Developing habits for self-goals

The traits of a student who operates using learning goals as their primary motivation enable that student to succeed, or fail, with comfort. So how does a teacher encourage these traits in their students?

Below are some strategies to enhance learning goals for students. This is not an exhaustive list, and a quick search online will offer many more innovative ways in which staff in schools help students to identify the most successful ways to adopt these goals for themselves. Much of the leap for the student is trust in the teacher, and the method itself, so real life examples and active, daily demonstrations work incredibly effectively. By their very nature, many examples of learning goals in action are stories, which are always much easier to recall than data points or pithy slogans on motivational posters — though there is always a place for these too.

Able to elaborate their work

Stretching their work beyond ‘what was asked’ is a perennial challenge for teachers. Having the children work on improving their own tasks, looking at other people’s tasks and giving advice and guidance on improvement is a fantastic way of helping the children to elaborate their work and make them think about refinement techniques. A key skill here is questioning; asking children deeper questions which encourage open answers forces the child to think carefully and judiciously about their choices, justifying decisions and making incremental improvements.

Well organised

It is easy to appreciate that a well-organised student is more able to learn, and find teaching more accessible to them. However, organisation skills need to be taught to the children and demonstrated through highlighting and good practice in order for the children to understand the benefits of organisation. Some children find organisation incredibly hard, so streamlining everything they have to do makes their work improvement rate increase and removes unnecessary distractions. Make all the equipment that children need to complete a task easily accessible, labelled if necessary. Highlight this to the class at the beginning of any task, so they know not only what is available to them and where it is, but also as a gentle reminder they may need these tools.

Plans goals along route

Breaking down one large goal into smaller, more manageable goals, is an incredibly effective way of measuring progress along a given route. A 1000 word essay seems far more daunting than 10 100 word written tasks for example. even in the primary setting, showing an overall goal and encouraging the children to create smaller key goals along the route will help them to measure their success and achievement at each stage towards the overall goal.

Observes own performance

We are acutely able to seemingly make judgements on other people’s performances, often at the cost of our own performance. Indeed, one of my son’s end-of-year reports stated that he “can sometimes concentrate more on everyone else’s progress, at a cost of his own,” a phrase which I’m sure would have appeared on my own school reports at the same age.

Too often, students operate using only two broad questions underlining their performance:

What am I doing now?

What do I have to do next?

These are fairly closed questions, and are rather simple to ask oneself. What they give no indication of is a measure of how they can improve either of the ‘what’ statements. They are functional and offer no measure of performance technique.

By encouraging students to adjust these regular self questions, we can encourage them to become better observers at their own performance. This of course depends on them changing their course, should they need to, rather than ploughing on in a direction which completes the task set without making any change, however small or incremental. Consider these two questions instead:

How am I getting on now?

How can I change what I am doing to ensure I am achieving the most?

With achievement in this last question being both academic achievement (completing the task) as well as learning achievement (is there anything that can be done to make my learning more beneficial for the future), these questions go some way to developing a mentality that performance should be regularly looked at, analysed and changed if necessary.

The quickest way to do this is to prompt the students to consider these two questions as they work through a task. Have the two questions written on the board or on a poster, and stop the class every five minutes to ask them what they think are the answers, and what they are going to do about each of them. This tiny change can have very broad implications for deeper learning and understanding within a task, and carrying this out in all lessons will help to lasso the idea of measuring self-performance in the student’s minds.

Belief that they can achieve

Another popular educational meme is one about failure; “if you knew you wouldn’t fail, what things would you do?” The answer of course is (or should be) nothing. There is no point in me attempting to be the world’s fastest man, as I just don’t have the drive, ambition, ability, determination, body shape or required narcissism to achieve this. I will cope.

How many of our students feel that many of the challenges they are set are beyond them, and don’t attempt to achieve because they already know that despite everything they do, they are heading helplessly toward failure? To answer this, we need to question the way in which the student both is given their self-belief, and also in the way that achievement is positioned within our classroom culture.

One simple device I have used in the past is the “Portfolio of Excellence.” This was a large ring-bound folder of past student work. It was known by the students to exist, and they were regularly shown completed tasks be former students. The impact it had was incredible in helping the students believe that they could achieve. Not only could they see examples of work which former students had done, it was also shown what good completed work looked like; the task was achievable.

After trialling this in my own classroom, I rolled this out across the school for all subjects. This had the added benefits of not only helping teachers to align what they accepted as good work (“is this work good enough to go in the Portfolio of Excellence?”) which in turn fed down to the students as a form of carrot; would their work be good enough to go into the Portfolio.

In addition, these folders produced an excellent set of examples of good practice for Inspectors to look at when they inevitably visited my school. They could see both our expectations of the students and these expectations delivered in work. This was our work ethos exemplified in practice, and enabled us to secure the highest rating against their criteria.

Enjoyment of tasks and learning

This seems to be so obvious as to not warrant even mentioning, and yet how do we know, or even measure, whether a student is enjoying learning or not? To my mind, enjoyment equates to actual desire to learn, rather than have the learning somehow foisted upon them. As Dave Burgess puts it in his 2012 book, ‘Teach Like a Pirate’, “If students had the choice of attending your lessons, how many would be empty?”

This is not, I should emphasise, to provide teaching which is somehow entertaining or of such a performance that the teacher takes precedence over learning. Rather, providing tasks and learning which hooks in the students’ interest and curiosity in the given subject all help to contribute to enjoyment; we can go back to considering learning to be like the ‘charged’ self-propelling toy car rather than the one which we are constantly having to nudge along.

Enjoyment is hard to measure and yet easy to identify; it is that moment where students have their own drive to continue, ask questions and want to progress at a rate which matches or exceeds the teacher’s own expectations. Given two tasks to do at home, I am almost always more likely to select the one which I derive more pleasure from, but these are all context driven to a certain extent (note how tidy my house is during report-writing time for example).

Rather than considering if the work or learning is ‘fun,’ ask instead if the work arouses enough interest or curiosity to encourage an independent drive from the students to want to know more or contribute more.

Positive reactions to tasks

There should be a reaction to all tasks whether positive or negative. It is the adjustment of focus for this which enables us as teachers to identify whether this reaction is positive or not. Simply completing a task because it has been set seems to be a more common pattern in school. That is not to criticise the teacher for setting tasks, but encouraging and enabling a positive reaction to tasks in the classroom setting so that it goes some way to matching the enthusiasm and positivity which students exhibit outside the classroom (toward their hobbies for example) offers short term gains and much larger long-term benefits.

One measure of adeptness the teacher can have is to ‘read’ the reaction of a task from the students. If they are raring to go, and forsake lesson niceties in order to begin the task, we can be aware that this particular task has ‘got them.’ Likewise, if a task can be aligned with one of their preferred working styles, and it is not detrimental to their learning opportunities, a teacher would be wise to marry these two together.

One colleague, knowing the set text she was asked by the exam board to teach was tricky to access, instead covered the initial grounds using character study, different situations involving dilemmas and some initial historical grounding before introducing the set text. In this way, she was able to allow the students make the connection between their interests (which had been fed) to the text, rather than jumping straight into a challenging text to begin with. As a result, she gained much greater buy-in from her students.

High effort and persistence

These are really two leaves of the same plant, and in my experience can both be much misunderstood by the students in class. What actually is high effort? When asking students what they thought this meant, the few I spoke to came back with “working harder.” This is a pat phrase however; almost devoid of meaning when it is considered. To give an example, imagine a student is completing a page of long division sums. Using this concept of “work harder,” what do we actually expect the students to do?

complete more sums

work faster

get less distracted

finish faster than others

Of these four reasons, perhaps only the one about distraction has any validity. Working faster can often lead to mistakes in some tasks. So what is high effort?

The dictionary definition of “effort” is that of a ‘determined attempt,’ which is contrary to many of the work harder strategies listed above. Effort in this sense isn’t skipping the hard question, or hoping the answer you have placed is right without checking it — it is taking a pause and taking stock and telling yourself (as a student) if you have approached that particular challenge as one to successfully beat, or one which may get a cross, but which doesn’t really matter.

This is of course incredibly hard to do. Given the example above, but especially when all the class are completing the same broad task, it seems to be only natural when set that the aim of the task is to ‘complete the sheet’ rather than ‘refine your long division method.’ again, what does this actually mean for a student? To my mind, this could be expanded as:

secure your understanding of long division across a range of examples

Recognise errors through self-checking

Place this method against a range of contexts (ie in word problems, real life problems and in solving long divisions in other subjects).

Instead, what can often happen is we mark the work, highlighting the errors and asking the student to repeat them. This is when the cost of marking after a lesson, rather than during a lesson has a great cost. It’s rather like driving from Halfords after an MOT, then at home being told you need new bulbs. The learning MOT needs to be carried out within the lesson.

One successful strategy I have used to great effect in this type of task is to scan the work covered by the student and tell them that they have made three errors — but not tell them where they are. Cynics of my analogies might at this juncture point out that this is akin to failing your MOT but not being told what your car has failed on — which is a fair charge if I’m honest.

What I have found however is that it makes the student go over their work again in a slightly frustrated but different mentality, that of a fact-checker rather than a task-completer. It is very difficult for students to utilise these two strategies next to each other, which is broadly speaking what more effort requires, yet encouraging this practice is really beneficial for the students.

Having the students write ‘checked’ and signing their names against every column or row might work as a way of both encouraging them to focus on checking, whilst making them accountable for the checking, rather than the teacher.

Persistence is rather different — this is a mark of doggedness to complete, rather than giving up. As a semi-professional procrastinator, who can argue that any failure in productivity is the fault of either hunger pangs or Netflix, I know only too well that our resistance to proceed diminishes when we find something hard. So where does grit come from; that desire to continue despite adversity?

To my mind, it firstly needs the acknowledgement that work should be intrinsically hard. There is almost no charm in work being easy to complete.

Struan Robertson, in his book ‘Lower your life handicap’ wrote that the ability to get a hole-in-one at every golf course would remove the central pleasure of golf itself. The key aspect here is removing the sense of helplessness that situations making someone feel they can’t proceed, and allowing them to recognise what they need to do next — and just getting on with it!

This message isn’t well-received by students or adults however — as I can personally identify. Persistence, coupled with self-goals such as self-motivation and self-evaluation, can help enormously. This can be done by asking oneself a few questions, namely:

What am I stuck on?

What is preventing me from giving my all?

What can I change to make me continue?

By answering these questions honestly, both you and the student can help to redefine persistence and ensure that you both are working on a task or goal which can be broken down into much more manageable chunks.

Seeks academic help

There seems to be a drive toward independent learning which puts the teacher at the end of the asking circuit — “see three before me” and so on. The overarching aim of this is to encourage students to think beyond simply putting their hands up and asking questions that perhaps they or a peer know the answer to. The danger of this well-intentioned guidance as this it places the teacher at the far end of support. While this is worthy, it does force a certain isolation for the teacher as some knowledge deity who should not be disturbed at all costs.

This is a pattern which appears to grow in stature as students get older. Rather than it being reversed, teachers should be viewed as accessible, especially for certain tasks and activities. What should a teacher be viewed as, which is a source for guidance beyond “which question is next?” and rather tackles worries the student may have, or helps to unlock the next level of learning. Teachers therefore need to ensure that students do see them as a source of academic assistance; that they are approachable and accessible for the learning.

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This is an extract from “Thinking about Thinking: Learning Habits Explored,” by Stephen Lockyer, and available from Amazon.