Tag Archives: reform

The Importance of Failing Well

2 Apr

The Importance of Failing Well


 Lance G King

Copy of this article is available at http://taolearn.com/articles/article88.pdf


A study of intellectually gifted students at a New Zealand high school has revealed one significant factor that distinguishes the highest achievers from the lowest achievers.


This factor was 100% significant – present in all the highest achievers and absent in all the lowest achievers.


This factor was their ability to fail well.



The Discovery:

From 2006-2008 as part of the requirements for my Masters degree, I was lucky enough to get to work with a wonderful group of GATE (Gifted and Talented Education)  students in my local high school. The group included students from all grades, from 13–18 years old, all bright, interesting and interested and a pleasure to work with. My investigation was into any links between their resilience and their academic performance.


Their resilience was gauged using a standard questionnaire approach focused on measuring both their Locus of Control (LOC) and Learned Helplessness (LH) orientations.


During the study all the students sat a major end-of-year examination in their school subjects. Based on their exam results their teachers then classified them into either the High Achiever, Achiever or Underachiever group of students.


My first discovery was that with these students there was no connection at all between their academic success and their resilience. Some helpless, external LOC kids were succeeding well and some resilient, internal LOC kids were bombing out.


My curiosity then led me to control for resilience and look further.


Pairs of students with identical resilience scores were then formed with one member of each pair being from the High Achiever student group and one from the Underachiever student group. The Achiever group of students was taken out of the analysis to help make the extremes more explicit. Five pairs of students were identified in this way making ten students in total. All ten students were then interviewed and their responses analysed.


Across all five pairs of students the practical strategies and internal characteristics of the High Achievers that were noticeably different from the Underachievers were:

  • involvement in extra-curricular activities
  • intense interests or passions
  • intellectual curiosity, academic engagement, a drive for understanding
  • gaining enjoyment from significant challenge
  • an active and clear goal focus
  • using active strategies to learn from failure
  • choosing to succeed.


But it was around the concept of failure that the greatest differences were found.


Failure in this study, was defined as not reaching a goal. Setting a goal, to win a game, to get a certain grade, outcome, performance and then not achieving that goal.


Their responses were very revealing.


While both the High Achievers and the Underachievers had all attributed failure to a lack of effort in their questionnaire data, a noticeable difference between them was elicited from their interview data. The High Achievers all reported actively applying long term effort-based strategies for academic achievement, whereas the Underachievers only reported applying effort in response to immediate deadlines.


Similarly with procrastination, all interviewees reported procrastination to be a problem for them but whereas the High Achievers were actively taking steps to get on top of the problem, the Underachievers were succumbing to it and resorting to last minute urgency to get them through.


The understanding and acceptance of failure was also strongly exhibited by the High Achievers in their interviews in contrast to the Underachievers. The Underachievers tended to deny that failure existed for them or took steps to avoid the possibility of failure in their lives. The one Underachiever who acknowledged failure in his life reported feeling completely overwhelmed by what he saw as the total failure of everything in his life and so rendered himself completely helpless.


The responses to failure reported across the five Underachievers were:

  • denying failure
  • using ability attributions to explain any setbacks
  • using no obvious strategies to reflect on and learn from mistakes
  • eliminating any subject or task in which failure was experienced
  • avoiding any situations where failure was possible
  • believing that every personal action resulted in failure and it was impossible to change
  • denying any successes
  • focusing on own short-comings
  • disengaging from the subject matter
  • being content with underachievement.


In comparison the responses reported by the five High Achievers in dealing with failure were:

  • using effort based attributions for any failure
  • focusing on learning from mistakes
  • being adaptable and achieving to the level of personal best
  • using hard work, talent and organisation to limit failure
  • being prepared to try new strategies and apply more effort
  • establishing absolute control in important areas
  • using precise goal focus and the application of organisation and effort to minimise failure
  • viewing failure as temporary and specific
  • taking responsibility for own actions in any failure situation.


Taking my lead from the information security industry I called one response to failure, failing well and the other response failing badly.


Reaction to failure:


Failing Well



Failing Badly

  • Acknowledging your failures,

taking responsibility for your own actions,

working out what you did wrong,

making changes,

and having another go


  • Blaming the school or the ‘system’
  • Blaming other people
  • Pretending you never have any failures
  • Adding drama to failures to avoid dealing with them
  • Avoiding any activity that could possibly result in failure
  • Dropping any activity after the first failure
  • Making the same mistake over and over
  • Universalising failure


My study seemed to suggest three conclusions:


1)    That maybe there was a direct relationship between failing well and academic success for all students not just gifted students


2)    That it seemed that there was only one way to fail well but there were many ways to fail badly


3)    That the idea of failing well could create a new model of success. Previously, for any endeavour (goal, plan, task) there were only ever two possible outcomes – success or failure, but with this model there were always three possible outcomes, success, failing well and failing badly, and two of those were positive.


Which led me in turn to the hypothesis that there was a causal relationship between failing well and academic success. That learning to fail well actually produced academic success.


Then I set out to see if I was right.



The Confirmation:

For the last five years I have worked with many thousands of students, their parents and teachers in 10 different countries testing out this model and the results appears to be consistent across the world:


– Students who fail well do better, much better, than students who fail badly.

– Teachers who fail well do better.

– Parents who fail well do better.


The key to it seems to be in the reprocessing of failure.

I suggest the following steps:

1)    Get over your emotional attachment to the word failure. Failure is just feedback. Feedback on what you aren’t doing right yet

2)    Second, admit every failure – immediately. Remember that the definition of failure is simply not reaching a goal

3)    Take responsibility for your own actions in not achieving that goal

4)    Make changes

5)    Have another go


Take a school situation as a simple example – imagine your child has just sat a Maths test with 10 questions and they have got 6 out of 10 correct.

What do they do with the 4 out of 10 they got wrong?

This is the crucial test.


Children that practice failing well will look at the six out of ten they got right and feel OK about that, they passed. And then they will look at the four out of ten they got wrong and ask why. Then they will analyse each question, work out exactly what they did wrong and make corrections and make sure they know how the correct answer was arrived at.

Then they will do a couple more problems similar to each one of the ones they got wrong until they are confident they have nailed them all. Then they will put the whole test behind them.


Children that practice failing badly will look at the six out of ten and feel OK about that, they passed. Then they will put the whole test behind them.


The secret seems to be in re-working any failure. Making sure you have another go, whatever the situation is, but making sure you change something first.


To help with this both teachers and parents need to reframe the word ‘failure’ and help children to understand that failure is a necessary part of growth and learning and there are two distinctly different ways to fail.


In the school situation the greatest challenge may well be to de-stigmatise the word failure and to create a classroom climate where children feel safe to fail. Only then will students be able to examine their own reactions to failure and practice building up the skills of failing well.


From now on every task, every goal, every performance has not two but three possible outcomes – Success, Failing Well and Failing Badly, and two of those are positive. By adopting this model you instantly increase the potential for success by one third.




Lance King (B. Tech, Dip. Ed(dist), M.Ed(hons)) is an internationally recognized author, teacher and workshop facilitator who, in the last 18 years, has worked with over 150,000 students worldwide. He is the creator of the Art of Learning programme taught in over 200 schools in ten countries and is a specialist in the direct teaching of ‘learning skills’. Within the IB he has been instrumental in the development of the Approaches to Learning programme in the new MYP and the subsequent Approaches to Teaching programmes. He is married with four children, lives in Raglan, New Zealand and divides his time between teaching and presenting workshops for teachers, parents and students around the world and writing – www.taolearn.com



Referenced academic paper on this topic available at: http://taolearn.com/articles/article87.pdf



Full thesis on this topic available at:  http://taolearn.com/articles/article28.pdf


The Teaching Revolution

3 Jun

I work with students in many high schools around the world and over the last two years I have asked every class I work with the same question – “How many of you have a web-capable phone?”

Two years ago the response was about 5%, today it is usually around 80% and just recently I had my first 100% response.

This is significant.

How long will it be before every child in every classroom has a web-capable phone…………that they’re not allowed to use?

Right now there are:

  • 6 billion cell phones in the world (world total population is 7 billion)
  • 85% of new phones web enabled
  • 2 billion broadband subscriptions
  • 255 million websites
  • 150 million blogs
  • 8 trillion text messages sent in 2011
  • 107 trillion emails – 89% of which were spam

How long will it be before:

  • every piece of subject matter is available to every student on the internet, and
  • they all have access to internet linked tablets, and
  • they all have access to high speed broadband all day?

What will teaching look like then?

What will be the key skills that students will need in order to cope with and take advantage of this environment?

This is not the future, this is today!

Imagine a school where:

1)the entire focus of teaching is on the processes of learning, where the aim of every lesson is the development and improvement of the skills of effective learning, using the subject matter of the lesson as the material for the student to practice their learning skills on

2) in every class students work in groups of 3-4 with one high-speed internet linked data tablet device per group

3) the objectives for each lesson are stated by the teacher as:

– the learning skills to be practiced

– the subject matter  to practice those skills on and the best web-based sources to use

to find that subject matter

– the questions to be answered

4) where learning is by true exploration and enquiry.

I believe that right now we stand on the brink of a revolution in education, the DSRLPOSBGIL revolution, which is not a revolution in learning because everyone has always learned best this way, what it is, is a revolution in teaching! Maybe the most significant one in 200 years.

The revolution in education involves teachers abandoning ‘transmission’ teaching and adopting principles of skills based, guided inquiry learning (SBGIL). This means teachers teaching the skills of good learning using their particular subject matter as the ‘meat’ for students to practice the skills on. It involves students utilising net-capable devices, working in small groups, accessing subject-based websites, practising learning skills like searching, selecting, verifying, validating and corroborating information as well as social skills of collaboration, communication, team work and maybe even affective skills like perseverance and persistence. In this scenario, teaching becomes about making explicit all the processes of learning and guiding the students on a pathway of enquiry to achieve specific measurable content and process based outcomes (POSBGIL – Process Oriented, Skills Based Guided Inquiry Learning). Helping the students to ask the right questions but never providing the answers.

What this new type of teaching is not about is teachers using the internet as just one more textbook. When every student has access to all the information in the world 24/7 then the most marketable skills will be the skills of good learning. How to find the right information, process it well, extract what you need and move on having learnt something new. These are the skills of the self-regulated learner and in order to become competent in these skills children need to be put in the position of practicing the regulation of their own learning – hence DSRLPOSBGIL (Developing Self Regulated Learners through Process Oriented, Skills Based, Guided Inquiry Learning).

The most motivating learning has always been self-regulated learning (self-directed, self-managed, autonomous, independent) and yet up to now the infrastructure of education has not allowed for learning by exploration and discovery except at the elementary level. The proliferation of internet based school subject websites and the ubiquity of data delivery devices has changed all that.

Teachers no longer need to be the ‘font of all knowledge’ they just need to know where to send their students to find everything they need. This means that every teacher needs to be familiar with every website that deals with their particular area of expertise and to know those websites well enough to design every lesson around the content found there. The school must have the infrastructure in place to support one device and one high speed internet connection per four students. NOT one computer per student, that only increases isolation and decreases collaboration, communication and memory – this is very important (see Sugata Mitra’s paper http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet21/mitra.html or video http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html )

Then the focus of teaching can be moved to the inculcation of effective learning skills.

Intrinsically motivated learning is achieved through the application of a dynamic, internally controlled set of metacognitive, cognitive and affective processes that positively influence a student’s tendency to approach, engage with, expend effort on, and persist in tasks of learning in an ongoing, self-regulated manner. Exactly what everyone does when they are learning something new that they are intensely interested in.

Metacognitive processes are those that focus on the self management of learning – planning, implementing and monitoring learning efforts – as well as gaining the knowledge of when, where, why and how to use specific learning strategies in their appropriate contexts. Cognitive processes are those which focus on developing the particular skills necessary to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge or skill, and affective processes are those that focus on such non-cognitive aspects of learning as motivation, self concept and the skill of selective attribution.

The best students in the world, those whose study is most effective in helping them to pass their examinations, all have one characteristic in common, the deliberate use of a variety of learning strategies.  In other words they treat learning as a process requiring many different techniques and strategies depending on the subject and the context . They actively seek out options for every stage of the learning process, they try out different things and they notice what works and what doesn’t. To do this the best students are continuously engaged with both the subject matter they are learning and the processes they are using to learn that subject matter. They view any learning failure as a failure of process rather than that of the individual, they find better processes and apply them, they reflect on the results and they continually improve the success of their learning efforts.

Unfortunately the direct teaching of learning skills is still uncommon in most school programmes. Studies show that only 20% of teachers believe that teaching students ‘study skills’ is a priority and only 17% of students report that teachers actively help them to learn or improve their study skills.

It has often been said that most of the jobs children in school today will take have not been invented yet and that most of today’s children will have at least 5 different careers in their lifetime and will need to be able to re-invent themselves for each career change. Also it is said that 95% of jobs in the future will involve information processing through an electronic interface of some kind.

A 2007 survey of 400 hiring executives of major USA corporations asked what knowledge and skills they were looking for in potential future employees. The results were, in priority order:

1)      Oral and written communication skills

2)      Critical thinking and problem solving skills

3)      Professionalism and work ethic

4)      Teamwork and collaboration skills

5)      Ability to work in diverse teams

6)      Fluency with information technology

7)      Leadership and project management skills

Knowledge of mathematics came 14th on the list just ahead of science knowledge and foreign language comprehension.

In the UK in 2007 the Department for Education’s own research in Learning Skills and the Development of Learning Capability concluded that “the results suggest that the development of learning skills and capabilities should be embedded in the curriculum, as well as being taught explicitly to pupils.” By 2008 the QCA had created their own “framework of personal, learning and thinking skills essential to success in learning, life and work” which required students to become:

  • Independent enquirers
  • Creative thinkers
  • Reflective learners
  • Team workers
  • Self-managers
  • Effective participators

Unfortunately due to a change in government or a change in focus by 2011 the QCA had been disbanded and its functions absorbed by DfE and all trace of this programme lost.

In New Zealand we have a new curriculum which focuses, at least in part, on the development of what are called the 5 Key Competencies:

  • Thinking
  • Using language, symbols and text
  • Managing self
  • Relating to others
  • Participating and contributing.

Poland has the following set of skills and competencies that have to be acquired by the end of lower secondary education:

  • Reading
  • Mathematical thinking
  • Scientific thinking
  • Communicative skills
  • Technological skills
  • Information usage
  • Self-orientation
  • Team working

Other OECD countries that have similar overarching sets of key or basic skills or competencies include Belgium, Italy, Korea, Mexico the Slovak Republic, Spain, and Turkey.

In the USA, 46 states have now agreed on a common core curriculum of 21st Century skills to be taught at the elementary level. Called the Elementary Integrated Curriculum (EIC) it includes:

Academic Success Skills:

  • Collaboration
  • Effort/Motivation/Persistence
  • Intellectual Risk Taking
  • Metacognition

Creative Thinking Skills:

  • Elaboration
  • Flexibility
  • Fluency
  • Originality

Critical Thinking Skills:

  • Analysis
  • Evaluation
  • Synthesis

All around the world educational organisations are coming to grips with the need for schools to engage students with learning what are often called 21st Century Skills, however only within the International Baccalaureate (IB) is that support explicitly differentiated into a specific subject of its own, Approaches To Learning (ATL) within the Middle Years Programme (MYP).

ATL skills have been broken down into five clusters:

Organizers Skill clusters
Thinking Critical thinking, creativity and innovation, reflection and transfer
Social Collaboration
Communication Interaction and literacy
Self-management Organization and affective skills
Research Information and media literacy, and critical literacy

Within those clusters more than 165 individual skills have been identified.

The first task for students is to self-assess their present levels of skills in each of these areas and from then on to monitor their own progress from Novice – Expert in each skills cluster by gaining proficiency with the individual skills within each cluster most suited to their age and abilities.

Level 1

The Novice

– observation

Level 2

The Learner

– emulation

Level 3

The Practitioner

– demonstration

Level 4

The Expert

– self-regulation

Observes others performing tasks and using the skillGathers procedural information about the performance of the skill, asks questions to clarify procedure

High levels of scaffolding from teacher needed –  explanations, training, structural support


Copies others performance of the skillIs very conscious of performing the skill and correcting errors with deliberation

Performs skill only with known content in known context

Medium level of scaffolding needed –  correcting poor performance, answering questions


Can demonstrate the skill on demandCan perform skill either with different content or in different context

Minimal teacher scaffolding required – setting directions, goals, assessable outcomes

Can perform the skill without thinking through the process firstCan teach others the skill

Can use skill with unfamiliar content in unfamiliar context

High levels of performance occur

No teacher scaffolding needed


Such ‘process skills’ analysis raises the student’s awareness of any skill deficiencies which can then be addressed in the learning skills programme. It also exposes the student to the possibility of a range of skills they could learn and strategies that they could try which might have a positive influence on their learning success. This is the first awakening for some students when they realise that children who seem to learn much easier than them are probably using skills and strategies that they too could learn.

The second task for students is to become aware that they can take positive self control in learning situations and plan deliberate strategy use and in doing so increase both their sense of personal competency and their learning achievement. This is the metacognitive function that drives the whole learning improvement process and through which the greatest improvements in academic performance can be achieved.

Once perceptions of competency and positive self control in learning are developed, students are much more inclined to try out new cognitive and affective strategies in new learning situations and ultimately develop full control over their own learning and become a fully self-regulated (self-managed, self-directed, autonomous, independent, lifelong) learner.

The challenge for teachers is in moving from transmission teaching where the teacher is the font of all knowledge to a more facilitative style where the teacher is helping the students to discover the information for themselves.

The most effective method is through ongoing, process focused teaching by subject teachers within standard subjects. The process focused teacher is the one whose highest value is the teaching of learning skills and who uses their particular content as the vehicle through which to teach effective learning processes. This is not to deny the importance of any taught content but is an approach which brings about a dual focus in the classroom – on both content and process. Many studies have shown that the most uniformly positive results in terms of academic engagement, understanding, transfer of skills and high performance in assessments come about through a focus in the classroom on learning strategy training in a metacognitive, self-regulated context in connection with specific content.

The ‘learning skills’ focus of international and national curricula aiming at developing 21st Century Skills within students has made the development of process focused teaching possible within many educational structures. The proliferation of high speed internet services and the ubiquity of data processing devices has made guided inquiry learning possible in many classrooms. The real challenge is putting the two together.

Luckily we have the experience of others to draw on. In 1999 a national innovation programme was introduced into Dutch secondary education, aimed at encouraging teachers to foster what they called ASRL – Active Self Regulated Learning. Twelve years later the entire project was reviewed – It tells its own story very clearly:

“The innovation focused on the higher grades (15 – 18 years of age) of upper level secondary education, the grades preparing for higher education. It was based on three general ideas:

(a) Self-regulation of learning – students have to learn to regulate their own learning process, considering the importance of life-long learning. This means that students should gradually become the owners of their own learning process. It also implies more attention to the affective aspects of learning.

(b) Learning as active construction of knowledge. Students learn better when they actively construct their own knowledge; and

(c) Collaborative learning. Students should learn in interaction with fellow students. Collaborative learning is seen as a powerful learning environment and collaborative skills are believed to be necessary for future work.”

“The reform implied a fundamental change in teachers’ educational and pedagogical role. The general aim of the renewal was to prepare students more effectively for higher education and lifelong learning. A more specific aim was for students to learn how to regulate their own learning processes. Teachers were therefore expected to focus more on facilitating, supporting and monitoring student learning processes and less on transmitting subject-matter knowledge to students, and to foster students’ ASRL in their daily work practice.”

“However, in the period of early implementation of the reform, hardly any practical examples of instructional methods for this new teaching approach were available. Schools were expected

to develop suitable pedagogy themselves, with the help of educational advice centres. Evaluation studies reported implementation processes that often lacked a clear vision and policy. Teachers’ daily classroom practice did not show much self-regulated learning and activating pedagogy. Many teachers still focused particularly on the subject-matter and learning outcomes and far less on students’ learning processes.”

The biggest stumbling block to achieving the goals of self-regulated learning was that teachers found it hard not to teach.

This is the challenge.

This is why I am pointing to a revolution in teaching not in learning.

It is the teachers who must learn how to stop teaching and allow learning to take place. Only by being allowed to practice the skills of self-regulated learning will students ever become self-regulated learners.

In 2009, the OECD working group summed up their overall findings in ’21st Century Skills and Competences for New Millennium Learners in OECD Countries’ as:

1) Most countries subscribed to the importance and policy relevance of 21st century skills and competences

2) Most countries were attempting to integrate these skills in a cross-curricular way, across subject areas

3) Clear policies for formative or summative assessment of these skills were lacking in all countries surveyed

5) There were few teacher training programmes available in any country that targeted the teaching or development of 21st century skills.

The key to the creation and development of today’s students as tomorrow’s self-regulated learners will be effective professional development (PD) of teachers.

This can be achieved, with well structured PD which focuses on the three strands of developing self-regulated learners (SRL). By teaching teachers:

1)       how to teach cognitive, affective and metacognitive skills (ATL skills)within the context of their subject based lessons

2)      how to make the classroom experience for the students one of skills based, process oriented, guided inquiry learning

3)      how to help students to self assess their content, skills and strategy use through reflection

Of course, recognising that the most motivating, exciting, involving learning is always through exploration and discovery means that all PD for teachers in this field must also be delivered through the mechanisms of POSBGIL (Process Oriented, Skills Based, Guided Inquiry Learning).

If the real goal of education is the creation and development of lifelong learners then I believe that with the innovations of new national and international curricula combined with the proliferation of school subject based resources available on the internet the key infrastructural factors are in place today within most countries to bring about a revolution in teaching and hence a revolution in school based learning.






References for DSRLPOSBGIL:

Vermunt, J. D. (1995). Process-oriented instruction in learning and thinking strategies. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 10, 325-349.

Vermunt, J. D. & Verloop, N. (1999). Congruence and friction between learning and teaching. Learning and Instruction, 9, 257-280

Vrieling, E. M., Bastiaens, T. J. & Stijnen, S. (2010). Process-oriented design principles for promoting self-regualted learning in primary teacher education. International Journal of Educational Research,  49, 141 – 150

16 Top Strategies of the World’s best High School Students

22 May

1)    get time tabled – calendars, diaries, year planner

–         whole year with exam dates

–         semesters/terms with test dates

–         weekly classes

–         teacher availability outside class time

–         all assignment due dates

For you to be organised requires your school and your teachers to be organised and to be able to provide you with all this information at the beginning of the year. Keep asking until you get it


2)    get to classes – all classes – no excuses, you must keep up.


3)    take good notes in class:

a)     divide each page up vertically into two columns  1/3, 2/3, write all class notes only in the 2/3 column, leave the 1/3 column blank

b)    listen for ideas and write each new idea in a different colour


4)    every night – review (read over) all the notes taken that day and pull out the key points and write them in the 1/3 column, draw diagrams, pictures, flow charts to summarise the main ideas


5)    if you do miss any classes, make sure you photocopy someone else’s notes for that class as soon as possible and review them to make sure you understand


6)    if you have any questions, any things you don’t understand, think carefully about what exactly it is you don’t understand, formulate good questions, track down your teachers outside of class time and ask them


7)    if you still don’t understand something, go to the net, there are a huge number of websites for every school subject and often they will present the same information to you as you are doing in class but in a way that suits you better. Check out the “Study Tips for Students” page on my website http://www.taolearn.com/students.php – it has a big list of free and useful websites for students studying every subject


8)    always notice your own self-motivation strategies – how do you get yourself to do things that you know are going to be hard or difficult? What is your strategy for courage? Practice using those same strategies to get you to keep concentrating and keep focused in the classes you find difficult or boring. Remember success means doing things that other people find hard.


9)    organise your study area at home – desk, chair, light, instrumental music, water, fruit, take oxygenation breaks every 45 minutes when you are studying


10)           learn some memory techniques – for all the information that you just have to memorise, use the best memory techniques available – search them out in libraries, on the net


11)           doing assignments

a)     as soon as you get an assignment mark the due date in your diary (on your phone) and later transfer that date to your wall calendar

b)    in the lesson when you get told about the assignment, find out what is the word length, aim, objectives, deadline, marking criteria, and most importantly – can you submit a draft?


What are the stages of completing an assignment?

i)       Finding the information – research                              (25% of the time?)

ii)     Processing the information – reading                          (25%?)

iii)   Planning the piece of work – sequencing ideas         (5%?)

iv)   Doing the writing                                                               (40%?)

v)     Proof reading, making corrections and handing it in          (5%?)


c)     timeline every assignment – when will you need to have it  25% done by? 50% done? 75% done? Mark the dates on your calendar/year planner, aim always to finish all assignments with one day to spare


The solution to procrastination is organisation

d)    decide what mark are you aiming for A++ à C, Achieve à Excellence

e)     identify topic, question to be answered and decide on your point of view – this is what teachers (and examiners) are looking for – a thoughtful point of view

f)      research – get familiar with the library – where are the books, journals, reference section, videos, audio tapes for your subjects?

g)     find the best web sites for all your subjects


Remember – information is king – the first to find the best sources of information wins!

h)    reading – learn to skim read through textbooks, web pages just looking for key points, ideas that support your point of view

i)       make summaries of key points using mindmaps, THOrTmaps

j)       plan out a sequence of points to make which lead to your conclusion and find one quote to back up each point

k)     prepare a draft and (if possible) take it to your teacher for appraisal

l)        write the final copy

m)  proof read, make corrections, hand in.


12)           Each week make summaries of all the key points covered in each subject


13)           Once a month put all your weekly summaries together into a one month summary


14)           When you have a test or exam then just work through all your summaries and do some old exam questions on the topics


15)           If you get de-motivated or stressed out by schoolwork, focus back on your purpose – what is school for? Why is it useful to do well at school? What can you get out of it? Make both short and long term goals to support your achievement


16)           Use relaxation techniques to overcome exam nerves

Getting over the fear of doing it wrong

19 Jan

One thing I have noticed, particularly in working with parents of primary children, is the fear. The fear that you might not be making the right choices for your children, the fear that they might be missing out on something, the fear that they will not have every possible advantage in life, the over-whelming fear that if you don’t micro-manage every aspect of your children’s lives they might not turn out alright!!  For those parents I would like to give a message of reassurance and let them know that long term, it really doesn’t matter. Having helped bring up four children and having had the last one leave home just a month ago (hallelujah!!), I know that the important things in their lives were in their hearts not in their minds. The more you try to micro-manage, control and modify them as young children the more resistance you are going to reap when they are teenagers. KEEP THIS IN MIND!! One day these lovely, obedient, smart, thoughtful, young children are going to be big enough and stroppy enough to be able to look you in the eye and say “No, I don’t care what you want, I am going to, and there is nothing you can do about it”. And at that point we need to be able to celebrate that moment knowing that our child knows the difference between right and wrong, knows how to assess risk well, is confident and capable enough to handle any situation they find themselves in, and knows they can always call on us for help – no matter what! At that moment we have to have the courage to say “You go girl!!” (or boy as the case may be) and let them go and practice being a grownup.

Last November I had to say goodbye to my daughter (20 years old) as she left for India for 3 months, on a voluntary programme to work with prostitutes and children with aids in north-west India, near Lahore where people are blowing themselves up on a daily basis. She and her friends (2 other girls and one guy) have endured what to me would be unimaginable hardships of temperature, sanitation, food poisoning, they have been the object of almost constant harassment, have been at the mercy of entrenched and obdurate bureaucracy, and yet have had the most amazing time of their lives (if you are interested in their story go to  http://gypsygitan.wordpress.com ). And it was not what they knew that helped them most it was their ability to connect with people, to care, to understand other people’s perspectives, to ask for help, to problem solve, to take immediate action when needed, to persist and to be absolutely determined.     

These are some of the skills I think we need to focus on with our children, not whether they got the best marks or the highest score but how do they deal with it when they don’t. How do they feel, what can they do about it, how can they recover quickly, can they appreciate how others feel, how can they help others feel OK?

Be assured that as long as your children know that they are loved and know where their home is they will turn out fine. I think our most important job as parents is to help our children take care of their ‘heart-life’. What I mean by this is helping them to keep in touch with their own heart and not spend their whole life in their minds.

 The Golden Rules for Growing Resilient Children

 Children only do what works – eg. if little Johnny keeps forgetting his lunch, stop bringing it in for him, a little hunger is a great memory prompt – the same goes for gym gear, footwear, raincoats etc..

Give them your time – spend time with your children, just listening, helping, encouraging – it’s not the activity that counts it’s the time

Teach them caution not fear – encourage them to assess risks and take risks, if it’s not life threatening why shouldn’t they do it?

Help them take responsibility for their own actions – if they earn demerits have them reflect on what they could do differently next time, how they can learn from their mistakes, DO NOT make excuses for them

Help them learn to fight their own battles – if they have been hard done by they must learn to represent themselves, to seek justice for themselves, not have you do it for them – STOP fighting their battles for them

Encourage them to take on new challenges and use failure as feedback – that’s how we learn. Share your own personal stories of failure, consequences and recovery – teach them how to recover well from difficulties, setbacks and failure

Focus on who they are not what they do – children only need to know they are loved and to know where their home is to turn out OK

Highlight positive role models of success through learning and success through perseverance, determination, focus, passion, courage and persistence

Strive to be worthy of imitation


Beginning a new school year, developing the resilient learner

30 Nov


The biggest difficulty I have always had is simply getting involved. Like you I am sure, I find my own life to be very busy and there is not much time available to get involved in my children’s schooling and it is so much easier just to leave it all up to the school. Also my children do not want me to be involved, they do not want to be picked out as having an interfering parent and would much sooner I just kept out of it! And of course I have chosen the school they attend because I believe it will do a good job for them so my tendency is to just let them get on with it.

And I have found that schools often encourage that approach. They want parents involved if there are performances to attend, sports teams that need coaches or extra transport, fund raising for specific projects or discipline matters to attend to but involvement in the processes of learning? Generally not encouraged in my experience.

But this is the area that pays the biggest dividends.

From School

Beginning a new year the information you need to obtain from the school is:

1)     Your child’s subjects details

–          teachers names for each subject and contact phone numbers or email addresses if you can get them

–          subject structure – % internal assessment, % exams

–          assessment schedule for the year – especially timing of major exams

2)     the overall expectations the school holds for your child for their major assessments – IGCSE, GCSE, Common Exams, YGS-LYS, IB, A Level exams

3)     based on past records the subjects she is likely to excel in and the subjects he may struggle in

4)     the names of other important people at school – the Head, the year Dean, any specialist teacher your child will be with, etc…

Obviously textbooks, pens, books and other resources will need to be taken care of.

At Home

What we are always seeking is to get our children into a rhythm, a habit of homework, review and study, which needs to start as soon as possible.

Key Points:

1)    encourage your children to get their homework done as soon as possible after coming home from school

– this enables focused work to be completed while the brain is still functioning well and not fatigued by the lateness of the hour

– they will often need to get their blood-sugar levels up by eating first but homework should be next.

–  of course this won’t suit everyone but if you make things like TV, video games, the internet etc contingent on completion of homework then this process can become self rewarding.

2)    as a vital part of homework, each night all notes completed during the day need to be reviewed – read through again.

– this will enable the connections made in the brain during the day to be reinforced within 24 hours and facilitates the process of shifting information into long term memory.

3)    as part of the review process, on a regular basis, maybe once a week, key-point summaries need to be made in each subject to consolidate the main ideas and act as the basis of study notes for the next exam.

If this was done on a regular basis throughout the year it would eliminate all the pressure and study problems (eg. procrastination) come exam time.


– when s/he’s got cricket practice, music lessons, tennis practice, dance classes, chess club, drama, etc etc…..

Well as I said it is all about habits and the only way we get our children into good habits is with clear rationale, good efficient systems and ongoing reinforcement – reason, process, rewards and (dare I say it??) punishment.

1)     Reason: the most important thing we all need to get ourselves to tackle difficult tasks is a reason, a rationale, a purpose. This requires clear and consistent discussion in your household about the importance of education especially in a modern, technology driven, competitive world, and the connection between having good qualifications and having more choices in life.

Qualifications confer the advantages of more choices and hence more opportunities.

This may seem blindingly obvious to you but in my experience it is not always so for teenagers.


2)     Process: this is our speciality – the proceeses of effective learning – if you are reading this then your children have most likely attended one of our seminars and will have these skills, they just need to practice them. If they haven’t yet done one of our courses, talk to the school and find out when we are coming back, or email me on taolearn@xtra.co.nz to find out when. A third option is to get a copy of my forthcoming book “”The Art of Learning – Companion Guide for Students” which contains all the information given to your children on our full 5 hour course plus lots more tips and strategies for effective learning. This book is due for release very soon and can be pre-ordered from the above email address.

3)     Rewards and Punishment: there is a lot of literature available about the problems of rewards and the detrimental effects of punishment and certainly what works for me may not be appropriate in your household but you may be interested in my experiences:

I can remember having great problems in this area when my daughter was in Year 11 and I also had one son in Year 10.

My daughter always arrived home from school each day and immediately got stuck into her homework, completed virtually all tasks on time, was prepared to ask for help if she got stuck and studied well for exams. She was then (and still is) independent, organised, determined, persistent and strong willed. She has always strived for excellence in all her subjects and has been academically successful. Her mental strength is somewhat greater than her physical strength though and she has a tendency to engage in risky behaviour, to over-perform and to “burn out” physically.

My son on the other hand has traditionally left his homework to the last minute each day, has not always completed tasks assigned, has not really studied at all, has not been very interested in pushing himself and has not ever considered himself to be at all academic. He has a “laid-back” view of school and learning in general and is happy to take life as it comes. He is dependent, disorganised, lackadaisical, social, gentle, kind and not particularly focused on anything. He has yet to learn how to push himself to 100% in anything and always works well within his abilities.

So the challenge for me as a parent then, was how to keep my daughter out of trouble and within her own limits and how to get my son to take some responsibility for his own learning and his own academic success.

In other words, how to help them both become more “educationally resilient”.

Some of the key principles of resilience building are

1)     a focus on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivators

2)     improving process to improve outcome

3)     being prepared to accept challenges and take risks

4)     being prepared to fail

5)     learning from every mistake

6)     being focused on effort rather than ability

7)     learning to push ourselves to do more than we think we can

8)     developing an internal locus of control

9)     developing a belief in the fluidity of intelligence

So how have I helped my children in this area?

1)     Help them learn how to challenge their own boundaries

I provide opportunities for them to push themselves to do things that maybe are more than they think they can do, challenge them to extend their limits and take a risk (within safe boundaries of course).

This is easier than it may sound, certainly in New Zealand anyway. One thing I have done is to take all four of my children Bungy Jumping. Now a Bungy Jump is a unique opportunity to challenge yourself because when you are standing on the platform over a drop of over 100 metres (~350ft) with a rubber cord tied around your legs being encouraged to fall forwards the only thing that is going on inside you is that a part of your brain (the survival part) is saying NO! NO! NO! NO! – and you have to get past that block in order to take the jump.

It is perfectly safe but it is a real challenge to get yourself to do it. I gave all four of my children complete autonomy over whether they took the jump or not but I asked them if they did do it to notice what went on inside of themselves – to notice the fear, notice the resistance and notice what they had to do to overcome that. I went first and then all four of my children followed, one at a time.

They all reported it was a great moment in their life, they discovered something important about themselves and it was well worth it.

And here we all are moments after the last jump – safe and sound (that’s me with the hat on):

Now I don’t know if you have any equivalents to Bungy Jumping where you live but if you have, in my opinion they are great learning opportunities, not to be missed.

The corollary to this in school life means encouraging your children to tackle the difficult subjects at school, to take on new challenges, to try things that they think they might not be very good at. Resilience it seems only develops by practise and to practise resilience you have to risk having failure and you can only do that if you get outside your comfort zone.

This of course raises one of the big issues in subject choice – should your children be encouraged to excel in subjects they obviously have a flair for, thus narrowing their range of choices and potentially their opportunities in later life, or should they be encouraged to try new subjects to develop new skills and gain new knowledge thus broadening their range of choices and possibilities in later life???

I have always taken a pragmatic, “a bit of both” approach. Making sure that each year my children have some subjects that they feel they are good at and can excel in and also some new subjects which will challenge them in new ways.

2)     Help them learn to handle failure well:


The point is simply that no-one succeeds without failure and learning how to handle failure is the essence of resilience. This word “failure” has become such a loaded term that it is often difficult to get past the emotional baggage that goes with it but get past it we must. Each time your children do not succeed as they want to then that is a failure – a failure to live up to their own expectations. Failure is something to be expected, to be noticed and to be learned from. Failures provide excellent opportunities to create success.

When my children get a result from school that they are not happy with the process is very simple:

i)              are you happy with this result?

ii)             how did you get this result – what process did you use to get this result?

iii)            what part of that process could be improved upon?

iv)            what will you do differently next time?

This strategy will also help them:

–          to focus on the process as the best mechanism to create future success, and

–          to learn from mistakes.

3)     Help them build intrinsic motivators and focus on effort rather than ability as the main determinant of success:

Help your children to see the pleasures they take for granted in their lives – TV, computer games, internet time, even phone time, as rewards for getting their necessary work done. Help them to become self-monitoring and responsible with respect to all these everyday pleasures and make sure they are clear that you are prepared to take all those pleasures away if they are seen to be avoiding putting in the necessary effort.

If you are thinking of rewarding your children during the year for school related success, make sure you are rewarding effort rather than outcome. In other words if you have noticed your son studying hard for a test or exam give him a treat as soon as the test is over as a reward for effort rather than when the results come out as a reward for result. This strategy causes the focus to be on the work necessary to achieve good results rather than the result itself which produces a more resilient response in future situations of challenging learning.

If you would like to subscribe to this blog and receive
notification of any new posts please email
the author at taolearn@xtra.co.nz

Half way through the year, before mid-year exams – independent learning

6 Oct

Holidays are over, it’s as cold as it ever gets where you are and your children are back at school feeling like their holiday was too short, the’ve forgotten everything they learned last term and they are already behind in their work. Have I got it right? They probably had course work to do over the holiday break that they didn’t get finished, they’ve got mid-year or ‘mock’ exams coming up soon and they are expected to start thinking about their finals already!!

It is no wonder this is the season of maximum depression. What your children need most at this time is to ease as gently as possible back into the routines of homework and study with as much support from you as possible. If you have been to any of my presentations you will know that I am not a fan of parents pressuring children but I am a fan of good organisation. Remember that the solution to depression is action. What can they do to get on top of things, what actions can they take – with your help?

Strategies for the (slightly) de-motivated child


1) Focus on purpose – why are you at school?

This is the most critical question and although the answers may be obvious to you if you haven’t talked through this question with your son or daughter because it is just too obvious then do so – you might be surprised. And don’t accept any glib answers. You need to explore:

–          how is getting an education an advantage?

–          what is the nature of modern society – the information revolution, the internet?

–          what kind of jobs are going to be the most sought after in the future?

–          role models of success – using their brain or their body most?

–          the building block nature of education – what leads to what?

In the end I think it comes down to having choices, in that a good education will give you more choices as an adult than a poor education will. And more choices are worth having. Real poverty can be easily defined as having no choices.

2) Look at goals – what do you want to achieve by the end of the school year?

In all areas – sports, social, cultural, leisure as well as academic. Having helped your child to formulate some goals get them to write them down!! I like to use the following framework for writing goals:

Positive language – what you will do rather than what you won’t do

Outcome focused – what will it be like when it is finished?

Specific – clear, precise – how much, how high, how far…?

I-based – in your control rather than depending on what anyone else must do

Timed – set a time for completion of the goal and any lead-up stages

Incentive – what is the incentive, the purpose, what will be the benefit of achievement?

Visualise – actively and regularly visualise achieving the goal

Evaluate – build in a time frame for evaluation of progress toward the goal

3) Assess present progress

Contact key teachers at school and find out how your child is actually doing. Do not rely on their reporting. As we discovered half way through Year 10 with one of our sons, he was actually doing much worse than he had led us to believe. If you get in a similar position, try and find a champion for your child at school – someone who will unobtrusively keep an eye on his or her progress. We were able to enlist the support of the Year 10 Dean at my son’s school who was able to institute a monthly written feedback check from each teacher from then on.

4) Install review procedures

Every night your child needs to be reading over what s/he has done at school that day, as well as doing homework. It sounds like a lot but it can be as simple as them talking you through each class they had that day. Create a system and stick to it! This procedure made a big difference to my son’s attitude, performance and enjoyment of school.

5) Be prepared to change

One thing that became apparent to us was that our son had one subject (French) that he was grossly under-performing in and in discussion with him it was obvious that this was effecting his performance across his whole school day. We discussed this with his dean (and with him) and we decided to pull him out of his French class (this was in the middle of his school year) and get him into a Drama class instead. The effect was remarkable, his Drama teacher reported to us that he walked straight into Drama as if he had been in the class all year, moved straight into a lead role in a production they were engaged in and in the end of year exams obtained his highest mark – even though he only attended half the year. More importantly his attitude towards his school day rose and he became more positive and more focused overall. The most important thing my wife and I learnt from that experience was the importance of being prepared to change. If the present regime isn’t working – producing the academic results you and your children want – do something differently! As is often said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”

6) Buy resources

As they get closer to exam times, make sure your children have the subject review notes they need for the exams, copies of old exam papers, internet access to subject review sites etc.

7) Identify learning gaps and get remedial tutoring

Even with all the help that we were able to organise our son was still just scraping by we decided that he could do with help in both Maths and Science. During the last part of the first holiday break of the year we organised for the son of a friend (who had finished school the previous year) to come twice a week and spend two hours each time with our son working through the revision guides he had used the previous year. Straight away they identified clear gaps in understanding and began remedial work. The big advantages with using an aquaintance of a similar age were good role modelling, same language structures, familiarity with each other and a comfortable environment. Real progress then began to be made and we continued this system right through the year.

8) Realise that making significant changes to a child’s academic performance is a long slow process and you can’t do it for them.


One of the biggest difficulties I have had with my children over the years is probably helping them to become independent learners. My wife says it is just because I am such a ‘control freak’ and I think that has some validity but I think that many people (especially fathers) face this problem. If we don’t have that much contact with our children on a day to day basis because of our working hours maybe when we do connect we try to help them too much with motivators, rules, systems and strategies of organisation which we know would help them succeed if they implemented them in our absence. The problem being that if we end up being the one that is providing the motivation, the drive, the purpose, the strategies and also we are the one that is getting them started each night in their study and and checking that they finish everything they need to, then they don’t tend to learn how to do it for themselves. Sometimes learning how to learn, independently, is a process best learnt by first experiencing some failure. Somethimes they have to fail first in order to to learn to succeed.



A while ago I came across this fascinating article in the Times Higher Education Supplement which I think highlights the need to help all children to develop process focused learning strategies and the habits skills and techniques of independent learners:

Tutors in Despair at Illiterate Freshers

Jessica Shepherd

THES: 09 February 2006

Undergraduates are entering university less numerate, literate and knowledgeable than ever before, according to the most comprehensive study undertaken of how university admissions staff view the latest intakes of students.

Admissions tutors bemoaned new students’ lack of independent thought, “fear of numbers” and expectations to be “told the answers” in a survey of staff from 16 Oxbridge, Russell Group and post-1992 institutions.

The report, leaked to The Times Higher, reveals that lecturers are forced to postpone courses to the second year of undergraduate degrees to make time for remedial teaching and to develop students’ independent learning skills.

Many of the 250 university staff questioned lamented an “overemphasis” on exam success and league tables in the education system for 14 to 19-year-olds, which they say leads to students starting university suffering from “assessment burnout” and expecting to be spoon-fed.

New students, they say, increasingly struggle to cope with the independent and self-directed style of learning expected by higher education tutors.

They say that students are increasingly weak at reading critically, constructing arguments and communicating ideas in writing and have poor grammar skills compared with undergraduates of ten years ago.

Lecturers say that A levels often either cover too much of a subject in too little detail or focus on certain topics and fail to provide adequate knowledge of core ideas.

Geoff Hayward, lecturer in Oxford University’s educational studies department, which carried out the survey with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said: “Negative comments are not indicative of higher education tutors and admissions staff whingeing or harking back to some golden age, but represent genuine concerns about young people and their capacity to benefit from higher education.”

He said the reduced “teachability” of new undergraduates placed the efficiency of the UK higher education sector at risk.

David Law, chair of the Admissions Practitioners’ Group of the Academic Registrars’ Council and academic registrar at Warwick University, said the report confirmed the concerns often aired by admissions staff.

He said: “We are concerned about the interface between pre-university education and undergraduate study. We are all seeing the need to be very careful with our admissions. Universities also need to review their curricula to adapt their courses to new students, though.”


So what are the skills of independent learning???

Along with all the ‘learning to learn’ skills that I am always talking about the most important skill it seems to me is only learned by experiencing failure. It could be called learning to fail but is usually referred to as Resilience.

Studies in Europe, Asia and the USA have shown that resilient students consistently share the following traits:

1)      a focus on learning goals rather than performance goals – resilient students are learning at school to improve their knowledge base rather than to get “A” passes or “Excellence” grades

2)      challenge seeking rather than challenge avoiding

3)      a belief that effort is more important than ability

4)      adaptive behaviours in the face of failure – seek out the problems with their process in order to learn from their mistakes, rather than giving up

5)      motivation more towards mastering subjects for their own sake rather than towards gaining approval or avoiding disapproval

6)      an internal ‘locus of control’ – believe that by their own actions they can significantly influence their own life

7)      an optimistic view of their own future

8)      a belief in the flexibility or malleability of their intelligence which contrasts with the least resilient students who believe their intelligence is more fixed, unalterable.

But the most significant finding, I think, is that we all gain these traits only through our experience of failure. Which does not mean that everyone who fails automatically goes on to become successful but research does seem to show that a lack of failure does not prepare anyone well for handling adversity. Only by experiencing failure, reflecting on it, focusing on the process, deciding on changes to implement and then actually implementing those changes do we learn from our mistakes and move on and grow as individuals.

Think of the worst thing that has ever happened to you?

Painful even to recall isn’t it?

But what happened as a result of that occurrence? How are you different because of it? Do you think you are stronger as a result? Of course you may wish with all your heart that the bad thing never happened but it did and you have learned from it and moved on. In a similar situation in the future you may operate differently or you may now know how to help someone else who is going through similar difficulties.

So what can we, as parents, do for our children?

1)      help them to see the relevance in the world and the possible usefulness in their future of all the subjects they are studying

2)      give them challenging experiences – take them out of their comfort zone occasionally

3)      reward them for effort rather than outcome

4)      if they have difficulty understanding or learning something new, help them to focus on the process – the strategies they are using – as the best source of improvement

5)      give them biographies to read of people who have succeeded by overcoming great adversity – make sure that they expect to have many failures before they succeed

6)      help them to see failures as mistakes they can learn from

7)      encourage them to 100% effort in some aspect (not every aspect) of their lives, to achieve mastery as a goal in itself

8)      find out the areas of their life where they feel they have no control and in stages allow them to gain more control of their life by demonstrating their ability to make considered decisions and fully accept the consequences

9)      help them to develop an optimistic view of their own future

10)   provide them with examples and evidence supporting the ideas that intelligence is flexible, malleable, able to be developed, (Howard Gardner’ s Multiple Intelligence’s model is very robust and proves this point very well)

and lastly, and most importantly for an increasing number of children

11)   focus less on how your child feels and more on what your child does.

In other words avoid empty attempts to bolster your child’s self esteem and focus instead on helping your child to take action to change how they feel. We are all probably victims of the ‘self-esteem’ movement of the 70’s and we have learned to emphasize how a child feels – happy or sad, frustrated, challenged – at the expense of what the child does – mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom and handling challenge. Unfortunately by focusing on directly changing negative feelings into positive ones we are not teaching our children how to handle adversity and ultimately we are producing more helpless, anxious and depressed children.

As Martin P Seligman talks about in his book “The Optimistic Child” (recommended reading) with reference to the American education system –

“The self esteem movement has helped lead to the abolition of tracking,

lest those on lower tracks suffer damaged self-esteem; to the abandonment

of IQ testing, lest those who score low feel low self-esteem; to massive grade

inflation, lest those who earn D’s feel bad; to teaching aimed at the very

bottom of the class, to spare the feelings of the kids slower to learn (now that

they are untracked); to competition becoming a dirty word; to the demise of

rote memorization of epic material; and to less plain old hard work.”


“Feelings of self-esteem in particular and happiness in general, develop as

side effects – of mastering challenges, working successfully, overcoming

frustration and boredom, and winning. The feeling of self-esteem is a by-product

of doing well. Once a child’s self-esteem is in place, it kindles further success.

Tasks flow more seamlessly, troubles bounce off, and other children seem more

receptive. There is no question that feeling high self-esteem is a delightful state

to be in, but trying to achieve the feeling side of self-esteem directly, before

achieving good commerce with the world, confuses profoundly the means and

the end.”

I welcome your comments.

If you would like to subscribe to this blog and receive
notification of any new posts please email
the author at taolearn@xtra.co.nz

Between mid-year exams (or mocks) and final exams – motivation and focus

8 Sep

Your children have all sat their ‘mock’ exams (I think that is a terrible name for an important set of exams because what does to mock mean? And we wonder why they don’t take them seriously?) and I set out in my last blog how to process those results. Now your children are moving inexorably closer to their greatest challenge of the year, their final exams. And of course they have got a mountain of coursework still to complete, they are tired and stressed after a hard year’s work, they are looking forward to getting away for their Summer holidays and yet we still want them to work harder than they every have – just for the next few months. A big ask.

How can we motivate them to want to work hard, to want to succeed? Well unfortunately we can’t. Only they can motivate themselves, we just have to arrange the conditions as much as we can to help facilitate the development of self-motivation. I see the steps to do this as follows:

1)      purpose – if they don’t know why they are doing it they will find it much harder to complete. As I said in the ‘Back to School’ blog, help them focus on the intrinsic motivators – to find out what they are capable of, to gain the satisfaction of completion, of trying as hard as they can, of learning new things, becoming more competent, more capable, more intelligent, of having more choices in their lives

2)      organisation – they must have a good clear study timetable which sets out exactly how much time they will spend in study each day right up to and through all the exams, and also what subjects they will study each day

3)      resources – they must have good notes to work from, the right textbooks, the right study guides, people to ask questions of and extra tuition available if needed. Also what is very important is having access to old exam papers or individual exam questions in all subjects – these are sometimes available on-line or can be obtained from teachers or from the school library

4)      environment – in the hours that they are studying in the weeks leading up to exams, all distractions must be eliminated, if this is a problem for your child you must intervene. Take away their TV, their internet connection, their i-pod and their phone. Just while they are studying, once they have finished their study for the night they can get all those things back. It’s OK. It’s not life threatening and they won’t hate you forever

5)      study technique – that’s what we teach on our courses, so if your children have done our Exam Confidence course they will know how to study. It is mostly about treating learning as a discrete process requiring the right skills, lots of practice and the ability to learn from mistakes and constantly improve. Most studying involves reading notes, summarising main points in a way that help remembering and doing exam type exercises. As in point 3 access to old exam questions is critical, once a student has completed the information processing and summarising part for one topic, before they move onto the next topic, they need to try answering sample questions on that topic from old exam papers – but not under the same  time constraints as they would find in an exam. This gives them important practice in writing exam answers – getting familiar with the format of questions, organising their material, building clear responses, writing quickly and accurately.

Your role in all this as I have said is to simply arrange conditions as best you can to enable self-motivation to occur. One key area is to engage your children in light discussions about how they are going, whether they are keeping up to schedule or not, asking for any ways that you can help, and watching for signs of pressure and stress. There is nothing wrong with pressure, we can all use pressure to our advantage to help overcome procrastination and when my children were studying for exams I certainly made sure I kept the pressure on. Not in a mean way but just by enquiring as to how much study they were planning on doing tonight, when they were planning on starting, what they were hoping to achieve, if I could bring them a hot drink and their mid-point etc.. It is when pressure turns into stress that I think we, as parents, need to intervene. I define the transition from pressure to stress as being characterised by negative self talk and the expectation of failure. So when your children are moaning about how much work they have to do and how hard it all is I think it is perfectly alright to fob them off with platitudes and aphorisms like “pressure makes diamonds” or “of course it is hard, if it was easy everyone would have one” but what we have to watch out for is when their language moves to expressions of how useless or dumb they feel, or how they expect to fail, or how bad the exams are going to be, or how their life is going to be ruined if they don’t pass etc. etc.. That is the time to intervene. Take them out for a coffee or a movie, get them a treat to eat, or just talk to them about the big picture. What happens, especially with teenagers but with all of us from time to time, is that we get stuck in the short term goals, the things we have to do right now in order to get over the next hurdle in order to meet the deadline, in order to satisfy some external pressure… and we sometimes forget the big picture. Take time to shift your children’s eyes up to the horizon from time to time. Help them to see that the next few weeks are not an eternity, they are merely an eye-blink in their whole life and it won’t be long until the exams are all over and they can have their summer holiday. Also I think it is important to help your children realise that the exams themselves are not significant, all they are, are opportunities to open up different choices. If they were to pass their exams they might have these choices open to them but if they were to fail it wouldn’t be the end of the world, they would just have a whole lot of different choices open to them.

I think we need to realistically talk to our children about the successes and the failures we have had, the choices we made and the consequences of those choices and about the real basis for success in our own lives. Which when I look back had nothing to do with exams as such it was mostly to do with good luck, being in the right place at the right time and having an attitude of being willing to take chances, willing to seize opportunities and take risks. But I am also a firm believer in the old saying that “the harder I work, the luckier I get”.

Lastly about rewards. Rewards are external motivators and as such don’t work too well, and the worst reward of all is money. But in saying that I can see no reason why we shouldn’t offer our children a reward for getting through their study successfully, but not a reward contingent on getting a certain pass or grade or mark. What we need to do is to make sure we are rewarding effort rather than outcome if we want our children to develop a resilient mindset –

a)      programme the reward to occur the moment they finish their last exam – not when the results come out

b)      don’t use money as the reward

c)       make the reward a pleasurable shared opportunity like dinner out for herself and her friends, a holiday weekend, a concert etc

d)      make the reward contingent on effort – no effort no reward, miserable effort miserly reward, huge effort great reward

e)      effort can be measured simply as hours spent in focused concentrated study – see point 4 above

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