Learning Personal Responsibility

What has happened to personal responsibility? I again wondered this while on an aeroplane recently. As always the crew showed the safety demonstration. I have heard this literally hundreds of times, (as of writing this post I have been fortunate to travel on 1752 planes in the last 35 years – yes I keep a record) yet lately there is a new addition to the dialogue. If you have traveled on a plane this will be familiar…

“… and finally before take off, clip your tray table back, make sure your seat back is upright, your arm rest down and the window shade up.”

Here is the piece that has been added…

“Please make sure children’s toes and fingers are well clear of any moving parts.”

What? Surely if you have children with you, or around you this would be a given? Why the need to say it? Is to avoid being sued if fingers or toes do get caught? Has there been that many children’s extremities that have been pinched, squashed or amputated to warrant being so explicit about it? Part of me feels that because it has been said out loud, that now it has opened up the possibility of it happening – the idea of manifestation or the Law of Attraction. Below are 2 posters and ideas that I hold to be true. One from the spiritual aspect with Abraham and one from an ancient Chinese Philosopher…

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Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher

Poster from my home










The other part of me knows that for children to learn they MUST have experiences. I despaired with how many people said to my children, while playing in the kitchen cupboards, “watch your fingers.” I was more of the opinion – catch your fingers – they will only do it once, or maybe twice!

What has happened to the personal responsibility of allowing people to make mistakes and learn? Many (or it often feels like most) have gone from being able to accept responsibility for failure to blaming those around us, from being accountable and righting the wrong, to making excuses, even taking ownership seems to have been replaced with denial.

This is obvious in this cartoon, which I know is not so funny for most teachers, because it rings so true… Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 10.30.41 pm A few years ago I was in a classroom, about to teach a group of students how to study to pass their exams. It was three weeks before the national exams. This maybe a little late to be learning study skills, however 3 weeks of great study is better than none. Just before I commenced, a student came rushing in and exclaimed; “I can’t be here – I have to go and finish my art portfolio or the teacher will be cross with me!”

This is a great example of not taking personal responsibility. She was blaming the teacher for making her do it, rather than learning the lesson of time management that was presenting itself. What if she had come to me and said, “I can’t be here today, because I have not managed my time well and I need to complete my art portfolio.” In this statement she would have been taking responsibility, communicating an awareness of the lesson to learn and in time be able to learn it.

When taking notes in class, do your students just write down only what you say and how you display it, or are they able to have the flexibility to set out their page in the best way for them. Do they know the best way for them to learn? Can they use colours, draw pictures and diagrams relevant to the text, create mind maps and even write extra notes that you have not asked them to? Have you empowered your students to take responsibility for their note taking, for their learning?

Once I was about to teach a group of students how to study to pass their exams when the principal announced to the students that they needed to pass their exams to raise the schools status. Hello – no – they need to pass their exams so they can get ahead in life, so they feel successful, so they have choices further down the track. Passing exams is not about pleasing teachers, parents or raising a schools status, it is about the personal achievement… A framework that I have used to help understand that personal responsibility is below.

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Responsibility chart

 A question I often ask is, “Are you playing above or below the line?” or “Are you playing in the Victim team or the Learning team?”

Now we are all human and it is normal to blame, make excuses and deny. The important factor is that you recognise that you are below the line and reframe the challenge or situation from the position of the learning team, above the line.

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Adrian Rennie, a wonderful teacher in Christchurch,New Zealand, rewrote this chart in child friendly language… I love his ‘cool and fool monster’ analogy.

What are some of the ways you promote students taking personal responsibility?

How do you model this in your classroom and in your life?

Which strategies do you engage to ensure students can learn from their mistakes and take personal responsibility for their learning and their life.



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Published on Saturday, August 9th, 2014, under Learning, Life lessons

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

3 Responses to “Learning Personal Responsibility”

  1. Alan Cooper says:

    Just a wee bit about note making/taking. It is so important, yet Marzano boldly quotes Roche and Piolat, Note Taking and Learning: A Summary of Research “Very few students are taught even basic ‘note taking’ skills.” That’s America but the same occurs down under too. There is plenty of anecdotal information about this which my experience confirms even at so called good schools.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      I agree and it still astounds me how many senior students say – “Should I write that down?”, “Do I need to underline that?” “What colour should I use?” we have so failed them if they are asking these questions at this level

  2. […] On the other hand, the victor is able to take ownership and admit they have it wrong and go about working out how to fix the problem or remedy the result. A key to hearing this dialogue is the victor will use the word “I” in their explanation demonstrating they are taking responsibility. […]

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