Why Students Make Poor Choices

I was coaching a principal recently who was feeling frustrated about the poor choices her students were making. She’d been working hard to ensure her school offered students lots of opportunities.She prided herself on the range of academic subjects available to students, as well as providing multiple pathways into apprenticeships and further study.

But she was frustrated because many of her students tended to take the easiest options or chose to do nothing at all. Despite the opportunities on offer many students seemed to have low aspirations, didn’t want to challenge themselves, and appeared unmotivated.

Why were students making such poor choices?

As we spoke, I explained how a student’s mindset impacts the choices they make. Students with a fixed mindset believe their choices are limited by the abilities they have. They think that being comes before doing. So, they need to have the abilities to do something before they can choose it. As a result, not all pathways are open to them, only some of them. And for a few of these students, they believe their abilities are so limited, that none of the choices are open to them.

So, when it came to selecting subjects and career pathways, these students aren't seeing the choices, they are seeing a filter. They are asking themselves, “What abilities do I have? What choices are open to someone like me?”

She'd been asking the wrong question

As we spoke, this principal started to recognise that she had been asking the wrong question. Her students weren’t making poor choices. In fact, they weren’t making a choice at all. The problem she faced was that many of her students didn’t believe they had the choice in the first place.

The question that needed to be asked was, why didn't these students see the choice?

The problem to be solved wasn’t how to create more choices, or how to make the choices more attractive. It was how to create a learning community that ensures students recognise they can create their abilities and make those choices. How to create a learning community that nurtures a Growth Mindset.

From the growth mindset perspective, you don’t need to have the abilities to choose the pathway. You choose the pathway to create the abilities! From this perspective all the pathways are open to you. You have a choice.

Of course, those choices aren’t free … but the cost of growth is a topic for another article.

A school was full of fixed mindset messages

As we continued our discussion, this principal began to realise her school was full of fixed messages. Messages that were contributing to the issues she was facing.

Examples were all around her. It was common practice to speak of “high achieving students,” as if they were a type of student, somehow different to other students. Instead of talking about students who were achieving highly. Making it about something students were doing, rather than something they were.

Teachers regularly, and publicly, differentiated students based on “ability. This subtly reinforced the idea that some students had more ability, and therefore more choice, than others.

The alternative we discussed was to differentiate based on where students were up to, or on who has already invested effort in developing certain abilities and students who were still in the process of developing them.

Even the school website proclaimed to the community that the school catered for “the full range of student abilities” and encouraged each student to reach his or her own individual potential. No wonder then that some these students were left wondering what abilities they had, and if they had enough potential for the choices on offer.

We discussed how we could change the messaging on the website, so it emphasised that the school created students’ potential. I also suggested that the message that the school offered a wide range of subjects to cater for student interests, and that these subjects built student abilities in the areas they are interested in would be a more growth oriented message.

The more we talked, the more we recognised the frustrations she was experiencing were the unintended consequences of a school that was yet to develop a true culture of growth and learning. The solution to her frustrations wasn’t about creating more choices or making the choices more attractive. The solution rested in ensuring students understood that these were choices they could make.

Creating a true culture of learning and growth helps raise students’ aspirations and put them on a path to take control of developing their own abilities. This takes more than changing a few phrases and updating the school website. If you’d like to know more about how to create a culture of growth and learning dive into Learnership – raising the status of learning from an act to an art, check out the workshops I’ve got on offer, or contact me directly.

James Anderson
Speaker | Author | Educator

M: 0423778008
E: [email protected]

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