Some of the best strategies to help students get motivated and become more focused are the simplest. As they say, you can’t reinvent the wheel! I strongly believe that metacognitive strategies are very effective as they get students thinking about their way of thinking. Research shows that being able to define objectives helps individuals improve in key areas such as decision making, planning, and any action that has a purpose (which is, or should be, most of them). One simple strategy that gets students to focus directly and deliberately on the intentions behind their actions is AGO: Aims, Goals, Objectives; this strategy was developed by Edward de Bono, the father of lateral thinking and one of the most celebrated intellectuals of our time. AGO is a simple strategy that “makes sense” while teaching students to think about what they’re doing and if it “makes sense” (and of course if it does not, we teach them how to make decisions that are in line with their AGO). This is one of life’s most basic yet underutilized lessons and one of the reasons, I imagine, why de Bono is a major proponent of teaching thinking skills in school.
For a quick semantic clarification: Since aims, goals, and objectives are closely related and often used synonymously, this strategy defines Aim as one’s general direction, Goal as an ultimate destination, and Objective as a recognizable point of achievement along the way.
One critical role of a coach or parent is to help students concentrate on the general idea of “purpose”, since without a sense of purpose, all actions are either reactions to a situation or matters of habit or imitation. When I reflect on all of my students, past and present, the ones who have been most aware of their AGO (even if we have not explicitly engaged with this specific strategy) are the most motivated and vice-versa, and therefore are generally the most successful. The intention of this type of strategy is to directly instruct students on how purpose is distinct from reaction and habit and how by acting with intent, we can create our own success. Our educational system is unfortunately structured so that students are often looking to adults, or the “authority”, for the “correct” answers or ways of doing things without doing any thinking of their own, regardless of whether there is a single solution or correct answer. Teaching and modeling metacognitive and other thinking skills promotes just that: thinking. Developing thinking skills enables us to become rational, resourceful, purpose-driven, problem-solving human beings. Students will not only be able to correct their own thinking and behavior through this type of strategy, but they will be able to develop stronger interpersonal connections as they begin to understand what guides people’s actions in general. People who engage in metacognition are more able to identify what is guiding others’ actions (are they behaving rationally and with AGO in mind?) and choose their actions accordingly.
I once believed that due to the complex metacognitive nature of this strategy, it was best applied with students in older grades – when they can understand what it means to let purpose direct their actions. I have since changed my own line of thinking as I’ve implemented this strategy with children as young as seven and eight years old. I obviously modify my language to be age-appropriate and relatable for a younger audience, but I’ve found that children are very receptive to being empowered to think in these ways. While it takes some time to develop these thinking and self-monitoring skills, the younger we start students on purposeful behavior and decision-making, the more successful they can be. This strategy teaches students of all ages how to literally develop and maintain a rationale for their behaviors, which leads to rational behavior and goal-oriented decision-making.
DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats (1985) recommends the AGO strategy be taught via a series of simple steps:
Step 1: Introduce the idea of metacognition.
• Discuss with students that as individuals, we must always be thinking about how we’re thinking, making decisions, and taking action.
Step 2: Define and discuss Aims, Goals, and Objectives with students.
• Discuss the general idea of “purpose” and that aims, goals, and objectives are all benchmarks and indicators of purpose. Don’t let students get hung up on the semantics of each word.
Step 3: Whenever we go to make a decision or take action in some way, we must be doing so for a reason and with AGO. Direct students to always think: What is the purpose of their action/decision? What is the aim, the goal, and objective?
• Discuss with students that decisions without a purpose or without thought to AGO often end up being detrimental to both the decision-maker and others (in small and/or big ways).
• Hasty decisions often haven’t been reasoned through. Teach students to think about AGO even when they feel pressed for time because time is saved and efficiency is gained when we behave in ways that make sense because they are in-line with our goals.
• If someone does not have or can’t state the reasoning/purpose behind their action or decision, they shouldn’t do it! Tell students to go back to the “drawing boards” in their head and re-thing the purpose of their action or get rid of it all together because it is a habit or reaction to something else.
• The ONE QUESTION that I always have students ask themselves is, “Does this make sense?” They always know the answer and often can correct their behavior or thinking with little support once they have become stronger thinkers.
Step 4: Reinforce and keep practicing and modeling this effective strategy!