1st and 2nd year teachers in the Salem-Keizer school district take part in the Mentor Program. One of our assignments this year was to participate in a book study, I chose Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning. In the upcoming series of posts I will reflect on my learning and share how it will impact my teaching, and more importantly, my students’ learning.
Chapter 4 has many key points, but I’ll highlight just one from author Peter Johnston. He explains the importance of students’ sense of agency, the perception that their environment is responsive to their actions. He says they need to understand that their decisions and actions are responsible for their ability and effectiveness in school, sports, life, etc.
Unfortunately, it is not as simple as just teaching a student that their environment can be affected by them. Students need to believe that they have what it takes to affect it (page 39).
The pros and cons spell it out clearly.
Children who doubt their competence set low goals, choose easy tasks, and plan poorly. When they face difficulties, they become confused, lose concentration, and start telling themselves stories about their own incompetence. In the long run they disengage, decrease their effort, generate fewer ideas, and become passive and discouraged.
Children with strong belief in their own agency work harder, focus their attention better, are more interested in their studies, and are less likely to give up when they encounter difficulties. Feeling competent, these children plan well, choose challenging tasks, and set higher goals. Their concentration actually improves as they face difficulties, and in the process of engaging difficulties they learn more skills.
Sadly, it is the nature of the beast that my students tend to eventually become more like the student with a poorly developed sense of agency.
Imagine the 5th grade student who returns from time in the LRC to their classroom, to hear the teacher say, “No more questions? OK, please begin.” Our 5th grader just missed the teacher instruction/directions. The directions are posted on the board, but the student is a poor reader, so this doesn’t help much. She asks a student next to her, but is so focused on their own work they aren’t much help (plus we all know a student can’t explain it like a teacher can). It turns out it is a writing activity, and our 5th grader writes like a 1st grader. Over time, day after day, year after year, this repeated battering of small failures, could really put a damper on a person’s outlook of education, and eventually life.
My hope is that I can make a difference by providing learning opportunities where my students experience multiple, small successes on a regular basis. If I can continually pepper them with these small successes, maybe I can plant the seed that later grows into a strong sense of agency.