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The Story Behind the Carrot and the Stick

Carrot and the Stick theory is probably one of the most recognisible in general public and also used very frequently in schools, at home or in the work environment. The theory developed from an old story of a donkey, where the most effective way to make him move and continue his path was a carrot dangling infront of his nose and jabbing him with a stick from behind. The carrot becomes a sign of a reward for moving and the stick becomes a punishment if the donkey would stop moving.

In general world we could say that we adapted this old philosophy (firstly described by Jeremy Bentham during the industrial revolution) in our everyday life. At home we teach our children that good behaviour brings rewards, from chocolates to day trips and even just a praise infront of your siblings, while bad behaviour brings time-outs and no sweets. In schools the biggest rewards are good grades and good social status (which may or may not come from good grades) and even though as a society we did try to minimise the negative reinforcment or the negative motivation (through punishments) the habbit of separating good from the bad with reward-punishment system is still very popular.

In theory there shouldn't be any problem with the system where you are rewarded for your good work and good behaviour and punished if the work or behaviour is below the certain standard. The problem appears when we need to decide what this standard is and how to stick to it no matter what. Unfortunately as human beings we are far away from being objective. Which means that rewards sometimes happen because someone is liked rather then hard working and someone is punished because they think diferently. Just one experience of a non fair treatment when it comes to rewards and punishments can change someone's perception and diminishes the value of creative thinking and hard work. So what can we do as teachers, to encourage all of our students equally and how to explain why the world is not a fair place?

1. Be very clear what the task is and reward when the task is completed.

We always need to be clear with our students, especially when it comes to different technical exercises and regular practice schedules. The task you give needs to be very clear in this three sections:





What? Playing the first two bars without mistakes or stopping. That includes correct rhythm, correct notes and high level of concentration in order to control all the details.

How? Practice different sections separately, until the structure is very clear. Firstly practice just rhytmical structure ( Kodaly or similar). Reading notes in the correct rhythm without the instrument. Read the notes on your instrument without rhythm but with beautiful sound. Make a musical puzzle with adding note by note until reaching the end of the second bar. Repetition of the whole two bars, with special attention to intonation and sound quality.

Result? Playing the first two bars confidently.

It may seem very complicated, especially for a child student but when it comes to one on one lessons you are able to really focus what works with each student separately and teaching them the process of learning not just the pure facts. Of course explanation is always adapted to a certain age group but no matter the talent analysing the process which will bring results is crucial for their development.

Reward comes when the task is concluded. It is important that they are aware that the reward (a sticker or a special stamp) is always there IF the task is concluded as it should be (in my own experience there will be a lot of students who will try to get to the rewards with the tasks half done or very badly executed. While our main job is to teach music and musical instrument, we are also developing patience, discipline and analitical thinking.

You may say, well but why complicate it so much, some children learn very well by ear or they mimic what the teacher is doing? It is a fair question and the answers will vary regarding on different personal opinions, but personally I believe that knowing the process of how to make something right will benefit you in a long run and will make children independant learners much faster.

2. Punishments should never be down-grading or a personal revenge

That may sound almost crazy in today's world but believe me there is a certain amount of teachers who are using their work environment for expressing their personal frustrations. We are all humans but with every job comes an ethic code that should be kept in mind at all time. I still believe that this are rare cases but it is worth mentioning that we are also raising new generations and providing them with knowledge, kindness and hope are equally important tasks.

When it comes to 'punishments' in instrumental or music class it mostly means that a child will not get a sticker. Even though that doesn't seem as a huge deal it may affect their wish to learn. Personally I believe that it is very important that we always explain why there was no sticker and that our decision is based purely on our belief that this particular student can do better and we believe that they can improve.

3. Be very clear that the results always vary, due to external circumstances.

At the end of the day, we all have been and will be treated in a non fair way at least a few times in our life. Some of those experience may be intentional and some of them may be the consequence of being unlucky. The most important lesson is that we always try our best and try to learn from our experiences.

Even though we are all living in a society where the carrot and the stick idea is very much alive, it is important that we keep in mind that as educators we need to strive towards fairness and that long term motivation comes from within, from a passion to learn and enjoying the learning process.

Do you have any ideas or solutions for a fair and objective rewarding system? We would love to hear from you! You can email us on or contact us on Facebook (Squidy-Music Secrets)

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