Creating a Culture of Responsibility

A core memory as I built up the Wasatch Independent Debate League, and now the Independent Education Program, isn’t particularly pleasant to recall. It was years ago and we were having a tournament at the University of Utah. We initially had something like a decent number of students registered for the tournament. Not as many as I wanted to be taking advantage of the opportunity, but at least a reasonable amount.

But then that week, we had student after student after student drop out or just not show up at the tournament. I remember that we had reserved a large auditorium and I had expected that we would fill it up reasonably. We had brought representatives from the university to talk about the pathway for homeschooled students to attend the U of U. And they walked in to talk to a group so small it was basically rattling around that auditorium. I was embarrassed because I had told the school that they would have an audience to speak to. I resented the fact that students didn’t seem to be taking the class or the tournaments seriously. I was frustrated that I had done so much work to put on the tournament and students didn’t seem interested. And I remember blaming students, parents, and anyone my mind could get a hold of for being flaky and frustrating.

We finally got the first round of competition started and I remember going into the restroom so no one could find me. I felt angry and stupid and embarrassed. I stood there for a while, I leaned over the sink, I looked at myself in the mirror and I said to myself (out loud), “Sam… you did this.”

It was a powerful moment for me. It was also a true statement. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in the WIDL anymore, and it isn’t because the community that I teach in changed. It’s because I changed. In retrospect, there are a lot of reasons that students were dropping out or just not showing up to tournaments left and right, but it primarily came down to my perspective. That day was the day I started saying to myself, “Sam, if you don’t take your program seriously, then no one else will either.” I won’t distract you with the details of what that meant specifically. Rather, I want to point out how transformational it can be to take responsibility for oneself, to look in the mirror and say, “You did this.” The moment that I took responsibility is the moment that the Wasatch Independent Debate League changed from a scrappy fun homeschool program to what I believe and hope has become a major force for good in the homeschooling community.

I would like to identify two reasons that taking responsibility is such a transformative experience. The first is that taking responsibility allows us to deal much more effectively with reality. Taking responsibility is just another way to say that one is being honest about reality in that one is willing to recognize the part that they play in their own lives, regardless of what other factors might also come into play. Let’s take a student and homework as a case study. Over the years I have had so very many students tell me that they didn’t get their homework done because they were busy. I’m sure if you’ve taught teens, you’ve probably heard much of the same. Generally speaking what they are saying is true in one part and false on the whole. On the one hand, they probably were in fact busy. Maybe they had a soccer game during the time they usually do homework, maybe they got behind on their homework for other classes and had to catch up, maybe they went out of town for a couple of days, or they just generally have a cramped schedule. But does this mean that this is the reason that the student didn’t do the homework? Here is a common conversation I have with students-

Me: “Ok. What time did you get up this morning”

Student: “Seven Thirty”

Me: “Could you have gotten up earlier?”

You would be shocked at this juncture to know the number of students who claim that they literally could not have gotten up any earlier for all sorts of reasons. But if the student is feeling reasonable-

Student: “I guess.”

Me: “Are you guessing?”

Student: “No, I could have gotten up earlier.”

Me: “Then is the fact that you were busy the direct reason that you didn’t do your homework?”

Do you see the point? Taking responsibility is about being realistic about the (really big) part that you play in your own life. If, despite how busy you were, you had time to do homework and didn’t, then it was a choice to not do homework. It was a choice that belongs to you. And taking responsibility means being honest about that regardless of what else may be true. In my initial example students did drop out of the tournament because they were being flaky. But what does that matter to me when it is equally true that my own actions were primarily causing my results?

The second benefit of taking responsibility I’ll mention is that, now having a stronger grasp of what is real, responsibility gives one greater ownership of that reality. In other words, being honest about the part you play in your own life bestows upon you ownership over more of your life. Let’s imagine another common scenario in my classes. It comes time to report on homework and Student A reports having completed homework and Student B reports not having completed homework. I ask Student B why they did not complete homework and Student B states that they were in a play, it was tech week, they were literally ……literally busy all the hours of all the days. And yet I happen to know that Student A was in the same play and actually had a larger role. Can you see that Student B sees themselves as owners of less of their life? Their willingness to deny the role that they play in their own life gives up choices they might make. It is like, in their mind, those choices don’t even exist. But it clearly doesn’t have to be this way, else why did Student A get the homework done?

From another perspective, who do you think is generally busier, my first year students or my third year students? Who do you think gets homework done more frequently, puts more preparation into tournaments, attends more tournaments ,etc? The answer is that older students are both busier and accomplish more. But they also tend to be more responsible for their choices. In learning to take responsibility for themselves, they learn to take ownership over a greater portion of the choices available to them. They learn to seek out the choices that they might make and use those choices to their advantage. Again, in the initial example offered in this essay, the moment I took responsibility is the moment that I began to seek out the choices available to me to change my situation. I began to own them and then use them to my advantage (for example, I did a better job pre-teaching students the importance of not no showing at tournaments, had more awkward conversations with students who no showed, increased the number of tournaments available so that students would be able to attend more tournaments, etc).

And it turns out that the benefits aren’t simply theoretical. They are real and measurable. On the MetaX educational outcomes data set, Self Efficacy is indicated as one of the student attributes most likely to result in positive educational outcomes. Self efficacy is essentially a student’s belief that their choices and actions have the ability to result in academic growth. In other words, students who believe that their own efforts are likely to produce positive academic results are much more likely to achieve positive academic results than students who don’t hold that belief. This is the essence of a student taking responsibility. It is to hold to the realistic belief that it is primarily their choices that lead to their outcomes, and forgo the unreasonable (albeit convenient) belief that, outside of extraordinary circumstances, academic failures can primarily be explained as the result of other people’s choices, bad luck, mystical and unexplainable forces, etc.

If you follow the link above, you can see that the importance of self efficacy is among the most well studied issues in the field of education. The MetaX dataset on self efficacy references 617 different studies encompassing over a million students around the world. To get more specific on the idea, I’ll point to one particular study, which demonstrates that increased student beliefs of self efficacy give rise to increased student use of metacognitive learning strategies. Metacognitive learning strategies are introspective mental practices that help students to incorporate difficult concepts (more full explanation here). It involves tasks like mentally dividing the portions that the student understands and doesn’t understand, asking oneself if any previous knowledge or experience may be applicable, creating a diagram to map out what one currently understands in the concept, verbalizing thoughts to work through fuzzy concepts, creating a study plan to break the subject into manageable portions, etc. Can you see the application here? Taking responsibility actually allows you to own more of your education by revealing choices that you didn’t know you had. It really isn’t until the student feels that it is their responsibility and capability to learn that the student begins to explore self regulated strategies like those mentioned above. In other words, the student believes that they are both responsible to and capable of producing positive academic results, and this in turn causes them to seek out learning options that otherwise might have been ignored.

I hope the educational benefits of taking responsibility are, at this point, quite clear. But not yet discussed is the downside. And there is a downside. There has to be a downside or else students would always take responsibility. What I’ve said up to this point isn’t rocket science. I’ve cited studies, but they are the sort of studies that tell us what is already really apparent.

Me: “Students who don’t make excuses and live in reality are more successful.”

Everyone Else: “No duh, Sherlock!”

So why is it so easy to see when others refuse to take responsibility, but often difficult for students (and even adults) to see that they are engaging in the same behavior?

I believe that the answer is that for many people, responsibility represents a sincere threat. This threat is based on two major misconceptions. First, it is my observation that, for whatever reason, the human preset seems to be to identify ourselves with the outcomes that we achieve. To believe that our success as a human is defined very simply by adding up our triumphs and subtracting our failures. It’s a brutal (and unreasonable) sort of math that can turn even minor moments of responsibility into serious threats. It turns them into threats because it means that saying, “You caused this,” is the exact same statement as “You are this.” Students didn’t just fail to do their homework, they are failures for not doing their homework. Students didn’t just get 76% on the test, they are a 76% kind of human. And the student didn’t just fail to grasp the concept, they are the type of human who fails to grasp concepts. In this environment, it becomes a psychological imperative to detach oneself from one’s results.

Unfortunately, it is intellectually very easy to detach oneself from one’s results by making excuses and blaming parents, teachers, tournament judges, circumstances, the alarm clock, etc. for outcomes. On the other hand, it is tremendously, intellectually difficult to develop an internal philosophy that defines the meaning of the human experience as something greater than the sum of all triumphs and failures. The result is that students take the easy path and divide themselves from their results by refusing to claim the results as belonging to them. As any parent knows, the result is that even minor moments of accountability can turn into full blown existential crises (and I’ve observed a few of those through the years in class as well).

So, now we get to the central question of the essay- given these forces at play, how can a teacher effectively establish a culture of responsibility in the classroom?

While I am sure that there are many strategies which might be employed to this end, I would like to identify three, moving from most frequently used to least frequently used, based upon my observations.

Teach Responsibility

Quite simply, the teacher makes time within the curriculum to teach, discuss, and reinforce the concept of responsibility. In my debate class, this starts on day one as we discuss the rules of the class (Take Responsibility is rule number three). I present examples, develop a philosophy of responsibility, and forewarn them of the tendency to make excuses, etc. I also teach responsibility after each tournament as we discuss what I call “The 24 Hour Rule”, and try to reinforce the behavior whenever I see it exhibited. Different classes will do it differently, but I think that responsibility has a place to be taught in every classroom.

Require Honesty

Somewhat scarier and more difficult is actually requiring honesty from students. It can be a scary thing as a teacher to explore with a student when he or she claims that they have to give up because the assignment is too hard, that they can’t do a unit in the class because they don’t enjoy it, or that they couldn’t have done their homework because they were too busy. It can be scary because it feels like confrontation, and it can be scary because you don’t want to hurt the student (more on not doing this in point number three). However, I sincerely believe that one of the key elements that has made the Wasatch Independent Debate League successful over the years has been my insistence that students be honest with me about what choices are available to them. Again, different teachers could address this issue differently, but I ask students in each class whether or not they completed the homework for the week. If they say no, I ask them why so that they have an opportunity to say, “It is something I chose.” Right here I’ll make an important point by pointing out that saying “It is something I chose” is different than saying “It was a bad choice. The point isn’t that failing to do homework is a bad choice. The point is that it is a choice.

Over the years I haven’t handled all of these circumstances perfectly. Some students have been bothered by it. I’ve certainly improved my technique over the years. But when students write their reflections each semester, responsibility is a frequent topic of conversation. They tell me how much it has changed their life and perspective to have someone expect that they be honest about their available choices.

Reduce the Threat

The first practice mentioned here is fairly common. The second I see less. But this third practice I have observed very infrequently, and it seems to me to be the key to really getting students to accept responsibility for themselves. As stated above, responsibility isn’t rocket science. As a result, it does not seem to me that the primary reason that students run away from responsibility is because they don’t understand the concept or don’t have anyone in their lives who would like them to take responsibility. Rather, it appears to me that the primary reason that students (and adults) run away from responsibility is because of the threat that it represents. As a result, one key to teaching responsibility is helping students conceptualize responsibility as an opportunity instead of a threat. In order to do this, it is up to the teacher to develop a classroom philosophy of what the meaning of success and failure are. If students continue to believe that their value or level of personal success is measured by adding up all triumphs and subtracting all shortcomings, then why would they ever take responsibility if they didn’t have to? (Answer- they wouldn’t). Therefore the question becomes, what are you going to teach instead? I don’t think that students are generally just going to drop the belief if there isn’t a meaningful replacement. And my experience says that the replacement doesn’t become meaningful unless it is taught and reinforced frequently. So, if you are a homeschool teacher, I hope that you will take and ponder this question, “How am I going to consistently teach students to more meaningfully measure their value and success as a person and student?”

Taking responsibility has again and again been a key element of my growth as a person. If you are living a stable and successful adult life, then I imagine that you would say the same. And we want the same for our students. So let’s teach it.