Developing an internal locus of control

Recently we were getting ready for a math chapter test on fractions, and I decided to change things up with the way we reviewed. Rather than partnering kids up and working through a class game together Jeopardy-style, I decided to offer some choice in the matter. On a Thursday, I assigned a review packet for homework with directions to pay attention to where they needed more practice.

IMG_0471I created a series of practice questions that reflected the types of skills and concepts represented on the chapter test. I put each one on a card and identified the skill(s) involved, and then I organized them roughly by difficulty and numbered the cards. These skills and identifying numbers went onto a “scavenger hunt” master sheet.

On Friday during math, I explained that students were to move between stations at their own pace. I discouraged working together for the our review but didn’t forbid it if someone was really stuck. We’ve talked a lot about how to help each other without giving an answer, and it’s something we practice. Rather than just a right answer, the solutions on the back included my own working-it-out process, trying to represent different strategies we learned. If after seeing the answer and not understanding why they were incorrect, students could talk to a classmate or get teacher help to understand their disconnect.

Students could solve the cards in any order, and I encouraged them to start with the skills they had noticed the night before that needed extra practice. The master sheet provided a place to record their completion and determine what they wanted to do next. We had challenge work for afterward, and students had two different ways to move into the challenge phase. One – they completed all 13 practice items, but not necessarily the 14th bonus problem. Two – they felt confident of their skills and had completed at least 7 items, with 3 of them in the harder #10-14 range.

It was fascinating to watch! I had the freedom to support the kids who really needed help and reteach concepts as needed, and those kids who had strong mastery of fraction skills could move on quickly to more challenging math thinking. Some kids worked through the items in order, and others skipped around, but for the most part they progressed from easier to harder tasks.

Then afterward, we debriefed. I wanted feedback for my own teaching. Did this work for the kids as well as it seemed? The initial comments were full of praise – kids appreciated the choice and freedom to work where they needed the most review. And then a few shared their frustrations. Some students were trying to do their best work and were distracted by those kids who were using the time to chat with friends while doing the work (or not). Most surprising of all, some students expressed a wish to just be told what to do, to have a specific assignment.

Then in serendipitous timing, I later realized deeper truths to what I had set in motion. Following our Friday review, I spent my Saturday at a conference for challenge course facilitators. During my first session, a light bulb went off. Not only had my students been working on math skills and concepts, but my choice of review structure was an opportunity to develop internal locus of control. Of course it was.

On a challenge course, individuals are obviously facing situations that can be risky. The goal for a facilitator is to create an environment where people feel safe and trust that they can take risks with you. When individuals feel safe to make reasonable choices for themselves, they are moving into a risk zone, but not into danger. There can be carryover from a challenge course into “regular life” as individuals strengthen an internal locus of control, making choices based on their needs, as opposed to an external locus of control, making choices based on other factors, potentially including peer pressure. (Tom Leahy)

So many times in school students are told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. This reinforces an external locus of control. I’ve written before about my conscious intention to build choice for students into my teaching and classroom structure. I’ve known that these choices reinforce my wish to build students’ internal locus of control, but somehow this math activity hit me in a way I hadn’t seen before. Perhaps it was because of those students who demonstrated they were operating under an external locus of control: just tell me what to do and give me a worksheet to review. Wow!

I love it when the world of adventure psychology overlaps with academics in my fourth grade classroom.