Tiffany Chang

conductor

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Grades with purpose

Posted by Tiffany Chang on May 27, 2021 at 8:35 AM

Recently, I've become interested in ways we may revamp our grading and incentive structures for large ensembles in the pre-professional academic context - and by extension the professional context. (If we swap "grade" for "pay" or "incentive", for the most part, the ideas can be mapped onto the professional setting.) 

 

We typically determine grades based on measurable metrics such as attendance. And at best we use subjective evaluations of etiquette, attitude, musicianship, or effort as determined by the leader, instructor, and/or conductor.

 

In this context, grades become somewhat transactional: you do this to get that grade. We end up considering which grade we want and plan the corresponding actions that will result in that grade. We make decisions sometimes about how much we can get away with - not because we are terrible or malicious people, but because we are simply human beings easily affected by external motivators, or what we also call carrots and sticks. If there was any inherent passion and intrinsic motivation for large ensemble playing, they are quickly squashed and diminished by these associations (and studies have shown this). We end up thinking, "I am not motivated to do this unless I'm going to get that grade." 

 

Author Daniel Pink said in a talk, "Too many students walk through the schoolhouse door with one aim in mind: to get good grades. And all too often the best way to reach this goal is to get with the program, avoid risks, and serve up the answers that the teacher wants, the way the teacher wants them. Good grades become a reward for compliance but don't have much to do with learning." 
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It is true that the typical education trains us to become compliance machines and we get really good at it. What are the consequences for this in the large ensemble context?

  

      • We get tunnel vision and see only limited, known solutions to problems.

      • We are afraid to experiment and take risks--artistically and organizationally.

      • We don't speak up in fear of things being wrong.

      • We become less inquisitive and curious (because why would we need to be if we can do our bare minimum in a transactional context).

      • We stop thinking for ourselves and feel uncomfortable making decisions.

      • Our creativity suffers and the work becomes mundane.

 

We end up with musicians who avoid taking risks and who want to play it safe. Musicians who are not interested in facets beyond the skills and tasks they are bringing to the table. While they may be fantastic musicians, they wait to be told what to do and how to think.

 

Pink also says that, "We expect people to not like their job, so we put in place carrots or sticks to motivate them externally. People are the highest motivated by intrinsic aspects. The solution is not to entice people with a sweeter carrot or threaten with a sharper stick."

 

It's interesting to consider why we think we'd have to motivate externally as a default, and why we continue to be convinced that the threat of a lower grade would make someone more compliant or that winning a salary bidding war would always secure a hire. 

 

Grades are the external carrots and sticks. They are not directly connected to the purpose and meaning of the work being done nor internal values. They are simply not designed that way, traditionally. So people lack a sense of purpose beyond the reward of the grade, and they become less invested and less motivated from within.
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But - I've been thinking: what if we could connect grades to purpose and values?

 

Here are some what if's:

  

      • What if we can reframe the grading structure so that it measures and rewards a musician's contribution to the organization culture, the extent to which they are living out the organization's values, or how they are serving the organization's collective purpose?

      • What if the grading items (such as attendance and musicianship) were not seen as simply the end goals, but rather means to achieve the organizational values and purpose? And every action and decision were funneled through those filters, seen through those lenses? 

      • What if we embraced more lateral, peer-to-peer evaluations and self-evaluations in addition to top-down ones? What if the people had more of a stake in the assessment of themselves and their peers?

 

To use my own ensemble as a case study:

 

Our values include excellence, innovation, belonging, collaboration, and accountability.

Our purpose is to bring the conservatory experience to all musicians regardless of major and challenge the status quo via our values.

 

Some ideas:

  

      • We could document effort and track growth in musicianship as ways to seek excellence in the vein of a conservatory experience.

      • We could treat appropriate ensemble etiquette and attitude as ways to peer-assess how one contributes to a culture of belonging.

      • We could use attendance and punctuality as ways of measuring one's commitment to accountability.

      • We could emphasize creativity and encourage experimentation as ways to ensure a spirit of innovation and document how we change the status quo.

      • We could design teamwork activities with peer reviews that provide opportunities for collaborative skills to shine.

 

 

This reframing of grades as a measure of purpose and values could be transformative in 1) aligning actions with organizational goals, 2) boosting intrinsic motivation that eliminates the need for carrots and sticks, and 3) cultivating more creative musicians who can think for themselves and contribute to their own fulfillment in their work.

 

Ultimately, musicians in a large ensemble context should not feel like they are workers who exist as a cog in a transactional relationship. We can change the focus in education and in the workplace to motivate us to be more fulfilled in the artistic work we do.

 


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