The Training Plan

As practitioners of Expeditionary Learning, my colleagues and I try to be well-informed on the pedagogy and practices at both Salem and Gordonston, and to use those practices to see if they are still valuable in today’s changing world. Last year when reading an excerpt from Joshua Miner, one of the founders of the U.S.-based Outward Bound programs and former teacher at Gordonston under Hahn, we came across this passage from when Miner was first introduced to and touring the Gordonston campus:

The next day, Humphrey Taylor gave me a good look at the school through a student’s eyes. Humphrey told me about the Training Plan, which was the foundation of an elaborate system of student responsibility. It was a checkoff list of each student’s daily routine, starting with the morning run, cold shower, and room chores, and so on through doing of assignments, attending classes, writing home, and bedtime teeth brushing. Once a student was judged ready to be responsible for himself, he made his own daily checkoff and carried out his own penalties for such infractions as being late for class. The prescribed penalty for lateness and other infractions was to get up early for an extra long run. I asked Humphrey why, since nobody checked on him, he did not just skip doing his lates, as he called them. “Come on Humphrey,” I said, “I would.”
Humphrey smiled. “I used to,” he said, “but I got tired of lying to myself.” That sold me. I did not know if the Training Plan would work in an American school, but it was working here.

Well, obviously we tried it. Not only did we want to apply the concept at an American school, but at an American school in 2018…

First, we had to create our plan. Here’s my version of what we came up with, filled out with my own inputs from one week last year:

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As you can see, the Plan is a six-page weekly document. Each day of the week looks generally the same, with the exception of the fact that reflection questions at the bottom may be changed from day-to-day. The last page is a weekly check-box summation of the completion of four goals. Importantly, the last page derives from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and is really about habit formation in service of goals rather than a checklist of things that have to be done on a daily basis. A common goal that I encourage students to set (especially Junior year) is to do 15 minutes of SAT practice every day – by checking the boxes honestly, they can gently remind themselves of their goals on a daily basis, as well as look back on the number of days they were successful (it adds up to a lot if done correctly).

As you can see in my example, I don’t always achieve my daily goals or even get to do other sections of the plan on a daily basis! Notice that on the example week I posted, I missed BOTH Monday morning and the Friday night reflections! However, I am happy to report that every single page is filled out and every single weekly goal box is checked thus far this week! The fact that the Mountain Bike team that I run ended last week is probably helping me in this respect, but I also find that after having an off-day, the Plan helps me to get back on track more quickly than I would have if I had gotten myself into a funk pre-Plan.

As for the structure of the daily document, you will notice that there are several sections beyond just the ‘daily checklist.’ First, there is a Gratitude section, within which we are asking students to not only list three things they are grateful for, but also attempt to hold the feelings of those things in their heart for five seconds before moving on to the next one.

Secondly, there is a ‘I’m excited about…’ section. The idea here is that students can obviously write about what they truly are excited about, but that they may also want to list something that they are nervous about – an upcoming presentation or test. Because the brain treats nervousness and excitement in much the same way, we are hoping to subtly help them transition nervous energy into excitement.

Next, an Affirmation section and Focus section. Because the idea behind the Focus is to choose one thing that you are hoping to ‘work on’ during that day, the affirmation is designed to remind students that they are already good at a lot of things. For example, I may decide to have my focus for the day be to train my tenacity in pursuit (to use Hahn’s words). That means that throughout the day when I find myself struggling to maintain focus, stave off boredom, or persevere through confusion, I remind myself that I am working on practicing my tenacity today and push through. That same day, I may choose to affirm to myself that “I lift others up with my kind words.”

Then comes the components of the Training Plan that may be personalized for each individual; first is the Daily Checklist. In my own example, you can see the checklist reflects the things that I simply have to do every day as an Expeditionary Learning Guide (teacher). To some, it almost seems laughable that I would need a checklist to make sure I do the things that I have to do every day for my job; however, the process of doing the checklist is invaluable for a couple of reasons. First, the checklist frees my mental energy. Instead of completing everything I think I need to get done and then questioning myself, “OK, what am I forgetting!?” I can simply relax into a productive day. Next, the checklist actually forces me to complete each task to its full extent – previously, I would come up with the assignment that I wanted to give for homework for each class, post it to the board, and then forget to post it to Google Classroom as well. The act of actually going over to my Training Plan to check off the homework box forces me to reflect… I don’t let myself check the box until the task is actually done, and often times it isn’t (I haven’t yet also posted to Google Classroom).

To the right of the Daily Checklist is a section that just says “Priorities and Reminders.” This section is designed to be a self-created checklist of items that need to get completed as a one-time basis. For example, I may need to complete a student recommendation, write a new test, or remember that I have a meeting at 9 am. The beauty of this section is that I can also order my tasks by priority. What I mean to say is that if left to my own devices, I will complete all of the easiest (and usually least important) tasks in my day first. Then, by the time I get to the challenging tasks, it’s late in the day, I’m tired, etcetera. In this way, taking the time to order the importance of each task in the morning actually saves time for me later in my days.

Finally, we have some reflection questions that were developed from our reading of Marshall Goldsmith’s Triggers: Creating Behavior that Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be. The questions rotate on a daily basis with the exception of the last question about complaining; students will sometimes develop their own reflection questions (in the same format of ‘did I do my best to…’ which helps to develop personal responsibility) if they have set specific goals for themselves. For example, some students who are very quiet in a typical class may have a reflection question that asks not only if they did their best to ask one meaningful question in each class period, but also what was the question about.

The reflection questions tend to be a place where students try to cut corners and answer simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In order to receive credit for completing the Training Plan, I require thoughtful answers to the reflection questions – this way students (including myself) can go back in the future and read over some of the daily entries and (in a sense) re-learn lessons they had learned and reflected on in the past.

As you might imagine, the Training Plan was not an immediate success amongst the entire student population. Many of our adolescents thought the document was ‘dumb’ and didn’t provide any value, it was just one more thing they had to do. As discussed in the article on Mentorship, we aren’t in the business of just changing behavior – we’re in the business of changing mindset; well, it turns out that this is a perfect example of forced changes in behavior eventually changing mindset as well. If you allow a student to always choose to do something that is hard but will result in growth, it’s easy for that student to decide that ‘it just doesn’t work for them.’ But if you make the Training Plan an ‘easy A’ grade – that as long as they do it they get an A in a class – then sometimes students start to realize how much they crave the structure it imposes on their lives.

Now, that’s not to say that every student likes the plan now. I think I am batting about 30-40% with my students…
But if even half of that percentage finds the same value from the Training Plan that it has added to my life, I’ll take that any day!

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