What are your students doing?

Recently I read Amanda Ripley’s thought provoking book 'The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way’ in which through a comparative study of foreign exchange students she reports from the inside on the modern powerhouses of education. Amanda set out to explain why some countries are able to outperform others on PISA scores. From the pressure cooker environment of Korea, where students sleep in their regular classes so they can stay awake until 10pm studying in ‘hagwons', to Finland where education and educators are highly valued but change came as a result of a long process not the overnight success sometimes reported, Ripley found that the answer is complex and fails to reveal one right way to educate our children.

In the concluding pages Ripley offers advice to parents looking to find the right school for their child, she advises they ask the students two simple questions: ‘What are you doing right now?’ and ‘Why?’

Across all of the systems Ripley visited and in every classroom the consistent measure of success was that the students were paying attention and were engaged. ‘In the best schools, though, boredom was the exception rather than the norm’. In a classroom where the students are engaged and interested in what they are doing asking ‘What are you doing right now, and Why? should illicit a detailed response, the students should know the answer and understand the relevance of what they are doing. What they are doing should be important to them, not just their teacher and certainly not just to some future test scenario.

Digging deeper into how students answer this question will reveal further details. Consider the verbs used in the responses.  If the students are consistently using verbs such as locate, identify, define, or label they are not being asked to apply high order thinking skills. Students who are using high-order thinking skills are likely to respond with answers that include verbs such as devise, design, compose, propose and invent. Looking for evidence of where students are operating on Bloom’s taxonomy is a better use of this hierarchy of thought than displaying it on a classroom wall.

In the best classrooms students should be able to answer the question ‘What are you doing right now?’ with confidence because they played a part in developing their exploration. In these classrooms students have ownership of their learning. According to Chan et al. (2014) 'Classroom transformation will only occur when teachers begin to shift from teacher-focused to student-focused classroom environments.’ to do this students need to be given ownership of the learning process.

'Teachers may fear giving up some of the control of goal setting, progress tracking, and assessment. However, granting students an active role in their learning can increase school completion; teach students valuable skills, like setting and attaining goals; and help students develop independence' (Uphold & Hudson, 2012)

Black and Wiliam (1998) in their analysis of assessment and the role of self-assessment showed the importance of students being able to and required to reflect on their learning and progress. They report that the problem with self-assessment comes not from a lack of reliability but because many pupils do not have ‘a sufficiently clear picture of the target that their learning is meant to attain’. These students would not be able to adequately answer the question ‘What are you doing right now?’

Chi et al. (1994) provide another perspective on this in their study of self-explaining. Self-explaining is the metacognitive process or strategy of generating explanations to oneself such that the integration of new knowledge is facilitated. They report that 'new instruction of either declarative or procedural knowledge cannot always be either instantiated or directly encoded; often it requires the integration of new information with existing knowledge. This integration process can be facilitated by asking students to actively construct what they are learning.’ Students who are learning therefore should be able to answer the question ‘What are you doing right now? and should be used to asking this question of themselves.  

The importance of engagement with and self-motivation towards the learning process is central to quality learning. In self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci 2000) the role of autonomy in this process is placed in equal importance to competence and feelings of safety and positive relations to educators. If our goal is intrinsic motivation for our students autonomy and ownership of the process are essential ingredients. Without ownership the best we can hope for is ‘integrated regulation’ in which students agree with the externally set goals. 

So ‘What are your students doing? and Why?’ Do they know? Is their answer the same as yours?

by Nigel Coutts


Chan, P., Graham-Day, K., Ressa, V., Peters, M., & Konrad, M. (2014). Beyond Involvement: Promoting Student Ownership of Learning in Classrooms. Intervention In School And Clinic, 50(2), 105-113. doi:10.1177/1053451214536039

Chi, M., De Leeuw, N., Chiu, M., & Lavancher, C. (1994). Eliciting Self-Explanations Improves Understanding. Cognitive Science, 18(3), 439-477. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog1803_3

Ripley, A. (2013) The smartest kids in the world. New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. 

Uphold, N., & Hudson, M. (2012). Student-focused planning. In D. W. Test, Evidence-based instructional strategies for transition (pp. 55–78). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.