Learning Begins With A Positive Self-Identity

It seems students are good predictors of their achievement. If they expect to do well on assessments, they usually fulfill their expectations.


Why Learning Begins With A Positive Self-Identity

by Robert Sun

As teachers, we are not immune to being caught up in the whirlwind of daily life. In fact, many would argue that our profession may be more hectic than many others, so from time to time it’s appropriate for us to step back and reflect on why we chose this profession.

Certainly one reason is the desire to impact the flow of humanity—a unique occurrence that happens when we help children achieve and succeed. Such a noble pursuit demands that we be as effective as possible, bringing many educators to the question, “what are the interventions that have the greatest impact on student achievement?”

What Factor Has The Greatest Impact On Student Achievement?

More than 800 meta analyses of 50,000 research studies on this very question were compiled in John Hattie’s book, “Visible Learning for Teachers.” These studies measured 150,000 effect sizes of various influences or interventions, involving an impressive 240 million students.

When Hattie plotted the number of effects by effect size across all meta analyses, the resulting graph revealed a peak at an effect size of 0.4—a place referred to as the “hinge point” because about half of the interventions have an effect size less than 0.4, and half are above. Hattie suggests interventions that are above the mark to be most efficacious.

Hattie then ranked 150 interventions in order by effect size. Among the top-ranked items, with an effect size approaching or exceeding 1.0, were the quality of feedback students receive, and the ability of students to assess their own performance.

It seems students are very good predictors of their own achievement. If they expect to do well based on assessments of their own abilities, they usually fulfill their own expectations. If they expect to do poorly—that expectation, unfortunately, is met as well.

According to Hattie, many students struggle with predictions of their performance. Minority students and lower-achieving students are two groups that tend to underestimate their chances of academic success and, over time, they accept their low estimates. These children lose the confidence they need to take on more challenging tasks. Changing a student’s prediction of performance is difficult, especially if it has been ingrained and reinforced over time.

By the time they get to high school, students who don’t correctly assess their potential too often simply drop out.

3 Steps To Change A Student’s View Of Themselves As A Student

Hattie’s work has garnered its share of praise and criticism, with some in the education community calling it the “holy grail” of education and others attacking the statistical methods used in compiling the analysis of such a large scope of research. Regardless of the controversy, Hattie’s findings have initiated a deep discussion of self-assessment and learner-identity as key indicators of academic success.

After more than two decades helping children learn mathematics, my own experience confirms that one powerful way to impact student achievement is to change a child’s self-identity about his or her ability to learn. According to education scholar James Paul Gee, there are three steps needed to change a distorted identity; specifically, learners must:

  1. Be encouraged to try, even if they already have good reason to be afraid;
  2. Be persuaded to put in a lot of effort, even if they begin with little motivation to do so; and
  3. Achieve some meaningful success after they have expended this effort.

The process of setting a child on a path toward positive self-identity must be an active one to achieve the desired improvement. Hattie noted that teachers need to provide opportunities for students to be actively involved in predicting their own performance. This is done by making learning intentions and success criteria transparent, and by setting high, but achievable, expectations. Feedback must also be provided at appropriate levels, giving students the context they need for self-assessment.

An active setting can also be created through positive learning environments that accomplish the three steps above.

Realizing It In The Classroom

To satisfy the first objective, encouraging students to try, we must provide them with a world-class playground in mathematics where they are free to explore and make mistakes without penalty. Providing multiple entry points ensures a child can quickly find challenges that match his or her skill level and become engaged. Activities that have a short cycle of play and immediate, non-judgmental feedback allow a child to initiate a minor step and quickly see the result of that effort—an important feature to ease anxiety or fear.

The second objective, persuading students to put in maximum effort, requires that students take ownership, and feel a sense of control over the learning process. Seeing their actions result in intended consequences leads students to success in accomplishing personal goals. As a Japanese educator aptly said, “When you feel you have a chance to catch the bus, that’s when you’re willing to make the effort to run for it.”

This does not mean that we, as administrators, give up control of the ship. It means we allow students to choose the activities that begin engagement so they are assured of success, then progressively push out the challenge and rigor as foundational skills are built.

The third element, enabling students to achieve meaningful success that makes their effort worthwhile, calls for us to highlight that success in a larger social context. This is accomplished by framing students’ efforts in a local, national or even international milieu.

Learning Begins With A Positive Self-Identity

Giving students a challenging, yet appropriate learning experience is one of the most powerful ways to enhance student performance. When young people are motivated to try and to expend the necessary effort—and when that effort is rewarded with meaningful success—they are no longer on a path toward self-doubt and low expectations. Instead, they experience continuous, positive self-assessment; a process that leads to lifelong learning and growth.

When we as educators reflect on our priorities, it would be helpful to remember that class size, parental involvement, homework, planning time, training and the like all have their place. But if we are to truly make a difference—if we wish to be true to our calling and improve our children, our communities and society at large—we must realize that learning begins with a positive self-identity.

Ultimately, by encouraging this, we do more than help our students meet their expectations—and we have a far better chance of meeting our own.

Robert Sun is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for deep practice in mathematics; image attribution flickr usdepartmentofeducation