I’ve been thinking about this question in both my professional and personal life. It’s critical, as a teacher, to help students develop the drive to take control of their learning, to self-motivate and develop a greater sense of responsibility and independence. In my personal life, this question is usually bouncing around somewhere in my head when I end up sitting on the couch for hours after work, forgoing any and all of the things I had on my to-do list.
To frame an answer to this question, I want to revisit the concept of the circles of control, influence, and concern, created (or at least popularized) by Stephen Covey. In life, there are things under which we have direct control. In this circle, we make a decision and that’s that. If you wake up one morning, open the fridge door hoping to find some eggs, and realize the only thing in there is spoiled milk, you have the choice to run out to buy some groceries, stop by the diner that has your favorite bagel sandwiches, or simply go hungry. Ultimately, that’s under your control. If you weren’t old enough to drive and there were no sources of food within walking distance, you might ask a parent to help you get food for breakfast. This decision is no longer under your control, but you can at least influence your parent by making your case. If, on the other hand, your craving for scrambled eggs is unable to be satisfied because every chicken on earth has disappeared (short story idea??), you have no control and no influence. It then becomes your decision about how you respond; do you let concern and worry take over, or do you acknowledge that it’s outside of your sphere of influence and come to terms with it?
When individuals, whether children or adults, don’t acknowledge their agency to make positive changes in their own learning and their own lives, I’d vouch to say it’s directly connected to how their thought patterns encourage them to think about themselves. If all one ever does is get frustrated about the things they can’t change, they’ll never look at the things they can change. If they see themselves as passengers in life, just hoping the ride is somewhat enjoyable, they’ll never consider how they can make things better. Even if those changes are small, a steady stream of small changes can lead to huge leaps forward. When we get too caught up in our circle of concern, we often forget that we can have any impact at all.
Our circles of control and influence grow larger as we get older, but the circle of concern will always be leaps and bounds bigger, so why not help students start considering what is in their control right now? In a learner-centered classroom, that circle will be bigger than in other educational settings; students who aren’t used to that will definitely need help in understanding what decisions they can and should make, and it will take time to help them get comfortable with it.
As an educator who wants to help reinvent schools for a new generation, I face frustration with what isn’t in my circle of control. In those instances, I try to take my own advice and focus on the changes I can make, on the decisions I can influence. Celebrating the small wins and reflecting on the larger changes those small wins comprise is the key to keeping up momentum. It’s an approach I try to instill in learners and in my own life. I believe that only through this approach are we able to make a huge impact.