Motivating Students Through Good Teaching (Part 3): Lessons from the Piano Staircase
Take a peek at this short (under 2 minute) video to see what it reveals about motivation. The piano staircase is intriguing for a number of reasons.
It piques your curiosity: an ordinary piece of architecture transformed into an instrument! In a subway! It’s surprising not only because of what it is, but because it brings an element of play into a setting that is normally mundane. This unexpected novelty inspires curiosity and makes people wonder: What’s this? Why is it here?
The staircase invites experimentation. It taps into an innate human desire to explore and to test cause and effect. What will happen if I do X? It is an open canvas to play on, with no set rules. Solo improvisations and collaborations are both welcome.
The staircase is also enticing because it is presented as a choice. Subway goers are not told to take the stairs because it is good for their health. They are not paid to take the stairs. They are given options, and they choose the stairs because the experience is novel and there is an intrinsic reward in the exploration.
How can we use these insights to enliven our teaching?
Curiosity, experimentation, and choice can be powerful tools for learning. By strategically incorporating unexpected elements in a class session or granting students opportunities to explore something of their own choosing, you can grab their attention and interest. This can be particularly useful if students are stressed, if enthusiasm is running low, or if your class is feeling “routine.”
A few ideas for using the "fun factor" to motivate students:
- For one brief round of sketches or in-class work, have students use a different medium or tool, out of the blue (e.g. crayon or finger paints instead of pencil or charcoal), to see the subject and their work in a new light.
- Have students draw, write, or create with their non-dominant hand to free up or shift their thinking.
- Give an ungraded, exploratory assignment to help students generate ideas in the early phase of a project without fear of judgment. For inspiration see Liberal Arts instructor Allyson Ritger’s creative writing exercises.
- Give students some options and alternatives when assigning projects (e.g. Write an essay OR make a presentation; Choose a topic that interests you within these parameters…)
- Offer students real-world, extra credit options that will stretch and hone their skills (e.g. a contest or a relevant community service project).
- Share a seemingly random example of work from your field. Whether it’s quirky, shocking, bland, or cliché, have students guess about its relevance, then use it as the subject for a group critique or conversation.
The key to these types of activities is to make them purposeful. The piano staircase provides a strategic way for people to get where they need to go—it’s not just for aimless entertainment or shock value. In the same way, the activities you incorporate in your class should always bring students closer to the outcomes for your course. That said, have fun!
AAU instructor Allyson Ritger puts her exercises in context: Measuring Success
Play is Fun. Give it a Whirl!—Play for inspiration and problem solving.
The Cognitive Benefits of Play: Effects on the Learning Brain
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