When I rediscovered the term conation back in the 1890's, I got really excited because it seemed to answer many of the questions I had had about why students don't all achieve their potential as learners, and why students have a hard time focusing their energy on what they are learning in the classroom.
If you were to go into many elementary and secondary schools today, you might sense a huge amount of energy in the building, but that energy would not necessarily be purposeful or focused. The research that is being done with conation has to do with helping young people learn how to focus their enerfy and deelop self-management and self-discipline skills so that they can go on and do terriffic things with their lives.
My interest in the way students learn came about as a result of my youngest son's leaving college for a while. As a result of his leaving, I read everything I could find about the learning process and motivation, and that is when I found the term conation. I told my colleagues about my discovery of the idea of striving behavior. They were supportive and interested, but I realized that other scholars would not be interested in conation if I couldn't find a way to measure it and prove through research and testing that it is beneficial to learning. Ultimately, I solved the problem by coming up with what is now called the Goal Orientation Index.
The index is made up of 96 statements that ask you to evaluate your working process. The statements include "I finish what I start," "I have set some long-range goals for myself," and, "When I have to make a choice, it is difficult for me to decide what to do." After answering "Rarely," "Sometimes," "Frequently," "Usually," or "Almost always," to the 96 statements, you can then plot your answers on a graph. The index allows you to compare yourself to a population of other people in your age group who also took the test. The graph also divides your answers into three behaviors that people use in the learning process: acting, planning, and reflectng. This division shows you where your learning skills are strongest.
When people "act," it means they finish work that they have started. They don't procrastinate, and they are decisive. When people "plan," they recognize the need for change, and set long-or short range goals to accomplish that change. When people "reflect," they consider alternative courses of action, assess risks, and visualize how things might be before starting something.
After looking at your goal accomplishment style - that is, the individual way you solve problems - and comparing your results to the others, you can see where you do best and where you do poorly. A study of 1,116 American adults who took the inventory in 1986 indicates that adults in the United States are strongest in acting. In the planning category, they are less strong. In reflecting, they are the least strong.
When the test has been given to elementary -and secondary-school children, scores varied from grade to grade. Eighth graders were more goal oriented than sixth graders. And the honor roll students scored higher in all categories than "at risk" students. The results also showed that there is a connection between the students' style of goal setting and the students' success at learning.
In an academic setting, those young people who are succeeding academically have a set of goal oriented behaviors that they use. Those who are not succeeding may sometimes do goal-oriented tasks, but not usually. They are inconsistent. They may have the goal-setting skills, but they have not developed them to a level where they can use them most of the time. The skills are hard for them to reach.
Knowing that there are connections between goal setting and achievement, we can then ask: What can be done in the educational setting to help students use their goal-setting skills? How can we help them to become more in charge of themselves, more responsible, more focused and more active learners, so that they do better in school?
One way for reachers to encourage learning is to make the classroom more like the real world. In a curriculum model that I have developed, the teacher's role changes, while the students' involvement increases. The teacher becomes more a mentor than a manager and is there to nurture, encourage, and challenge. And students get a chance to develop and practive what I call "executive" skills: the skills of self-direction.
In a classroom that encourages students to learn more independently, the usual subjects like English, math, science, and social studies are still taught, but they are taught together rather than separately --for instance through role-playing exercises. For example an elementary class might include a grocery-store role-playing exercise that includes counting skills, reading skills, and social skills.
Envisioning a new model for school curriculum enables us to raise the question,"Whose energy is being used the most in the classroom?" Today, it's typically the teacher's. In most schools the teachers are esentially managers. Often, they lecture, drill, and use recitation questions and answers. There are some students who respond well to that, but more and more kids who have grown up with TV - with short attention spans-- do not respond well to lectures and drills.
As we move away from this pattern of teaching, the teacher's role can evolve. Many teachers today do use more cooperative activities, such as group problem-solving exercises and role-playing simulations. Thus, the teacher becomes more of a director than a manager. There is a lot more flexibiligy and freedom for the students to rely on themselves for learning, but the teaher is still the one doing the organizing.
In the end, the students themselves could become the directors of their own studies. They could work together and support one another. The students make the decisions on how they are going to learn something. For example, they might break into groups to solve a math problem, using the computer as a tool.
A last step to making students more independent--and this is where goal setting becomes most important--would be to have the students become the managers. The students could actually make the decisions about what they learn and how they learn, manage their own behavior, face up to good and bad choices, and work independently. Their energy becomes focused on their work. Students who manage their own learning process can make decisions about how they will use a variety of resources--resources ranging from library materials to their own time to the ideas of other students. They can set reasonable goals for themselves like "When I go home from school every night, I will watch TV for 30 minutes and then do my homework." When they reach these goals, they will feel good about themselves, become confident, and then set more goals.
In this model of learning, the teacher's role actually becomes more rewarding, because what a teacher will see is the development of the whole person in the students, not just someone who can do well on tests. Hopefully, the students will develop organizational skills, management skills, and interpersonal skills --all the skills that are necessary for the external world.
All students have the ability to stand ourside themselves and reflect on their own behavior. However, just as in goal setting, it is harder for some to do than others. When students finally learn to use conation and strive towards learning, they will be better able to become discerning, to develop good judgment, and to become more productive citizens in our society.