Teaching Behaviors – Instruction, Praise, Criticism

In many ways I’ve found the coaching and training used in athletics to be an interesting model for music teachers interested in improving their pedagogy. Too often we teach through analogy or even just trial and error, rather than investigating what instruction methods are found to be effective in the long term and what approaches simply don’t work. This subjective approach has been responsible for a lot of the culture of ignorance that I see in traditional brass pedagogy, for example. Too much of the advice you get, even from master musicians, is to focus only on the music and let the body figure itself out.

Athletics, on the other hand, is in the business of competition and can’t rely so much on subjective measurements of success. Player and team statistics will show what coach’s methods are more effective. It’s worth taking a close look at what highly successful coaches say and do and try to relate it to how we teach our private students and direct our ensembles. Looking at John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach for UCLA from 1948-1975, Bulletproof Musician asks, What Is More Effective- Praise or Criticism? The answer, as it turns out, is not quite what you’d expect.

So, over the course of 15 practices during the 1974-1975 season (Wooden’s last at UCLA), they sat, observed, and systematically tracked Wooden’s specific coaching behaviors – which added up to 2326 “acts of teaching” in total.

So how much of this was praise? And how much was criticism?

Very little, actually.

Just over half of Wooden’s coaching was pure instruction, telling his athletes both how and what to do. Compare this to traditional brass pedagogy, which emphasizes almost only the goal of musical expression. Arnold Jacobs, one of the most influential brass teachers of the 20th century, instructs us to, “Think, product, not methodology” (Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs: A Developmental Guide for Brass Wind Musicians). He felt that 85% of the music student’s attention should be on musical expression, with the remaining 15% on the breathing.

Going into more detail about Wooden’s coaching, researching psychologists broke down the percentage of Wooden’s instruction into the following:

  • 50.3% specific statements on how or what to do.
  • 12.7% reminders on how to act on previous instruction
  • 8% feedback (specifically a combination of scolding or instruction, informing the athlete what he was doing wrong followed by a reminder on what to do)
  • 6.9% praise
  • 6.6% scolding
  • 6.6 uncodable (specific coaching method not clearly heard or seen)
  • 2.8% positive modeling (how to do something)
  • 2.4% other (not fitting any other categories)
  • 1.6% negative modeling (how not to do something)
  • 1.2 nonverbal reward

Compare Jacobs’ figure of 85% of the attention on not being on how to play your instrument with the roughly 75% of Wooden’s instruction on what to do and how to do it. This is a pretty large difference. Something I find interesting in the writing and recordings that Jacobs left before his death is how often he actually seems to be instructing students on how to play while convincing us that we shouldn’t be concerned with how to play. Perhaps we need to pay closer attention to what Jacobs did while teaching and put what he said into a better context.

The last bit of Wooden’s coaching that I find particularly interesting is his modeling method. When he say his athletes doing something he wanted to correct he used a three-part approach: correct-incorrect-correct.

When Wooden saw something he didn’t like, and stopped practice to correct the incorrectly executed technique, he would immediately demonstrate the correct way to do the technique, then show everyone the incorrect way the athlete just did it, then model the correct way again.

If you want to read a more detailed account of Wooden’s coaching methods and learn how to best apply his model into your own music teaching you can read Tharp’s and Gallimore’s 1976 article in Psychology Today here.

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