Making Conscious Choices

So far in this series about Effective Strategies and Tools for learning we have looked at encouraging students to understand the learning process, to use the strengths that they already have to boost confidence, and to demonstrate a greater awareness of their own responsibility in caring for brain health.

We want children and young people who are not passive recipients of education, but rather have an active interest in improving their own progress and results. In order to do this, students need to learn how to make decisions about exactly what it is that they personally want to achieve, and, how they are going to get there.

Do remember that the purpose of these articles is to provide ideas and activities that you can use with learners to help them become more independent and in charge of their own destiny when it comes to a personal educational and career pathway. This time we want to consider how learners can come to appreciate more fully the choices they need to make if they want to impact on their attainment.

A good starting point for this is to consider the conversation from Lewis Carroll’s story about Alice in Wonderland. At one point when she is lost, Alice asks the Cheshire cat which way she ought to go. His reply is that it depends on where she is trying to get to. Instead of thinking about it carefully and making a decision on that, Alice says that she doesn’t much care where, to which the cat makes the sarcastic comment; that in that case it doesn’t matter which way she goes!

I usually read the account from the book with a student (even adult ones) and we chat about how Alice is destined to either wander round in circles or end up wherever her feet take her, if the cat is unable to direct her steps more specifically. In the story, Alice ends up at the Mad Hatters Tea Party by default, because although what she really wanted was to know the way out of the wood, she never said so!

I use a gapping activity here, where we re-frame the conversation from the book, and the students get to help Alice out by stating quite clearly where she is trying to get to. (Common responses are ‘home’, or ‘out of the wood’ but some get more creative and want to find the chocolate fountain, or a fun fair etc, it really doesn’t matter as long as Alice makes a decision about where she wants to be). The student then also provides suitable directions from the cat, who is now able to state in which direction Alice should go, because he knows where she is trying to get to!

From there we play a game that highlights that whatever you want to achieve (whether it is getting out of a wood or anything else), you must know more about the direction you need to take in order to achieve it. For example, if you lived in England and wanted to visit the leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, you would have to book time off, make travel arrangements, find opening times, map out a route, decide on accommodation, etc. Nothing will happen if you don’t!

We need to help learners think about what it is they want to achieve and how to get there. The first statement needs to be ‘I want to…..’, followed by; ‘in that case I need to…!’ This persuades a student to think about their own role in the process. If they say ‘I want to be better at Maths’ for instance, they have to come up with the ‘in that case I need to…’ list.  It helps to make them aware that without choosing a direction and the steps they are going to take to ‘get’ where they want to be, nothing is going to happen. The list they come up with is recorded as a set of ‘next steps’ to help the learner  achieve the improvement that they want to make, as well as knowing who is going to help them navigate the journey ahead.

In order learn more about how their brain might get in the way of the progress that they want to make, I have a discussion with learners around a diagram that shows the differences between the brains of humans and other animals, in very basic terms. It is easy then to introduce the idea of the reptilian brain, (or brain stem), the mammalian brain (or mid-brain), and the cortex (reasoning brain). By thinking about the behaviour of reptiles in comparison to mammals, and then other mammals in comparison to humans, students become familiar with basic brain structure. Whilst doing this, learners more importantly become familiar with the ‘frontal cortex’ that they use when reasoning things out logically in the classroom, and the mid-brain area where emotional responses to challenges can get in the way of learning.

When stressed, (as many students experience when faced with challenge), the limbic system in the mid-brain area becomes aroused and clear-thinking ability disappears. It is important to note that this is a natural response to a perceived threat and results in a learner wanting to run, fight or shut down. You will see all of these responses in school, those that suddenly charge out of the classroom with no explanation, those who start throwing things or lashing out at people, and those whose head goes down with refusal to engage with anyone. It is worth noting that unless they have specifically been taught about how and why the brain responds in this way, the student may be as baffled as you are about why they experienced such an emotional response!

It is therefore important that a student learns ways to overcome the urge to run or disengage when the going gets tough. A starting point is to realise that ‘challenge’ is an important part of the learning process and not something to be feared.

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