To Change Behavior…

A few weeks ago I took my AVID class on a college visit to Northwest University.  We toured the school, observed classes, and spoke with professors about what makes successful college students.  Overall the students said it was a valuable experience and it definitely opened their eyes to the potential of a small liberal arts school.  It’s also a testament to the idea that a single intervention is insufficient to create lasting change.

My fourteen 11th graders sat down for an hour with a diverse panel of college professors and discussed the qualities necessary for success in college.  The discussion ranged from academic to social to personal issues but it kept coming back to a few key areas.  In order to be successful in college students need:  self-discipline, humility, curiosity, and the ability to be self-reflective. During the discussion many of my students wrote these things down in their notes, nodded regularly in affirmation, and asked strong follow-up questions to further investigate what it takes to be successful.

They got excited.  I got excited for them.  They all want to go to college.  They all want to be successful. They were energized.  They focused more in class and were noticeably more active.  For a couple days.

Habits are difficult to change.  As humans we can adapt to situations more easily than we imagine, but we are also quite elastic and when returned to our normal circumstances, we easily revert to old patterns.  This is exactly what happened with my students.

So we must use repetition to create lasting change.  If, as teachers, we take one day to have a guest lecture, a college visit, a lesson on time management, it’s not enough.  In order for students to change their deeply ingrained behaviors we need to change their daily circumstance.  Force them to activate their ability to adapt.  To make students more independent they need to exist in an environment in which they are held accountable for that independence on a daily basis.  If we continue to shore up their deficiencies with reminders, and academic training wheels they become a crutch and our students cannot survive without those supports.

A couple of days ago I had an opportunity to discuss academic success with another panel of college professors and the overwhelming request from them was for secondary teachers to “take the training wheels off.”  Our students are leaving high school with decent grades, but without independence, and as a result they’re failing in college, or professors have to go back and provide supports that should be superfluous.

It is incumbent on secondary teachers to put aside our fear of students failing in the short-term.  We have to teach more than the content of history, or math, or science, or world language.  It is extremely easy to sacrifice skill development in the name of teaching content.  We have to provide environments in which students can learn the necessary skills of self-reflection, curiosity, humility and self-discipline.  Without developing those skills we’ve only delayed their failure, not prevented it.

  1. The really good thing is that your students recognised the key issues, it gives you a starting point for the regular reminders and a chance to build their receptivity with some positive reinforcement. One of the strong things coming out of the debate at the moment is the need for independent learners, self starters, call them what you will. It is worth reflecting that what you measure in education tends to be what you get; measure results, you get results, not the qualities that you want to generate.

    • “what you measure in education tends to be what you get” is really important. It’s so easy to forget that, and I immediately want to overhaul my assessments as a result. Thanks for the comment.

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