he needed to compensate for something, but out of sheer joy. That simple five-minutes-a-day assignment dissolved a huge complex of self-loathing he’d had his whole life.

Before I read Kenny’s book, I believed I was the only person in the world struggled with my own practice expectations. When I paged through Kenny’s book and realized I wasn’t alone, I wept with relief.

Yet while I was still in graduate school, I struggled to put his advice into practice. I was responsible for more material than I could ever thoroughly prepare: orchestra music, chamber music, sonatas, concertos, solo pieces, scales, arpeggios, technique books, exercises, etudes. And no matter how hard I worked, I would go from rehearsal to rehearsal, day after day, never mastering anything. This didn’t help my playing at all.

But everything changed once I got out of school. I started working on a very small amount of material at a time, and this allowed me to go deeper than I’d ever gone before.

What happened is that I decided to take an audition where most of the material had to be memorized. But I was only responsible for preparing a very small amount of material: maybe three and a half pages of Bach, two pages of de Falla, three and a half pages of Saint-Saens.

I had always struggled with memorization. So I tried an experiment. Every day I tried to memorize a tiny little new chunk of material, something I knew I could digest. Every night, laying in bed without my cello, I’d review the new material in my mind before I fell asleep, looking for gaps in my memory. Every morning, I’d wake up and go over the material from memory to reinforce it, before adding on a new little chunk.

Instead of waking up in the morning, looking at my stack of music, and having no idea where to begin or when I’d be finished, I knew exactly what to do every day. Even though I only had a month to prepare for my audition, I felt like I was learning more than I did in all those years of graduate school.

This process completely transformed my playing. And in the end, I performed that audition with a freedom and conviction that I’d only dreamed I possessed.

I wished that I’d learned to overcome overwhelm by limiting my material earlier. But I am so grateful that I found this process.

Related posts:
Dealing with (math) overwhelm (1)
I used to cry myself to sleep over my algebra homework
When learning feels like a forced march
What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement

Topic: motivation

Dealing with (Math) Overwhelm (1)

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about the math learning discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. In one part, a student takes twenty-two minutes to solve a single math problem. In another, a KIPP student takes twenty minutes to solve a math problem on the board with the help of his classmates .

Obviously, one way to master material is to have more time: at KIPP, ninety minutes of math class per day. Or in my own tutoring, a luxurious hour or more to discuss whatever the student wants to go over without any pressure or grades.

Slowing down and diving deep is awesome if you have time. But what do you do when you don’t have time?

When I was in eighth grade and routinely cried myself to sleep over my math homework, if someone had suggested to me that I spend twenty minutes on a single problem until I got it, I probably would have just cried harder. I, like many other students before and after me, had way too many problems to finish.

More time is not always an option.

However, as a student, I would have been a lot more open to the idea of slowing down and exploring if I only had to do it for a few problems. If I, or my teacher, had given myself permission and said, “Why don’t you just try to solve one of these problems, and take as much time as you need,” I would have been more willing to try diving deep.

I’m not talking about dumbing things down or making students less responsible. My philosophy has two parts. If you give a student a page of twenty math problems they don’t think they can do, they’ll feel pressured to do them all so at least they can show you they tried, but they probably only have time to attempt to do them poorly.

But if you give a student one to three difficult math problems instead of twenty, there’s a much better chance that the student will actually solve the problems. Doing it correctly, once, is more effective than doing it incorrectly or incompletely twenty times. And once they’ve untangled the process correctly, they’ll be in a better position to replicate that process later.

Also, reducing the amount of material can be used as a temporary measure to get a particular student through a rough patch and help them overcome a block.

Related Posts:
Algebra Tears
Break things down so you don’t have a breakdown
When persistence isn’t enough
Failure is not the enemy

Topic: motivation

“This is really neat”

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Given the counterintuitive new research that has found that certain kinds of praise can undermine student motivation and achievement, I’ve been working over the past year to refine how I praise my students.

Here’s some very specific advice from NurtureShock co-author Ashley Merryman’s blog archive (to read the original, keep scrolling, scrolling, scrolling until you get to the post titled “How not to talk to your kids – Part 4”):

A common praise technique that people use (I know I did it with my tutoring kids… up til a few weeks ago, that is….) is to use a present success to control future performance. For example, if a typically-sloppy child writes an essay that’s atypically legible, a parent or teacher may say, “That’s very neat: you should write all of your papers like this.”

Even if it’s meant as sincere praise and encouragement, the research shows that’s not only an ineffective way to praise. In fact, like praising for intelligence – it can actually damage a child’s performance.

Here’s what is going on. While the first part of the sentence was positive, rather than focusing on that success, the latter part of the sentence (“You should write all like this”) was negative, doubly-so.

First, rather than simply focusing on the present achievement, the second half of the sentence reminds the child about all the past mistakes. Second, it’s an expression of pressure to continue at this level in the future. But the kid may think that the work he just completed was very difficult, and he doubts he can live up to these new expectations.

Even worse, a child who suddenly wrote more legibly did it on his own volition. But if the praiser qualifies the praise with the expectation of future performance, now if the child continues to perform, he’s not doing it because he wanted to: he’s doing it to fulfill the praiser’s expectation.

Basically, the whole exchange kills the kid’s intrinsic motivation to improve. Furthermore, studies have shown that children’s performance actually may go down: they will even intentionally underperform, just to show that they refuse to follow the attempted control. In other words, yes, they do badly just to spite you.

The better thing to have said was, “This is really neat,” and left it at that.

I have been waiting for a year for a chance to try this out with one of my own students. I finally had a chance to implement this a few days ago while tutoring a rising fifth grader online.

He did a particularly neat job of writing out a problem on the online whiteboard, so I told him, “You did a good job of writing that out neatly and lining up the decimal points and the columns.” That’s it. I didn’t say anything about how he should write future math problems.

When he wrote out the next problem much less neatly than the last, I didn’t say anything.

Without me saying anything at all, he scratched out the messy version. And then he started over and wrote out a new, neat version, all my himself.

As a tutor, I am so excited that this style of feedback encouraged him to manage this on his own, without any cajoling or controlling from me — just an objective assessment of what he did well.

And I love having this clear guidance from Ashley Merryman’s archive on how to praise my students without worrying that I’m doing it the wrong way.

Related Posts:
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement

Praise and Intrinsic Motivation: An Answer?

Topic: motivation

What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement

Sunday, July 11th, 2010


Dancing with my awesome Balinese dance teacher, IGA Raka

It dawned on me in 2005. I was in Bali working with a renowned dance teacher every day for two hours to learn an intricate, difficult dance. I realized that if she told me that what I was doing was great, I would do the dance again and again and again for her out of sheer enthusiasm. And in doing it again and again, it would get even better.

After our lesson, I reflected on my response to my teacher’s praise and how I’d responded to criticism in the past. In a flash of self-understanding, I realized: If I’m doing something I love and you tell me I’m doing great work, I will work sooooooo hard! However, if you tell me that I’m doing terrible, I want to stop working and die.

Ever since, I’ve held this realization close to my heart. But now that I’m learning about all this new research about praise, I’m wondering: Is something wrong with me? Am I a praise junkie? Why am I so sensitive to what my teachers tell me?

When teachers have told me that I was doing bad work, or even worse, that “I didn’t have what it takes,” I would spend hours and hours of mental energy processing those statements. If I am so bad at X, how was I accepted into program Y? Am I so bad that I deserve to be placed with other students who really don’t seem to care? If I am incapable of achieving XYZ, how is it that I was able to achieve ABC? And on and on.

But now I’m realizing that those hours of processing negative messages never helped me learn a single note or dance move or improve in any way. In fact, some of those teachers’ discouraging statements led me to spend months or even years avoiding my true heart’s desire—or pursuing my true heart’s desire in utter solitude—out of fear that I was essentially inadequate.

In contrast, when I eagerly danced over and over for my Balinese teacher, I honestly don’t think I was seeking the reward of praise or avoiding the punishment of a scathing critique. I believe that her encouraging praise really fed my own intrinsic motivation. Maybe her praise couldn’t “hurt” me because I was intrinsically motivated. (Sort of like how the Book It Pizza Hut pizzas could never dim my love of reading.)

On the other hand, I notice a pattern when I look at the withering “feedback” that distracted me and discouraged me:
“You’ll never achieve…”
“You will never be able to …”
“You aren’t going to attend school for ….”
“I really don’t see you as [having the career you desire] but [in a completely unrelated career]”
“You think you know how to do X but what you’re doing is not X at all…”

These statements didn’t give me any clear direction on what to do differently to improve! What could I do to achieve my dreams? What did I need to learn to prepare for school? If I really didn’t know a technique or skill, how could I acquire it?

Those statements did not answer those questions. They were just judgment. They did not provide guidance, except perhaps “guidance” to abandon my dreams. (Needless to say, I never speak to my students this way.)

Then I remember my teacher in Bali. She did not come from a culture of excessive praise and self-esteem boosting. I believe in my heart that she really believed that I was doing well. She wasn’t just trying to make me feel good.

But now I realize that when she told me I was doing well, she wasn’t just praising me. She was engaging with me. She was going to continue to help me to grow and improve. But the other teachers’ statements were statements of disengagement. They were no longer interested (or able?) to help me grow and improve.

So maybe what really matters is engagement.

Do you wish your child could be supported in learning math in a way that’s truly engaging, and supports their intrinsic motivation? Do you wish your child could LOVE math as much as they love to dance?

Then I invite you to apply for my special one-on-one math tutoring programs!

Just click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs. Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to get clear if my approach would be a good fit for your child.

I’m here for you, and I’m so glad we’re connected!

Sending you love,

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Toning Down the Praise: Experiment #2 (I am going through praise withdrawal)

Topic: motivation

Malcolm Gladwell on Math and Persistence(2)

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell spends a whole wonderful chapter discussing cultural attitudes towards learning math, and he wraps up by profiling the Bronx Knowledge is Power Program Academy (also known as “KIPP”).

With high expectations and extra-long school hours (among other things), KIPP takes students from poorest of neighborhoods and gives them a chance to pull themselves out of poverty. Founder David Levin observes that when students leave KIPP, “they rock in math.”

So how do they do it? For one, all students do ninety minutes of math every day. Eighth grade math teacher Frank Corcoran explains:

I find that the problem with math education is the sink-or-swim approach. Everything is rapid fire, and the kids who get it first are the ones who are rewarded. … It seems counterintuitive but we do things at a slower pace and as a result we get through a lot more. There’s a lot more retention, better understanding of the material.

Wow! I totally agree! Corcoran’s astute observations that math classes today have a sink-or-swim approach really resonated with me. I don’t think this approach is acceptable, because it leaves so many students behind. I used to be one of them.

When I revisted this quote, I loved hearing how having more time to go over the material helped both the students and the teacher relax, and how going over it more slowly actually helped them cover more material. That has totally been my experience in my tutoring sessions with students.

A sink-or-swim approach also perpetuates the myth that one is either a “math person” or “not a math person,” because it doesn’t give students a chance to fill in the missing pieces in their prerequisite knowledge, really internalize the material, or explore how they learn best.

Moving slower also helps students who otherwise would think of themselves as “not math people” to grow their math abilities through persistent effort, and creates a world richer for having more mathematicians in it!

Related Posts:
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Topic: motivation

When learning feels like a forced march

Friday, February 12th, 2010

I recently posted about how external rewards can destroy children’s intrinsic motivation, and noted that my participation in Pizza Hut’s read-a-book-get-a-pizza program, “Book It,” did not interfere with my extremely strong intrinsic motivation to read.

However, what actually did come close to killing my intrinsic motivation to read was the crushing required reading lists I had during my first three semesters of college. This experience turned reading from something I loved doing to something to just be endured.

For example, in my first semester of college, I took a required course on the Epic in Western Literature. My amazing teacher taught with great passion, drawing on her experience both as a poet and a scholar fluent in multiple languages.

She was the only professor I had in my undergraduate career who incorporated the arts into an academic class. In addition to our analytical essays, everyone also completed an art project of their own design inspired by what we’d read. My art project, a cello piece based on text from the Aeneid, actually ended up growing into a much larger piece after the class was over.

Despite my teacher’s exceptional amazingness, this class almost caused me to lose my love of reading. I experienced the course as a forced march through the great works of Western literature. In one semester we plowed right through the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Paradise Lost, and Dante’s Inferno. I read it all, but I rarely enjoyed it, and I almost lost my love of reading.

At the end of the year, I actually told one of my friends that I “didn’t like books” anymore. This is coming from a kid who inhaled literature out of sheer pleasure my entire life until I got to college.

What happened? When I had been inhaling books before, they were all books I chose freely. And I moved at my own pace. But I definitely couldn’t choose what I was reading in this course. The course itself was required. And moreover, I felt there was no time to understand anything or connect to anything.

In retrospect, it reminds me of the trips I made to the National Gallery of Art when I was in fourth grade. My teacher tried to cram as much as possible into each trip—upon entering a new room, she’d instruct us to stand by our favorite painting before purposefully marching on into the next room. At the end of the trip, she would proudly exclaim, “We saw so much art!”

I’m sure her intention was to cultivate a love of the arts in her students, but even though I loved art before and after those trips, I don’t remember anything about the art I saw on those fourth grade trips.

I feel like a work of art can be like meeting a person. There’s so much to be revealed. But what is the point of speed-dating artworks? What do you really learn from speedwalking through galleries or speed-reading through epics?

I believe the point is not exposure, but connection. If we read something but don’t connect to it and don’t remember it, does it even matter? The one bit of the Aeneid that I do remember is the piece of text I used in my art project. I spent so much time setting it to music that now it’s part of who I am.

Once, while visiting a small art museum in DC, I stumbled across a Miró painting I never dreamed I’d see in person, and I was so happy that I actually laughed out loud. The museum guard glared at me—I guess for breaking the silence of the deserted gallery. In my heart, I thought Miró would have been glad I was excited to see him.

I think the whole point is that a piece of art will pierce your heart and help you feel less alone, and move you to laughter and tears.

I wish we were encouraged to digest things more, and had enough time with what we’re learning to get to know it and let it affect us.

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Topic: motivation

Praise and Intrinsic Motivation—An Answer?

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Yay!!! After reading Bronson & Merryman’s thought-provoking article on praise, I really wanted to know about the connection between praise and motivation. So I was excited to find a partial answer in a fascinating post on Bronson and Merryman’s blog (to find the post, scroll down and look for the title “How Not to Talk To Your Kids – Part 2”):

… University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan…have argued that motivation can be divided into two types – intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is when you do something just because you love it – for the sheer joy and satisfaction of the experience. Extrinsic motivation is when you do something for a reward that comes from someone or something else than yourself.

And while we wouldn’t necessarily think of praise as an external reward, if brain chemistry’s any indication, it’s perceived as being closer to a tangible reward than we might initially consider. Praise then walks a fine-line, then with rewards and their positive and negative consequences on motivation. Research has shown that praise may increase adults’ intrinsic motivation, but only if the praise is infrequent and genuine. Praise that is controlling or too frequent seems to become an external reward. And the problem with that is that external rewards are so ephemeral, and inherently out of one’s control, that those motivated by external rewards become more competitive and more image-driven.

For children, there seems to be some consensus that tangible rewards are destructive for children’s intrinsic motivation. (All those read-a-book, get-a-pizza-party programs may be killing a generation’s love of reading for pleasure.) But the effects of praise on intrinsic motivation seem less clear.

So it seems that the key to make sure that praise doesn’t damage intrinsic motivation is to use it only infrequently and sincerely.

A personal reflection … I was the queen of Pizza Hut’s book-it reading program and it definitely didn’t kill my intrinsic motivation to read. Maybe the dopa/reward I got from reading was so much deeper and stronger than the dopa/reward I got from eating my personal pan pizza hut pizza (with sausage) that my dopa circuits remained strong and intact. ???? Or maybe I am just a weirdo.

Related Posts:
When Learning Feels Like a Forced March
The Power of Praise (1)
The Power of Praise (2)
The Power of Praise (3)
On Stickers