No excuses - take responsibility

4th January 2008 at 00:00
Pupils who don't face up to why they have performed badly stand little chance of improving, writes Adi Bloom.

You have just failed your driving test. What reasons do you give to justify that fact? The weather was awful ... and there was the lorry that pulled out in front of you unexpectedly. And, to be honest, your teacher was not quite as good as you would have liked.

Catherine Kelly, of University College, London, agrees that such reasons bolster self-esteem in the face of failure. But, she claims, they are rarely effective in ensuring success next time round.

Instead, teenagers should look at their own role in their failures, whether on the road or at school. They should consider whether they took a sufficient number of lessons, or whether they practised enough before the test.

"Self-esteem is about maximising the positive and minimising the negative," said Dr Kelly. "But in terms of youngsters' academic learning and ability to cope with adversity, it's better to look at how you can improve next time."

She believes that pupils often blame external circumstances for their own failures. For example, a pupil failing an exam may blame the teacher or the choice of questions on the paper.

Equally, they might say "I'm stupid" or "I'm dyslexic", placing culpability on factors beyond their control: if they are stupid, they will always be stupid, no matter how much they revise.

Dr Kelly's research has shown that the pupils most likely to succeed at school are those who are able to take responsibility for factors they can change. And she believes that teachers can help pupils to think in this way. For example, teachers can outline their own thought processes in the classroom.

Dr Kelly points out that everyone, teacher and pupil, will occasionally have the type of day when they sleep in, ladder their tights and drop their keys.

"We all have negative, automatic thoughts," she said. "We all think, I'm a right klutz. It's about grabbing those thoughts and saying, I'm not stupid. It's just today. Teachers could model that in the classroom, thinking it out loud."

Equally, teachers could demonstrate this method of thinking when resolving disputes between pupils. For example, one boy might complain that another is "always dissing my mum." Dr Kelly suggests that the teacher pick up on the boy's use of 'always'.

"Acknowledge that in this case the other boy has upset him," she said. "But look for exceptions in other cases. If you can change the child's view from 'always' to 'sometimes', then there is the possibility of change.

"It's about disputing evidence of negative automatic thoughts.

"It's unhelpful to think, 'I'm stuck in this situation'. The idea of a controllable, changeable element is important."

The aim is to show pupils that they have control over their own lives. So they should be encouraged to measure progress against their own previous achievements, rather than against an amorphous gold standard.

"Setting unrealistic goals is unmotivating," added Dr Kelly. "It's about what's achievable, what's within your control. Knowing that helps make children more independent, capable learners."

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