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I Call it Accountability

Recently the province of British Columbia has tackled an age-old problem through applying proven behavioural and research techniques to change behaviour.  It is no secret and there is no shortage of research from parents, psychologists, therapists, behaviour strategists and teachers that holding a person accountable for their choices leads to changes in behaviour.

To be accountable means to be responsible or answerable to someone for something. It involves taking responsibility for your own actions and being able to explain them.  

We also know that this accountability becomes even more powerful when we are required to be accountable to the people we care most about in our lives (parents, children, spouses, teachers, friends, relatives).

In school, we use this personal accountability to support children in learning new ways of behaving and to encourage them to make more positive choices.  We require them to “own” their behaviour and to answer to the people who care most about them. We illicit an emotional response which is the most powerful factor in determining future behaviour.  We ask them to remember how they felt when….

As adults we can look back on events in our lives, good and bad, and we always remember how we felt.  This has a lasting effect on future choices.  ie. “I am not going to make that mistake again because I don’t want to feel that way again or have to answer to those people again.”

Being held accountable is THE most powerful way to change behaviour.  So why all the backlash in British Columbia?

Selling alcohol to underage children is the problem behaviour the province wants to change.  Holding the sellers accountable to the people they care most about is the way to change this behaviour.  This is how it works, this is the proven way to change behaviour.

The method the province has chosen to hold people accountable for selling alcohol to underage children is to have them post a sign in their store window for 2 weeks that states, “I SELL ALCOHOL TO UNDERAGE CHILDREN.”  This is the right thing to do.  In no uncertain terms, it holds the seller accountable to the people they care about; in this case their customers.  The two-week timeline is also right.  It allows for people to have another chance, to take the sign down and do better.

Funny thing about it, critics don’t like it.  Critics call it shaming.  Critics don’t believe holding people accountable for their choices is what we need to do.  My assumption with this is, critics don’t want this behaviour changed or critics would know this is the right thing to do.

Are Those Kids Off-Task Again? One Trick to Change Off-Task Behaviour

For many years as I taught grade school then transitioned into school administration we always seemed to talk about on and off task behaviour.  In fact, I can remember people coming into my classroom with a stop watch and timing the amount of on and off task behaviour a student displayed over a half hour period of time.  To this day, when students are off task they often get check marks, they lose privileges or get phone calls home.  It was always about the student, and what was wrong with the students and how we could use coercive and persuasive techniques to increase on-task behaviour.

It hasn’t been until now, that a number of pieces of information, a few different books I have read, and the latest Professional Development I have been involved in did it become apparent to me that on or off task behaviour was not necessarily the fault of the child.  In fact, off task behaviour in most cases falls directly on the shoulders of teachers.  We as teachers cannot make a student be more on task, but we can design tasks that result in an increase in student engagement.  In fact, in most cases, when tasks consists of elements that engage students, guess what?  Students are engaged.

But why should we hold teachers responsible for designing tasks that result in student engagement?  Shouldn’t students be required to complete the work assigned to them?  This visual clearly speaks to the role of the teacher and the requirement for effective teaching.  I realize there are many qualities that meld together to create a “high-performing” teacher but there is definitely no argument that one of the key qualities is the ability to design tasks that result in student engagement.

So just what are tasks that result in high levels of student engagement?  What are the attributes, components of these tasks? To answer these questions, I will include the information the staff at Erin Woods School recently compiled. In a two-hour work session, our staff came together to think, discuss, and synthesize the following information.

Here is the trick to changing off-task behaviour:

Lessons that are designed to engage students do just that!  Listed here are the attributes of tasks that result in differing levels of engagement.

Low Level of Engagement

Medium Level of Engagement

High Level of Engagement

  • Listening
  • Teacher telling
  • Watching the teacher do
  • Copying
  • Individual tasks
  • Memorizing
  • Not challenging – student finishes quickly and easily (low-level thinking)
  • The task is not easily differentiated (except by making less work or more work)
  • All students have the same task (no student choice)
  • Is teacher made (or made by a publisher)
  • Has right or wrong answers
  • Not linked to personal interest


Work sheets – pre-made

Yes/no tasks (one right answer)



Fill in the missing word

Write  a word 5 times

Word Search

  • Combination of two learning modalities (ex: visual and tactile)
  • Looking for information
  • Partner work
  • Students doing
  • Some self or peer assessment
  • Increased use of visuals
  • Combining some personal knowledge to the new information


Mad Minute

Personal Dictionary

KWL Charts

Any searching, finding, looking for answer

Making Words

Work with more than one right answer

  • Linking to prior knowledge
  • Student generated/student created
  • Game-like
  • Meaningful or related to the student’s life or interests
  • Working together with peers
  • Results in a piece of work the student is proud of
  • Challenges the student but is attainable
  • Considers learning styles
  • Allows for student choice – completed work looks different
  • Can be extended or broadened into further learning
  • More than one right answer


Games or challenges

Hands on or multi-modal

Solves real life problems (math, social studies)

Experiments (with a hypothesis and solution)

What this information tells us is task design is the key to on-task, high engagement behaviour from students.  In the end, it is not the student who is at fault.  When those students so many years ago were timed for on or off task behaviour I don’t think we even considered whether or not the task they were being asked to do was appropriate for the learner or had the attributes of a task that often results in engaging behaviour.  As educator Phil Schlechty says, There is a 0% chance that children will learn from work they do not do.”  And we know they will not do boring, un-engaging, un-related, senseless tasks, would you?

What Your Rules Say About You

Rules, rules, rules, everyone knows the key to success in school is to follow the rules.

Unfortunately, this belief persists in many of todays classrooms and schools.  Next time you are in a classroom take a look at the posted rules.  Are they rules such as “no talking while the teacher is talking, stay in your desk during work time, raise your hand if you need help?”  If so, I think these rules say a lot about the teacher, the work environment and the level of meaningful engaging tasks.  They imply that the teacher is the only one who holds the knowledge, the teacher will give you great wisdom and knowledge if only you will listen and the work you undertake will be solitary and designed to measure how well you listen.

Rules for Students Fall 2009-2

Rules for Students Fall 2009-2 (Photo credit: mick62)

Why is it that some classrooms need these types of rules and some do not?  For the teachers that do not post these types of rules what is the difference?  How can they manage without them?

One answer to these questions is to take a look at the type of tasks the student is being asked to undertake.  To analyze the planning and preparation the teacher has given to design tasks which result in high levels of student engagement.

Think of it this way, if a teacher designs tasks that engage the student in meaningful learning will the student be wandering around the classroom disrupting others, off task, doing any of the other million things teachers often complain about?

But just what goes into meaningful learning and task design that results in high levels of student engagement?

I would like to give credit to the amazing staff at Erin Wood School in Calgary AB who worked together yesterday to answer this question.  When analyzing student engagement, and tasks that result in high levels of student engagement we were able to effectively answer the question, “What are the attributes of tasks that result in meaningful learning and high(er) levels of student engagement?”

Tasks resulting in higher levels of student engagement consist of these attributes:

  • Meaningful or related to the student’s life or interests;
  • Working together with peers;
  • Incorporates games;
  • Created by the student (authentic);
  • Result in a piece of work the student is proud of and wants to share;
  • Challenging (but not so challenging it is unattainable);
  • Considers learning styles;
  • Allows for student choice;
  • Can be extended by students;

Tasks resulting in lower levels of student engagement consists of these attributes:

  • Easy and quick to complete (requires low levels of thinking);
  • Is teacher designed (such as a worksheet);
  • Has right or wrong answers;
  • Considers none or all of the attributes of high engaging tasks.

When considering student engagement and the types of tasks students are asked to complete, I wonder if students who are given tasks designed to be highly meaningful and engaging do teachers really need to post rules such as “stay in your desk during work time?”  Do these such rules imply that you have just entered a classroom of low-engaging task design?  In my opinion, teachers who strive to design meaningful tasks that engage students are more likely to post “Work hard and do your best, or Respect yourself and others.” on the walls of their classroom.

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