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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Equation of Success: Top Ten Responsibilities that Students Must Own

Updated 01/2014

I have written before in the past on various blog sites and networks about the vital equation that must exist in order for a student not to fail in our schools:

Family + Student + School + Policymakers/Voters = Student Success

Each variable is co-dependent on the other. Each link in the chain must do its part, pulling its weight for the goal to be achieved. To tackle this polynomial equation takes deconstructing its parts. Therefore, much like a Top Chef contestant deconstructs a grilled cheese sandwich to analyze its ingredients, I am going to break down our education equation into parts and analyze what each must contribute for a student to succeed.

So I've posted three articles simultaneously, a webquest of sorts through my blogs, covering the following:

  • At Huffington Post, you'll find my take on what the family and home life must contribute to the equation.
  • In this post, I've written on what the student must bring to the table.
  • At my personal Web site, Tweenteacher, you can read about the schools' responsibilities, specifically those of the teachers.

(Stop by each site and look at each of the variables. For without any of them, the equation will undoubtedly fail.)

The Student's Responsibility

Every parent and teacher of a struggling student has looked in the mirror at one point or other and asked themselves: What more can I do if Johnny is not helping himself? Many feel that there is an unconditional amount that adults should do since students are still learning how to be responsible for themselves. However, in the era of Race to the Top (RTTT) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB), those in control of school accountability need to acknowledge that there are some students sabotaging themselves despite the Herculean efforts of the adults around them.

Nevertheless, a student should be allowed to struggle without being abandoned to his or her sole efforts. School is a place of learning, after all. But students struggle for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that their emotional and impetuous side of their brains develop earlier than their logical, rational side. In other words, they are wired to make poor decisions.

That's not an excuse, but it does mean that we adults have a responsibility to be patient and consistent guides as students learn how to own their own learning.

To help students along, here is a list of some basic rules that children should follow to avoid their own failure and to step up as a variable in their own equation of success:


Number One: Be your own advocate. Stake a claim in the classroom by making sure the teacher knows who you are...in a good way.

Number Two: Ask lots of questions....and show confusion appropriately.

Number Three: Communicate your struggles to your teachers. What is going on that affects your work?

Number Four: Think of school as your office in training. Are you a good co-worker?

Number Five: Dress for success, but don't panic, you don't have to wear a suit to be taken seriously.

Number Six: At least do the minimum so you aren't creating gaps that are harder to bridge later. Better yet, do more.

Number Seven: Sweat a little. School is your brain gym. You have to work out your muscles, make them a little sore, if you're going to lift a heavier load later on.

Number Eight: Find ways to relate to your reading and writing. What original thoughts and experiences can you bring to the lesson to make it come alive for yourself?

Number Nine: Be in class. Don't jeopardize your own training.

Number Ten: Surround yourself with other students who can help you. You don't have to be best friends with everyone you seek advice from, but find friends or acquaintances that are rooting for you, the best of you.

Look, it's important that you trust adults when we say that your future is important, and that what you do now affects it. It's also important that you know that while many people may contribute to your struggles, you're the only one who will suffer if you fail. Rise above them. Be stronger than the hurdles that life throws at you.

Live up to your potential. Do your job. Look ahead. Keep up your end of the bargain in your own equation of success.

The Final Variable in the Equation of Success

Of course, the last vital variable is what we all, the voters and the policymakers who work for us, must do for education to succeed.

It's important enough that I want to end each of my three posts with this challenge: make education a priority in the voting booths and the campaigns. Retired baby boomers can't dismiss educational issues, saying they are no longer their problem to solve. Younger families coming up through the system can't cut-and-run from our public schools in their indecision of how to educate their own children. The problems that plague some of our schools belong to us all.

Public schools are a miracle of this country. The mission -- a free education for all -- is one that anyone on any side of the political fence should be fighting for as a top priority. But it's up to voters to send the message that it is important, and it's up to policymakers to do the right thing despite party politics and lobbyists.

Cutting education will only cut the future of this country, and that hurts us all. With every vote that does not pass and with every "nay" on the floor, our voters and policymakers condemn our system to further failure.

The equation of student success isn't about who is to blame. Rather, it forces us to ask the question: how can each variable that involves us all, better do its part?

In regards to what students can do to own their own learning, what would you add to this Top Ten list for a student to avoid their own failure?

Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Having skimmed your three pieces, I agree with your overall thinking about responsibilities. I might suggest a few additional responsibilities:

For STUDENTS, make sure to self-assess how things are going with a commitment to work to address the items of concern (on items such as problem solving, learning effectively, organizing knowledge, etc.)

For PARENTS, make sure to show an interest and communicate an expectation of the child's optimized learning - AND be as involved as your effective time management allows.

For TEACHERS, make sure to provide a classroom environment that promotes student intrinsic motivation (Dan Pink has identified three elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose); it's not just the content ...

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Thanks so much for your additions to the lists. My challenge in writing these posts, and a challenge I would pose for you, is to convert your theoretical (and dead on!) suggestions to scaffolded, concrete steps. As a teacher, I totally understand what you're suggesting. As a student, would a middle schooler understand "self-asses how things are going with commitment to work?" In other words, break it down: what does self-assessment look like at different developmental stages? There are many parents don't know how to "show interest and communicate an expectation of the child's optimized learning." Great point, and really important to a child's learning, but can we break this down into steps that a parent without that inherent knowledge can use?

I think if we can tease it all apart to make these all-important suggestions accessible to all, ah, there's the rub!

Thanks so much for commenting, your suggestions were great.

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Melissa Whipple's picture

I read all three blogs and although each is addressing three different audiences--they are all intertwined and need to be overtly connected--and linked to specific actions--as Heather has pointed out. However, I believe there has been lots of professional development around instruction and student engagement, but one area that is under-utilized is using family engagement as a school reform strategy to improve and accelerate outcomes for students. Teachers and principals need to view parent engagement that is linked to student learning as worthy of professional development and discussion. Forty years of research by Anne T. Henderson and Karen Mapp (as well as others such as Joyce Epstein), has clarified what specific actions and attitudes school staff need to embrace in order to communicate a sense of shared responsibility for student success to parents and the community. It isn't about school staff deciding what parents need and implementing a "parent involvement program" . Rather it is is about forming long term partnerships focused on supporting student learning and development. There are some terrific books that have been written by researchers with practitioners that demystify how this looks at effective schools. Here are four recent books and one fantastic website to get school staff started:
1) For all administrators and staff- Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships, by Henderson, Mapp Johnson, Davies
2) For classroom teachers- Creating Welcoming Schools: A Practical Guide to Home-School Partnerships with Diverse Families, by JoBeth Allen
3) For all levels: 101 Ways to Create Real Family Engagement, by Steve Constantino,
4) For secondary- Families, Schools, and the Adolescent, by Nancy HIll and Ruth K Chao.
5) WEBSITE: FAMILY INVOLVEMENT NETWORK of EDUCATORS (FINE) (Part of Harvard Family Research Project) Join FINE at http://www.hfrp.org/subscribe It's free!
It is almost impossible to have an island of academic excellence in a sea of community indifference. We need to acknowledge and highlight what families are already doing to support their children and build upon that in our classrooms-by incorporating it into our curriculum. It isn't simply a matter of "informing parents" and expecting them to do what we say. It is about fully engaging them in the learning lives of their children.
We need to work with families by sharing data and working on supporting students together. Shared responsibility requires that schools share power by taking this journey together. It is about building trust (which takes time), demonstrating respect (which is essential for partnering), and having a common goal (which must be student success).
As educators, we have had 56 years to close the gap since Brown vs. The Board of Education and we have failed. We all need to come out of our respective silos-and work together to support student success for all, or in another 56 years we will be having a similar if not more tragic conversation. Melissa Whipple, Parent Outreach and Engagement San Diego Unified School District

Tiesa Maltby's picture
Tiesa Maltby
Grad student at Walden University

The list of basic rules you have written to help students succeed is thorough. I especially like the advice for students to surround themselves with encouraging students. It is important for students to realize that there is a support system ready to help them. Becoming a member of a learning community can provide a student with the extra support during challenging times. The only suggestion I would make is for students to enter the classroom with a positive attitude. Students should approach each lesson, assignment, and assessment with positivity . Frustrations seem to melt away when a person is optimistic and upbeat. I plan on supplying my students with your list. Thank you for writing it.

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