Eat the Frog, and Other Strategies for Task Initiation

Spring 2021

By Jenny Bennett and Julie Kallio

The demand for students to direct their own learning, whether because of crisis remote schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic or intentionally designed, project-based learning, requires students to initiate learning tasks. Students’ capacity for task initiation relies heavily on self-knowledge and self-regulation, two components of Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence theory,1 and executive functioning more broadly.2 Increasingly, self-knowledge and self-regulation are seen as capacities to be developed.3 In this article, we describe how a third-grade teacher and her students developed their collective capacity for self-directed learning through the co-construction of task initiation strategies.

At Breck School, a PK-12th-grade independent school in Minneapolis, MN, the Peter Clark Center for Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) supports teachers in implementing current research-based strategies in their classrooms. An MBE approach is about observing student learning behaviors and attitudes through a neurodevelopmental lens and then strategizing with students to leverage their strengths and develop their weaknesses.4

In Jenny Bennett’s third-grade classroom, she observed students struggling to complete tasks during self-directed work sessions. Jenny would typically begin self-directed work sessions by gathering students to give directions and then providing time for them to work in the classroom. The tasks were already familiar to students, such as individual spelling practice, a series of math problems, or the writing process in Writer’s Workshop.

From her MBE training, Jenny focused on observing which tasks students were delaying and what behaviors they were exhibiting. She saw that after she gave the directions, some students would begin work immediately while others would talk with classmates, engage in unnecessarily organizing and reorganizing materials, or show other distracted behaviors like looking around the room or staring off into space. Jenny paid attention to which tasks students were struggling to get started on, and it seemed to be those that they perceived as either boring, such as spelling practice, or difficult and requiring some risk-taking, such as personal writing.

Because she knew that the students already had the skills and capabilities to complete these tasks, she suspected that it was a struggle with task initiation rather than the demands of the tasks themselves. Task initiation is the moment when someone selects and begins a task. Whether a student initiates a task depends on a range of factors, including the student’s perception of the complexity of the task, the intrinsic motivation to complete the task, previous practice in self-regulation strategies, and more broadly the student’s self-perception and sense of belonging as a learner.

Although Jenny found herself tempted to direct her students toward the tasks, such as saying, “It’s time to get started. Get going!” she began to wonder whether they actually knew how to get going. Taking a different tack, she decided to have a conversation with her students to share her observations and define task initiation as a step in the learning process. Jenny began the class conversation by sharing a Mark Twain quote she had once heard: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” While there were a few giggles about the thought of eating a frog, this sparked a conversation among students about the real struggles they were experiencing.

Jenny then asked students to share strategies they were already using to get started. Students talked about doing the easiest thing first to get some confidence. Another student shared the idea of setting up a reward for yourself when you complete the task. As a class, they had then already come up with three task initiation strategies: “Eat the Frog”—do the hardest task first; “Climb the Ladder”—do the easiest one first; and “Dangle the Carrot”—set up a reward for completion.

After naming and co-creating these task initiation strategies with the children, Jenny created a visual to remind them of the strategies, and she began encouraging students to test them out during self-directed work sessions. Over the next few months, Jenny began to hear students using the phrases—Eat the Frog, Climb the Ladder, and Dangle the Carrot—as part of classroom conversation. Students would talk to Jenny and to each other about which strategy they were using. For example, a student would begin a word study assignment by declaring that they were going to Eat the Frog. Another student might say they were going to Climb the Ladder for math practice. During a math test, when a classmate was struggling, Jenny heard students encouraging the child to Climb the Ladder to gain confidence.

These three strategies gained such traction that Jenny brought them to her new third graders the following year. It was at this point that Julie Kallio, an innovation specialist and co-author of this article, got involved. Walking by Jenny’s classroom, she heard students using the phrases and asked them what they were doing. Students were able to define the strategies, and they were aware that others used different strategies.

One student shared: "When we’re doing spelling, we have to choose an activity to do: sentences, repeat, flip & write, and doodle. Sometimes people want to do the easiest one first, some want to do the hardest one first. “Eat the Frog” is starting with the hardest, and “Climb the Ladder” means start with the easiest. I don’t like Repeat, so I use Dangle the Carrot. Normally my reward is lunch."

Another third grader explained, “During word study, I do the hardest one first [because] I think sentences are the hardest. The Repeat Activity is easy for me because it is easy to repeat. I use ‘Dangle the Carrot’ during coding, because you can finish the level.” This student is demonstrating attention to the tasks to be done, awareness of how they perceive the difficulty of the tasks, self-knowledge in their own preferences, and even the ability to visualize the completed coding task.

During a fall conference with a parent, Jenny began to describe the task initiation strategies, and the parent shared how she and her son sweeten chores like folding laundry by playing music they like. Jenny and the student then added “Spoonful of Sugar” to the class list of strategies. As this strategy was applied in the classroom, students talked about listening to music or sitting in a comfortable spot. This transfer of strategies across contexts went both ways, with parents noticing that students were using the strategies at home to get started on homework and chores.

As further evidence of the depth of understanding of the strategies, students even shared new ideas for strategies. One student said, “Another one I have thought of is ‘Play with the Bird,’ for playing with your ideas. That allows for making errors.” This shows how students understand that these strategies are constructed and that one can also create them. In this way, co-construction provides an opportunity for student agency over how the person learns to learn.

What began as a conversation about what Jenny was noticing and a Mark Twain quote resulted in a two-year project of creating and using task initiation strategies. Through this journey, students improved their capacity to “get their brain going” in four ways:
  • Students were able to define the strategies and what they were meant to help with.
  • They were able to consider the task and themselves when deciding which strategy to use.
  • They demonstrated pride, both in coming up with the phrases and in using them.
  • Students applied the strategies in other contexts, at home or in other school situations, such as a math test.
Jenny’s co-constructed MBE approach improved students’ ability to initiate learning tasks and, more broadly, built a classroom culture oriented around learning to learn.

Understanding how Jenny made this project into co-constructing task initiation strategies can illuminate how others might use a similar MBE approach with their students. The first shift that Jenny made was in naming task initiation with students as part of the learning process. Giving this step of the learning process a name makes it visible and available for discussion and redesign. Students, like teachers, are likely to think that they are struggling with the academic part of the task, rather than struggling with self-regulation. Connecting how students feel during this step builds their awareness of how and when their emotions affect their learning. Using descriptive language, rather than words with positive and negative connotations, can allow students to reflect openly, setting the conditions for learning. Inviting students to name and create their own strategies empowers them to see learning as a process at which they can all succeed. Making a visual can be a powerful reminder (see Figure 1).


The second move that Jenny made was to pay attention to the tasks students were struggling with. She noticed that students tend to use Eat the Frog, Spoonful of Sugar, and Dangle the Carrot with tasks that are routine and mundane, while novel tasks that require creative risks bring out Climb the Ladder. The connection between the perception of tasks as boring or novel/risky corroborates more recent conceptions of procrastination as primarily about emotional self-regulation rather than self-control. Another implication is that students can practice task initiation when they are young, such as in third grade, with relatively low stakes in ways that can build their capacity for self-direction as they get older and task complexity increases.

Finally, Jenny used co-construction as a way to empower her students as active participants in their learning. Co-construction is an asset-based, inclusive practice that positions students as contributing members of a learning community, giving them ownership of the strategies that are created. Still, co-construction can be challenging. The facilitator of a co-constructed process has to stay open to students’ suggestions and allow them to test out what they think might work. Allowing students some measure of control may result in strategies that do not work, and that might mean embracing finding out what does not work as part of the learning process. As students ideate strategies, they should track and test which strategies are successful for them and when.

Co-construction can take you and your students further than could be imagined at the outset, as when Jenny’s student thought of a new strategy—Play with the Bird (to play with ideas). Because co-construction is an open-ended process, it is never finished. The initial task initiation strategies Jenny brainstormed with her students were intentionally planned to expand and change over time—as they did. No doubt other phrases will continue to emerge as the students and tasks change.

In sum, educators can support student capacity for self-regulation in these ways:
  • Allow students the opportunity for self-directed learning.
  • See and name struggles as part of the learning process.
  • Co-construct strategies.
  • Develop a reflective practice for students to test and learn from their attempts.
To be sure, task initiation is not the only component of procrastination and self-directed learning more broadly. What this article is intended to showcase is how naming task initiation as part of the learning process and reflecting on those strategies provide a way to build students’ metacognitive skills that will ultimately grow their capacity for self-directed learning. Breaking down the skills and functions of the brain that are necessary to execute learning tasks is about a deeper understanding of how students learn. Furthermore, co-constructed strategies communicate a deep belief that all students can be successful in growing their capacity for self-knowledge and self-regulation as they learn to learn.

Notes

  • 1 Goleman, D. (2005) Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam.
  • 2 Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary "executive skills" approach to helping kids reach their potential. Guilford Press.
  • 3 Dweck, C.S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
  • 4 Barringer, M-D., Pohlman, C., & Robinson, M. (2010). Schools for all kinds of minds: Boosting student success by embracing learning variation. Jossey-Bass.
Jenny Bennett

Jenny Bennett ([email protected]) is a Lower School Teacher at Breck School in Minneapolis, MN.
 

Julie Kallio

Julie Kallio ([email protected]) is an Innovation Specialist at the Breck School in Minneapolis, MN.