The Art of Building Character

Competitive dance may be the key to the reclamation of character in teens that educational systems have done their best to destroy.

By now, most if not all educators have heard the research against using extrinsic motivation in schools. The use of punishment or reward to alter behaviour is a temporary motivator at best, and, in the long-term, may even result in making behaviour worse. The truth is, when the rewards or punishments are removed, student behaviour will revert to its default setting. Rewards and punishments bring about short-term behaviour modification with no subsequent effect on attitudes and values.

During a class conversation today about the possible removal of term-by-term awards for honour roll, one student said if she didn’t get an award for her hard work this term, there was no way she would try as hard next term. She thought she was proving her point about how important it was to reward students regularly for their hard work, but in reality she simply proved my point: Rewards like this in schools destroy the character of our students.

Intrinsic motivation speaks to the strength of character in a student. Students who are intrinsically motivated care about learning because they know it’s good for them. They are curious. They are passionate. They believe in making the most of learning opportunities. They believe in learning from mistakes. They value hard work. They value risk-taking. They see feedback as a means for improving rather than a judgement of their worth. They have character.

The conversation in my class today didn’t begin with the goal of discussing the school’s high honours policy. Students brought up this question in relation to the conversation I began about what they need to know about their Term 1 marks and how to use this information to their benefit as they begin Term 2. For what had to be the twentieth time since the first day of school, I lamented the fact that students in our district have immediate access to their assignment marks online.

Over the last several years, I’ve been helping students see the connections between grades, rewards, extrinsic motivation, and the destruction of their character. Let me make it simple: Grades are a form of reward; they are an external, highly uninformative statement of quality about student work. Their marks, in the form of a percentage, take my rubric of descriptors regarding the quality of their work and reduce it to a mere number; for many teachers, it even takes an assignment that covered multiple learning outcomes and averages the quality of all of those outcomes into one mostly meaningless number between 0 and 100.

Students and parents and teachers and governments and universities all have their own thoughts about what a “good” number is. And in the end, everything about a “quality” education can be discussed without ever having a conversation regarding what students have actually learned. Students are driven to obtain some balance between a grade that involves the least amount of work on their part that is still good enough to avoid punishment or obtain a reward from home or school. This is the recipe for destroying character in our students, and unfortunately we’ve perfected the procedure.

Competitive dancers in my classes, however, have some of the highest grades in my courses yet they are some of the busiest people I know. They are also among the few students who, despite their high grades, admit they put in their best efforts and yet still somehow believe they could be doing even better. These dancers not only see their potential as unlimited but also have the desire to explore that limitless void.

When I voiced these truths aloud to my class today in defence of one of the dancers whose classmates didn’t believe she could have possibly read 12 books in only two-and-half months, it was the hockey players in the class who took offence. They had a point. They are just as busy at school and at play. They work just as hard on the ice as dancers do in the studio. And yet, on average, their marks are not as high, they have not exceeded our reading goals, their reflections truthfully admit that they don’t work as hard as they should on their assignments and they hope to do better next time.

Of course, I generalize. But only because the generalization led me today to an important realization.

When faced with objections from my hockey players, who made a good point, what could possibly explain the fact that my dancers have a work ethic and worldview significantly different from most others in the class? In a heartbeat, an answer pulsed through me: Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. Where school has done a fantastic job of stripping character out of students through extrinsic motivation, competitive dancers reclaim that character through intrinsic motivation, and it does so in a way other sports are inherently incapable of duplicating. You see, competitive dancers don’t dance for rewards.

Okay, okay. I gave you a paragraph break to line up your disagreements. I’ll relent a bit. Competitive dancers do earn awards and rewards and often times even percentages. However, they wait an entire dance season to be rewarded. Month after month, week after week, day after day for hours a day these dancers dance for the sake of dancing alone. Again hockey players dedicate a lot of time and effort to their passion as well, but here’s the difference — throughout the hockey season, hockey players are given marks. They play regular games that result in wins and losses and more percentages in the form of stats than you can shake a stick at. I can only assume (from the baseball I’ve played) that regular conversation centres upon winning streaks and losing streaks. The entire focus is working harder to win more games, and I wonder how many conversations about “quality” hockey are had without ever discussing the basics.

Competitive dance is different. Competition season is at the end of the season. Dancers dance in a small handful of competitions that span a relatively short period of time. The bulk of their time is spent being told by their teachers that what they are doing isn’t right and to do it again. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. It’s not perfect yet. Do it again. And again. And again. Dancers learn to fail. They learn to fail again and again and again. Competitive dancers learn that it’s okay to make mistakes. They learn that feedback is the way they get better on their next attempt rather than being the final judgement of the ability. Dancers who don’t learn this don’t keep dancing or switch to recreational dance. Competitive dancers learn resiliency. They learn mistakes are a necessary part of challenging yourself to be the best you can be . . . and then they don’t accept that their best is their limit. They learn that a sense of community and sharing their work and performing in front of their peers is part of working together towards a common goal. Competitive dancers crave one-on-one time with their teachers to discuss how they can be even better. They beg for and relish extra work (in the form of solos and duets). They know that if they don’t practice at home their teachers will know . . . but that’s not why they practice at home; they practice at home because being better is all that matters to them and they know that to be better they need to practice every single chance they get. Competitive dancers learn that redoing the same dance week after week isn’t punishment for not being perfect the first time or the second time or the hundredth time, but rather it’s the natural process of becoming perfect. Competitive dancers learn character.

Now why can’t schools teach that?