Teaching Artistry as a Balance for Cultural Education Mentalities

By Hannah Dick, Fulbright Sweden 2019-20, Global Leaders Program 2020 Cohort

While living in Sweden over the past year, I observed that the education system excels at nurturing student autonomy. Sweden is a small country with only a handful of classical percussionists (or any instrument) at each university. Many professors teach part-time and are seldom on campus, particularly at my host institution, Örebro University. In response, students often initiate repertoire selections, schedule ensemble rehearsals, and coach themselves. Without the constant direction of teachers, they must formulate musical interpretations and direct personal growth. 

My colleagues informed me that this dynamic is especially present at Örebro University. University music programs in larger cities, such as Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö Academies of Music, may cultivate a different culture. Nonetheless, observations and conversations lead me to believe that autonomy is a major force throughout the Swedish education system, beginning with the strong emphasis on children’s rights in primary school.   

Student independence is evident in student-teacher interactions. I observed, as did other students from abroad, that rather than directly outlining a method for improvement, our Swedish teachers often “suggest” feedback. One teacher frequently asks, “I hope this is ok?” as if requesting permission; another teacher first comments positively on a student’s playing and then continues, “Maybe you want to think about x. What do you think? It’s up to you.”  

I found this a contrast, and in some regards a refreshing one, with teacher-student norms in my home country, the United States. American culture prioritizes achievement and competition. While these dynamics can drive excellence, they also create a fast-paced, high-stress culture. The Swedish scene is not as competitive, because of its education culture as well as the country’s relatively small size. Additionally, the self-driven nature of student learning often allows students to adjust their workload for a better balance between school and life.  

Each of these two education cultures has both strengths and drawbacks with regard to nurturing intrinsic motivation, which education theorists agree is central to effective learning. The student-centered model encourages student autonomy—one ingredient for intrinsic motivation—but can discourage teachers from offering direct feedback that could be interpreted as critical. This creates a challenging dynamic for teachers desiring to push their students to greater growth and mastery. The competitive achievement-driven model offers another element of intrinsic motivation—appropriately difficult tasks—but the pressure, pace, and emphasis on success can produce burnout, disillusionment, and loss of joy in artmaking.   

These observations have left me hungry for a way to combine the student autonomy exemplified by the Swedish system with the drive for excellence offered by the American mentality. Teaching artistry, I believe, is a philosophy which offers this “best of both worlds.” Teaching artists utilize a variety of techniques that build purpose, mastery, and autonomy—the keys to intrinsic motivation—while caring more about the student artist than about skill acquisition. 

Based on my experiences in Sweden and the United States, I identified four concepts that counter the imbalances in both systems (please refer to Eric Booth’s The Teaching Artist’s Bible for a comprehensive discussion of the philosophy).

A Teaching Artist’s Quick Guide for Nurturing Intrinsic Motivation: 

1. Prioritize engagement before information. Attention is a prerequisite for learning, so teaching artists engage students before offering information.

During the 2020 El Sistema Academy in Stockholm, I attended a fantastic workshop facilitated by two brass teachers from El Sistema Malmö. They guided several dozen music educators through a sample class routine, first engaging us with singing and marching outside the classroom and then seamlessly trading facilitation throughout the session. Eight months later, I still vividly remember the experience and concepts—and there was no time to “misbehave.” Mission accomplished: deep learning, thanks to deep engagement.  

2. Focus on the why. Why should a ten-year-old expend attention and effort to sing songs in choir or practice a beautiful “o” sound? After engaging students, teaching artists nurture motivation by explaining the significance of each learning concept. Knowing the musical purpose behind a technical skill provides inspiration to work toward the skill.

3. Provide guides for growth. Even motivated students feel lost without guidance indicating what is possible and how to continue growth. Teaching artists balance students’ autonomy to self-direct with constructive feedback that expertly steers them. Practical tools such as rubrics and reflections can help students focus while preparing them to become their own teachers.

4. Push—in an appropriate way. During the first year of my bachelor’s degree, I grew faster than ever before because my professor assigned challenging weekly goals. Since I was already intensely motivated, these goals stretched and ultimately redefined my limits of possibility. My teacher also provided purpose by explaining why specific techniques or repertoire were important for my growth.  

Pushing students before they are intrinsically motivated can result in their bitterness and loss of joy in musicking. However, teaching artists prioritize the development of intrinsic motivation, and once this is present, they are free to offer challenging stretches, especially in advanced settings. Purposeful stretches such as performances and community involvement can generate motivating “pushes” and propel great growth for all ages.

The Foundation: Inspiration. Perhaps most of all, teaching artists nurture intrinsic motivation by their inspiring example. As Eric Booth writes, “Eighty percent of what you teach is who you are.” Teaching artists inspire students through their musical ability and through authentically demonstrating excellence, openness, hunger for learning, creativity, and curiosity—the traits they strive to cultivate in students.

Though shaped by cultural tendencies with inevitable shortcomings, teachers can excel by integrating global perspectives that cultivate personal and musical excellence. Teaching artistry principles help educators compensate for the imbalances of their community context and empower students as lifelong learners—the people who achieve the greatest success and deepest fulfillment.  

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