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Part three - Managing self - The nature of the key competencies

An overview of this competency
Why focus on self-management?
Opportunities to learn to be self-managing
A note about the theoretical sources

An overview of this competency

Managing self involves self-motivation, a “can-do” attitude, and the ability to establish personal goals, make plans, and set high standards for oneself. It is about students knowing who they are, where they come from and where they fit in.

Students who can manage themselves are enterprising, resourceful, reliable, and resilient. They act appropriately and are aware of the effects their words and actions may have on others. They have strategies for meeting challenges and know when and how to follow someone else’s lead or make their own, well-informed choices. (Taken from the draft curriculum definition, April 2006.)

It is important that this key competency is not seen as being only about organisational matters and self-discipline. On one level, “managing self” is about setting, working towards, and monitoring learning goals with reflective self-awareness, and about being organised and ready to learn. It does encompass most elements of the “self-management and competitive skills” and “work and study skills” from the current curriculum framework. And it is also about managing aspects of personal health such as fitness and relaxation that are described in the “physical skills” essential skills grouping. However it also includes much wider cognitive and metacognitive components. It is also about being aware of your strengths and weaknesses as a person and a learner, and being willing and able to use this self-knowledge to approach living and learning tasks strategically.

In the originating DeSeCo work, this key competency emphasises students’ developing autonomy as learners—finding out who they are in relation to others, how they learn, how their ideas and skills change over time, and why they think, act, learn, and interact as they do. Seen in this light,
“managing self” is one face of a coin that has “participating and contributing” as the reverse face (see also Section 1). The strong link between managing self and relating to others is also important to keep in mind. Students cannot learn self-management in isolation from their
interactions with others, and they are unlikely to make good progress without support. Autonomy here does not mean “doing it by yourself without help”. Indeed, some researchers have found that children left to work alone too often are likely to become more passive and dependent on the teacher—the exact opposite of what this competency intends (Bullock and Muschamp, 2006).

Why focus on self-management?

Perhaps the most compelling reason to value this key competency is that it is highly correlated with learning success in school and in tertiary study. The first PISA study found that students who used self-regulating learning strategies were more likely to perform to higher levels on the reading literacy scale than students who did not. However, this research also found only “moderate” use of such strategies by the students in the New Zealand sample (aged 15 years) (Ministry of Education, 2001).

The increasing attention being given to ideas such as self-regulated learning reflects growing awareness of the importance of the metacognitive aspects of learning. Learning to actively manage your own learning is seen as an essential competency for being both willing and able to carry on learning in the years beyond school—so-called “life-long learning”. This, in turn, is seen to be important for living in the “knowledge society” when ongoing rapid change means that the learning of most citizens can never stop if we want our economy to be sufficiently competitive to maintain our current living standards (Gilbert, 2005).

Gilbert also identifies a second type of reason that self-management is so important in the knowledge age. It relates to maintaining a healthy sense of our own identity in a complex, fast changing, electronically networked world. From a shared European cultural heritage many of us have inherited ways of thinking about each individual person as a single, unitary entity but:

In the new online forms of communication, the standard model of individuality is long gone. People routinely use Internet communities (chat rooms, online games and so on) to play with their identity, to construct and reconstruct themselves in ways that have very little to do with their real-world, real-time bodies (p. 117).

When the social world is changing rapidly our sense of self and of location becomes a critical anchor when considering how best to respond to that change. Yet there is no one “right” way to be that self anymore. This makes managing oneself an important aspect of wellbeing, as well as of

Another “knowledge era” challenge for managing self relates to the extensive movement of people from place to place. Few communities are homogeneous any more. In New Zealand, culturally diverse classrooms reflect our diversity as a society. Interestingly, when TV One commissioned an advertising campaign to try to position the channel as “heartland” New Zealand, they did so by using an award winning montage of images that emphasised “ever diversifying New Zealanders moving forward together while enjoying the unique heritage of each individual” (Smythe, 2005, emphasis added). The first step to interacting appropriately with others of different cultural backgrounds is knowing yourself and your own culture.

Opportunities to learn to be self-managing

Should “managing self” become an important focus for curriculum planning and actual teaching? As for the two competencies already discussed, issues associated with this question must be addressed because teachers are the people who orchestrate opportunities for students to learn this key competency—at least while they are at school.

Caught or taught?

“Self-regulated learning” (SRL) and “cognitive engagement” (CE) are overlapping areas of research that encompass aspects of the idea of managing self. One of the recent best-evidence syntheses, completed for the Ministry of Education, highlighted the promotion of SRL as one of 10 characteristics of effective teaching (Alton-Lee, 2003, p.79), which suggests very strongly that this competency should be taught, not caught.

SRL and CE have three key dimensions in common (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris, 2004; Zimmerman, 2001). Metacognitive dimensions are used to monitor the effectiveness of personal learning, motivational/emotional dimensions include being aware of and using affective dimensions of learning, and behavioural/participation dimensions include purposefully using specific learning strategies. As the next table shows, some of these aspects are under the student’s direct control, but other aspects must be provided to support them.

Aspects of student engagement that impact on learning

Aspect Extrinsic engagement factors (classroom, teacher, NCEA) Intrinsic engagement factors



Co-operative participation

Autonomous/self regulated participation

Clear, consistent goals and clarity of expectations

Authentic and challenging tasks

Supportive teachers/class climate

Peer acceptance

Need to belong/make an effort

Need to demonstrate competence

Growing need to excercise autonomy in learning



Attainment value

Utility value

Cost/benefit beliefs

Teachers support/class climate

Authentic and challenging tasks

Seeing the value in learning

Linking effort to learning


Investment in learning (performance vs. mastery goals)

Learning strategies (surface vs. deep)

Authentic and challenging tasks (over controlling environments diminish autonomy)

Use of metacognitive strategies

Goal setting

Use of study strategies

Clearly students cannot do these things alone. Skilful teaching can foster SRL and CE. However it is equally true, as for “thinking” and for “using languages, symbols, and texts”, that the teacher cannot ultimately do these things for the student. Self-management improves with active practice.
Zimmerman and Kitsantas (1997) observed and analysed the processes of learning new skills to describe a four-stage learning journey to self-regulation:

  • Observation of the teacher—the skill is modelled so the learner gains a mental picture.
  • Imitation—the learner tries the activity and receives feedback from the teacher as needed.
  • Self-control—the learner no longer has to rely directly on the model or the teacher because they have become proficient in the skill.
  • Self-regulation—the learner is able to adapt the skill to use it in new ways in response to new challenges.

Some aspects of the widely used “habits of mind” programme, discussed in the “thinking” section also focus on self-management. Examples include: persisting, managing impulsivity, taking responsible risks, and remaining open to continuous learning.

What about learning styles?

Teaching students to identify and use particular “learning styles” is one popular method of addressing self-management of learning. A team of UK researchers recently reviewed a wide range of learning styles models and found that the claims made for most of them were over-rated, that the evidence that they “worked” was not convincing, nor the theory underpinning them sound. They found competing, fragmented theoretical ideas with no common language for talking about what learning styles actually are (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, and Ecclestone, 2004). These researchers warned of the dangers of stereotyping and labelling students, and said it was by no means clear how teaching should change to accommodate different “styles”. They reported that large-scale analyses of “effect sizes”6 show that both teaching for metacognition and the use of formative assessment are more likely to make a difference to students’ learning. With only so much time and energy to make change in practice, they recommended that teachers focus on one
or both of these.

General or specific self-management programmes?

As the above table shows, goal setting is an important aspect of managing oneself as a learner. Realistic, specific learning goals allow students to gather feedback about their learning that they can act on. Learning is experienced as an opportunity to build knowledge, rather than a chance to simply test intelligence or compare levels of performance. Obviously students cannot do all this by themselves. In order to set learning goals in relation to their school learning, students need to first have a clear idea of what the teacher sees as important to learn in that context, at that time. While the aim is to have students become more skilled at evaluating their own learning success over time, the teacher is an important source of feedback, and must model this in ways that do help students build knowledge. Since many aspects of these learning challenges are subject- specific, fostering self-management is the responsibility of every teacher with whom students work.

Not for all students?

In their extensive literature review, Jennifer Fredricks and her team identified a gap in current research knowledge about young school-age children’s ability to self-regulate their learning. They suggest this gap exists because of the view that metacognitive abilities increase with age and hence self-regulation is developmentally inappropriate for young children. A counter view suggests that even very young children can learn to manage aspects of their learning, and to think metacognitively, if this is modelled for them and they are well supported by the environment and the adults working with them. Several collaborations between New Zealand researchers and primary teachers have found that emergent self-regulation is both possible and practical (see for example Joyce and Hipkins, 2005).

Is metacognition really necessary?

You cannot manage yourself without being proactive. When learning is what is being managed, thinking about thinking will be an important aspect of this proactive stance. Thus metacognition sits at the very heart of this key competency, as it has for the two already discussed.

Bullock and Muschamp (2006) talked to 24 British students who were about to make the transition from primary to secondary school. They found these students all had an instinctive metacognitive understanding of themselves as learners but that this was not well developed in most cases. The students had experienced very few opportunities to exercise choices in their learning, and the researchers said this needed to happen more often, if students were to actively think about themselves as learners. Thus it is not just what is taught that matters. Learning opportunities for self-regulation require students to make some learning decisions for themselves (with the proviso that teacher support is available as needed).

Carol Dweck (1999) found that students who view learning ability as a fixed entity that cannot be changed are more likely to be discouraged when they strike challenges in their learning than those who think they can surmount challenges with more effort. If you think you can’t learn because you are “not bright” it is very easy for that to become a self-fulfilling belief. Ecclestone and Pryor (2003) built on Dweck’s work to develop the metaphor of a “career” to describe how a sense of oneself as a learner changes over time. They said that as students move through school (and in later tertiary studies) they build an “assessment career” within their overall “learning career”. Students who are worried about failure may develop an assessment career that minimises the risk of this happening—sometimes by opting out of learning altogether. To illustrate, the Learning Curves research showed how views of self as a learner impact on decisions students make about NCEA assessments:

While some students do see themselves as successful learners, it seems that many are more likely to see themselves as successful collectors of credits. Accordingly, they are developing assessment careers that use compliance and risk-management strategies to maximise credit gains with little critical regard to the value of actual learning gains. This is of concern because such learner identities and assessment careers are no more conducive to lifelong learning than were previous methods of assessment for qualifications (Hipkins, Vaughan, with Beals, Ferral, and Gardiner, 2005, p.3).

Students caught up in unhelpful views of their own learning potential need what Perkins calls “depatterning” (see Section 2). That is, they must learn to recognise and change aspects of their learning and assessment careers. While an assessment system that reports actual achievement rather than broad age-related grades can help (at any level, not just for NCEA), the intellectual work of recognising and changing their own thinking patterns must be done by the student. This is metacognitive work.

Guy Claxton (2000) discusses the importance of helping students recognise and actively manage the emotions that are engendered during their learning. Learning should challenge and extend all students and the myth that it is harder for students who are “not bright” is unhelpful in two ways.
The first is that repeated experience of negative emotions can lead to the building of a learning career characterised by avoidance of risk and minimal compliance. Claxton notes that students may use any of:

  • not trying;
  • ignoring the problem;
  • attempting to suppress the physical responses associated with the negative feelings (which in turn leads to increased stress); and
  • adopting a position of ironic detachment.

All are clearly counterproductive to learning. The second unhelpful aspect concerns students who are accustomed to learning easily. When they first encounter obstacles they may not have strategies to persist and overcome these, instead attributing the need for increased effort to some failure in their overall ability. Claxton uses these examples to encourage teachers to build students’ resilience by:

  • allowing them to make mistakes and supporting them through these (rather than excusing them away);
  • encouraging students to accept that is it okay to feel confused while searching for a better understanding;
  • supporting students to take risks by acting out of character; and
  • helping them recognise and manage the feelings of learning.

Recent evidence, summarised in the latest NERF Bulletin (National Educational Research Forum, 2006), suggests that students who have behavioural problems may be productively supported when the teacher focuses on improving their academic skills at the same time as the student works on self-monitoring of their behaviour. An analysis of 22 studies found large increases in academic attainment when students were given responsibility for observing and recording target behaviours. Metacognition is an evident aspect of these interventions.

While students need support to manage negative emotions, Claxton also addressed the aim of developing a lifelong disposition to learn by providing opportunities for students to experience the absorption that comes with deeply engaging learning. Liston (2004) calls this the “lure” of learning and compares the powerful emotions generated to being “in love”. Others have also noted the potential for better student engagement that comes with “the idea that intellectual pursuits can be enthralling and that there is joy simply in learning something new” (Schallert, Reed, and Turner, 2004, p.1725). While such experiences may be solitary or shared, learning often takes place in social contexts, both within and beyond school. And so we turn next to the key competency of relating to others.

A note about the theoretical sources


Leading researchers and research projects used to inform this section include:

  • Psychologist Barry Zimmerman who has been particularly active in promoting educational theory and research on self-regulated learning;
  • Carol Dweck, another American psychologist whose research of concepts such as “learned helplessness” has been much quoted by other researchers and developed further as the idea of “learning careers” by British adult education researcher Kathryn Ecclestone;
  • a research team led by Jennifer Fredricks, who recently carried out an extensive review of empirical research on student engagement;
  • Frank Coffield, a Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, London University. He led a team of researchers who recently spent 16 months analysing research on “learning styles” for the Learning and Skills Research Centre in London; and
  • British researchers Kate Bullock and Yolande Muschamp have very recently reported UK research on students’ perceptions of learning to learn.

Published on: 21 December 2010

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