New Term’s resolutions

Dr Ann Farley, Director of Differentiated Studies
Image of Ann Farley, Ann Farley, Director of Differentiated Studies
Ann Farley, Director of Differentiated Studies (seated)

Barely three months ago, there was much discussion of New Year’s resolutions. The media was full of celebrity suggestions and statistics about the length of time our resolutions would endure. Students, parents and teachers all approached a new year aware of its potential and challenges. Some had created detailed plans that they hoped would guide them towards anticipated goals. Others dreamed of a future fulfilled, but with few ideas about how they were actually going to make those dreams reality. Others struggled to see past the complexity and challenges of the year ahead and were caught up in a fog of concern and anxiety. Regardless of how one approaches life, inevitably, checkpoints are reached — situations that demand reflection and re-evaluation so that future directions can be shaped more effectively.

As the School community moves rapidly towards the end of Term I, each of us is faced with such an opportunity. This week students in Years 11 and 12 have completed their first week of stand down for 2013. By the end of next week, not only will students have completed exams and assignments, they will also have been given results and feedback. Although there is much focus on the ‘grade’ signified by that all important letter or number, in reality it is the individual’s response to that grade and the actions that follow that will prove most significant in shaping future success and happiness (Wiliam, 2012). A grade provides an opportunity to compare individual achievement with the cohort and ‘external standards’ but, more importantly, it signals an opportunity to engage with not only the result but also the feedback that accompanies it. At an individual and very personal level, students are challenged to think about themselves, their motivations, their priorities and their responses to success and failure. It is a time to review those resolutions made earlier in the year, judge their effectiveness based on hard data and perhaps to make some new ones for Term II.

To encourage this, teachers ask their students to listen more carefully, to think more deeply, to do more homework, to spend less time on Facebook; students resolve to accomplish these with varying degrees of success.  Personal trainer Michelle Bridges (2013) from the Biggest Loser television programme laments the inability of her clients to take action based on their stated principles:

Yet when it comes to crunch time, often they are not [willing]. They can’t stick to the eating plan I gave them, even though they said they would. They don’t do their training homework, even though they promised to. It is a totally different ball game when it comes to walk the walk, not just talk the talk (as it is for many of us). (p. 12)

So why is it so hard to follow through with resolutions? As teachers and parents encouraging our young people to evaluate the past term in order to ensure effective plans for the future, what can we do to help them develop realistic action plans?  Bridges suggests (2013) that three very personal but crucial questions need to be answered: What do I want; what am I willing to do to get there; and what excuses have I used to stop myself achieving my goals in the past? Time for a reality check! She then suggests that all excuses are written down, the ridiculous ones deleted, and action plans developed to overcome the remainder.

This is good advice, but resolutions to do better in company with action plans are not made in isolation. They need to acknowledge the wider picture. Within a community such as a school, individual response is inextricably linked to the expectations of other community members.  Parents, teachers and friends create the environment in which the individual makes decisions, learns, and matures; but sometimes they are also the instigators of conflicting demands on student time and energy. It is not unusual to hear one student comment to another, ‘Mum said that I should make study a priority at this time of year but I also have to …’. As a teacher, I experience a brief, but uncomfortable, sense of guilt as I rush on, aware of the many demands I have been making on my students during the past frantic weeks leading to the end of term; but this is soon forgotten as the School community embraces the next exciting event.

While the School provides an incredibly rich learning environment with multiple opportunities for success in diverse areas, for some students it may also provide a world full of conflicting and confusing demands. How confusing it must be for some students when those caring for their welfare challenge them to set appropriate priorities and to manage their time more effectively while placing conflicting demands on not only student time, but also on their precious energy reserves.

Parents and teachers acknowledge the importance of student decision making as they assume increased responsibility for their own learning, but they must also be conscious of the environment in which those decisions are being made and the impact that mentors and role models can have on those processes. Enabling students to make best use of school ‘checkpoints’ must truly be a partnership that acknowledges the impact of all involved. Effective reflection involves gaining clarity in the current situation, and often parents and teachers will need to help students to do this. It is only then that the most constructive resolutions can be made and action plans formulated.

To facilitate this in the classroom, teachers must provide student feedback in a form that will allow them to act on it. Wiggins (2012) reminds teachers that ‘performers can only adjust their performance successfully if the information fed back to them is stable, accurate and trustworthy’. Research conducted by Chadwell (2007) highlighted the importance of the following two factors in engaging girls in their learning:

  • Take time to explain processes, answer their questions, consider their suggestions, and probe their hypotheses.
  • Monitor them as they work, prod their learning, and support their hesitation.

Teachers spend much personal  time discussing feedback and how this can be provided most effectively but students must take responsibility for processing this feedback. They must take the time to ‘hear’ what is being said about past performance and search for the pointers to actions that will improve future outcomes. Depending on the subject, this may involve reviewing video or audio recordings, rethinking solutions to problems while considering where thinking was faulty, or carefully analysing teacher comments. It may also require students to initiate further discussions with their teachers so that feedback can be clarified and built upon.

Research that highlights that, for effective learning to occur for many girls, the intricate balance between intellectual stimulation and emotional comfort needs to not only be acknowledged but facilitated (James, 2009). Nagel (2008) points out that ‘intelligence is often measured against various tests yet we know that intelligence in itself is but one characteristic of the mind’. He suggests that, to provide effective learning environments for young women, ‘the social and emotional worlds of girls are provided with the same level of importance as raising scores on some form of standardised tests’ (Nagel, 2008).

Assessment for Term I is almost complete. Feedback is inevitable whether it is wanted or not, and there is much to be gained through thoughtful reflection and adoption of some carefully crafted and achievable New Term’s resolutions accompanied by realistic action plans. This is not, however, a task that students should face alone. It is complex and requires support from teachers and parents who may be struggling with their own resolutions about allowing students to assume responsibility for individual actions while providing them with the rules and structure necessary to enable young people to develop their personal guiding principles.  Swartz and Sharpe (2010) in their book Practical Wisdom (2010) suggest that:

A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another — to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s [student’s, patient’s, friend’s] needs. (p. 25)

Perhaps this is a timely caution for all involved as we counsel our wonderfully talented but unique learners about their future resolutions and plans. While encouraging and challenging, we must be careful not to ignore anxieties and concerns which can be ‘immobilizing, counterproductive and even destructive’ (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2010); but rather to urge our students to gain a balanced perspective by acknowledging  their progress over time and celebrating the success they have achieved during the term.

References

Bridges, M. (2013, January 27). Getting fit: Head first. Sunday Life in The Sydney Morning Herald, p. 12–13.

Chadwell, D. (2007). Engaging the differences between boys and girls. Middle Matters, 15(4). Retrieved September 15, 2012, from http://www.naesp.org/ContentLoad.do?contentId=2199&action=print

James, A. (2009). Teaching the female brain: How girls learn maths and science. Moorabbin, Vic: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Nagel, M. (2008). It’s a girl thing. Moorabbin, Vic: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Schwartz, B. & Sharpe, K. (2010). Practical wisdom. Camberwell, Vic: Penguin Books.

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 11–16.

Wiliam, D. (2012). Feedback: Part of a system. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 31–34.

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