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Students using Responsibility Theory and their ‘powerhouse’ to maximise learning and wellbeing

A Responsibility Theory® (RT) classroom uses optimal evidence-based teaching and learning strategies (see Purje, 2014, 2019). The teaching and learning experiences created ensure that the classroom environment is safe, secure, academically challenging, socially supportive and where all students are actively engaged in, and taking responsibility for their own learning. At the heart of RT is its key question and its answers (the precepts of RT):

What am I responsible for, and what power do I have?

  1. I am responsible for my thinking, and I’ve got power over my thinking.
  2. I am responsible for my behaviour, and I’ve got power over my behaviour.
  3. I am responsible for what I say, and I’ve got power over what I say.
  4. I am responsible for my choices, and I’ve got power over my choices.
  5. I am responsible for my learning, and I’ve got power over my learning.
  6. I am responsible for the consequences of my behaviour.

In commencing with a new class, either on a permanent or casual basis, it is critical to use the RT question and associated precepts so that students realise the power of their thoughts, choices and actions, and the value of the brain’s neuroplasticity for developing constructive and positive achievements and wellness.

So, to begin with, write the question on the board (or use the computer and projector). Ask the students to read the RT question aloud as a group. There most probably will be, at times, students who will refuse to participate in this process.

It is imperative that their non-participation and non-compliance is ignored. This refusal means nothing, unless you, the teacher decides to ‘make it something’. And if you do, there is no point in this exercise whatsoever. That is because the recovery from this conflict-based authoritarian action, by the teacher, to try to force non-compliant students to read aloud will only lead to conflict. From that moment onwards it will be difficult, if not impossible to create a RT classroom.

Therefore, when you ask the students to read the question aloud as a group, you as the teacher need to lead the group. Start reading the question as it is presented aloud yourself. Most if not all of the students will follow.

As Glasser (1986) firmly points out, it is an individual’s intrinsic motivation, personal attitude and presenting behaviour that has the most influence over what the individual will think, do, say, choose, learn and achieve. By examining and reporting on student behaviour and student attitudes in relation to their learning outcomes, Glasser found that unless a student was personally motivated to behave and learn, there really was very little anyone else could do except offer advice.

Inevitably, and universally, it is the student who is responsible for their thinking, behaviour and learning.

With this being the case, Glasser acknowledges that “there [are] no doubt … some teachers who are more skilful at motivating than [others; however], there is no teacher, no matter how skilled, who can teach a student who does not want to learn” (p. 13).

Glasser also contends that there is no point in trying to force a student (or anyone else) to behave or learn. Instead, one has to accept the premise that it is the individual who is accountable for his or her own thoughts, choices and actions. All of which is perhaps best summed-up by the adage: 'You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.'

With this in mind, it is important to continue with the RT lesson as planned and instructed. Once you and the class have read the question aloud, you as the teacher should then say: “What a great question! Okay, what we’ll do now is explore your ‘powerhouse’ – the brain’s neuroplasticity – and the key things that we are responsible for, and the power you have.” 

Whenever possible, always try to talk in the first person. This way the student will regularly hear and know about the ownership of their thoughts, choices and behaviours.

Years of anecdotal evidence by many teachers indicate that students will love this reading of the question and hearing your (what a great question) response. Therefore, immediately follow-up and say: ‘Okay, now let’s read the question together once more and then we’ll look at six important answers that can help you change your life.” (Write the six answers on the board or reveal all six answers electronically).

  1. I am responsible for my thinking, and I’ve got power over my thinking.
  2. I am responsible for my behaviour, and I’ve got power over my behaviour.
  3. I am responsible for what I say, and I’ve got power over what I say.
  4. I am responsible for my choices, and I’ve got power over my choices.
  5. I am responsible for my learning, and I’ve got power over my learning.
  6. I am responsible for the consequences of my behaviour.

Are the answers true?

When this rhetorical question pertaining to the RT answers is presented to students, there may be students who will immediately ‘call out’ and say that each answer is not true.

From the outset, if this takes place (and it often does happen), ensure that you do not to engage with such ‘calling out’ secondary behaviour intrusions – that is tangential to the task.

And do not, under any circumstances, try to convince the students that the answers are true. If you as the teacher want to make a comment, simply respond with the words: “We’ll deal with that later.”

The question, and the ‘precept’ answers, are the essence of the RT language that you should consistently use in the classroom

In terms of classroom dynamics, at all times, try to avoid conflict. Inevitably disputes will arise, and when they do, the RT precepts and the associated RT precept working language (which resides in the RT question and the RT answers) need to be applied in a natural conversational manner. Even though the emotional desire to respond to a non-compliant or questioning student will tend to be there, it is imperative to try to completely avoid directive ‘policing’ language such as: “You had better stop that, or else.” Use instead, “I can see and hear what you are doing, and you know what you are doing.” More often than not, when this takes place, the student will stop their wayward behaviour.

When this ‘student stoppage’ happens, the issue is over. Do not return to or re-ignite this initial noncompliant classroom behaviour, with its associated neural firing pathways and, as such, the associated and unnecessarily refreshing of negative memories and feelings of the incident. All of which will be completely counter-productive – as the evidence shows (Purje, 2014, 2019).

That is because when the student has stopped, the issue is resolved. It is important for the teacher to accept, embrace and understand the imperative: The student has stopped. There is no need for any further intervention, discussion or explanations. The issue is truly over. (Acknowledge and constructively deal with any emotions you may have to avoid the ‘ego teacher trap’ of referring to the matter again.) Never refer to it again!

We’ll deal with this later . . .

If the student does not stop, and does not want to comply with instructions, always try to avoid confrontation, because confrontation will, more-likely-than-not, lead to conflict and feelings of resentment by the student, and even perhaps by the teacher as well. What will then happen is that the issue will quickly escalate to becoming a power struggle.

If non-compliance is taking place, and if it’s safe to do so (and it usually is), try the following: “Everyone can see what’s taking place, we’ll deal with this later,” or simply say, “we’ll deal with this later”. This response should not be turned into a conflict situation at a later time.

When the class is dismissed for lunch or to attend the next class, the recalcitrant student may walk out with the other students. If the student has been quiet, and even if they have not done all of the ‘required work,’ the behavioural issue is over. Let the student walk away. There is nothing to be gained to calling the student back to ‘dredge up’ what has already been dealt with.

If the student is called back, what will happen is that the student will tend to become resentful, and then conflict, confrontation and a power struggle will take place. As such, whatever positive gains that were initially made will now be lost. And as noted, these now negative emotions and associated negative neurological responses are what will take place. (Purje, 2014, 2019).

If, however, there is a want on the part of the teacher to ‘follow-up,’ consider doing so at an appropriate time. It could be something as simple as making casual eye contact in the next class. This ‘casual eye-contact’ could be used to indicate, by the teacher, to the student, ‘we are dealing with this – at another time issue – now', without actually saying it.

Do not glare or scowl at the student. The eye contact needs to be natural and conversational, as much as a part of any classroom conversational practice when you are addressing the entire classroom. Information is now being shared and the eye-contact with the classroom is part of this conversational and information sharing practice. As with any skill, be mindful and practice.

A potential unmanageable example: Billy is under the desk

You, as the teacher, are writing on the board and you have your back to the class. The class calls out: “Sir, Sir, Billy is under his desk.” You turn around, and yes, Billy is under his desk! You stop. You look at Billy and you look at the class. You are sharing information. You are, in your look, manner, and body language, supportive, encouraging and reassuring. You then say, as you walk towards Billy: “Billy I can see you’re under the desk. What’s going on?”

“I want to stay under my desk.”

“You want to say under your desk?”


“Did everyone hear what Billy said, he said he wants to stay under his desk."

The class responds: “yes!”

Apply the natural reassuring conversational RT language

You are looking at Billy and the class, making the usual information sharing casual eye contact with all students.

“Who’s responsible for Billy wanting to stay under his desk?”

“Billy is,” responds the class.

“That’s right. We can all see Billy is comfortable and safe.

“Okay, it’s time for us to get on with our work.”

The issue of disruption is over. You, as the teacher, should then walk to the board, or to the computer, or if you are addressing the class, recommence the lesson, naturally, conversationally and without comment. The students in the class (as the empirical evidence over the years has informed), will continue to engage in the lesson and they will be happy to leave Billy alone. All of the students will have (as a result of the RT precepts and practices) the same supportive insight and deep personal understanding that Billy is responsible for his behaviour and they for theirs. The lesson and classroom conversations and work continue.

Ten minutes later, Billy stands up, he sits at his desk and begins to write. There should be no response from teacher or the class. If any student calls out, “Billy is writing again,” this is to be ignored. Everyone can see Billy is sitting at his desk and writing. Everyone heard the calling out. However, and importantly, the issue is over, because there was, and there is no issue.

This is never mentioned in the class again.

Students at risk

If a student is acting out on a regular basis this would suggest there is a problem, and the student is ‘at risk’. This ongoing problem needs external administrative support. Additional support and advice from relevant school staff and perhaps the student’s parent(s)/carer(s) must now become the ongoing priority to advise, counsel and help the student in question – a much more administrative counselling and therapeutic process.

However, when the student is in the classroom, the RT precepts and language will continue to be used. The aim of which is to slowly bring about behavioural, social and associated neurological changes, which will help to change thinking and behaviours that will help to develop and be conducive to optimal learning.

Added to this are the insights of William Glasser. Writing in his book Reality Therapy, Glasser (1965, p. 34) points out that “waiting for attitudes to change stalls therapy whereas changing behaviour leads quickly to a change in attitude, which in turn can lead to fulfilling needs and further better behaviour”.

RT goals and our powerhouse

The first goal in the application of RT in the classroom is to immediately, and then on a regular basis remind the students they are responsible for what they think, do, say, choose, and learn. The second goal is to inform the students that they are also responsible for the consequences of their choices and actions, i.e. their behaviours. The third goal is to advance student thinking so that they will become self-directed and self-managing learners.

Armed with this knowledge, the students are then informed they have immense power. The students are regularly informed: “All of this power takes place in your brain, that is why your brain is called the powerhouse.” Associated with this, it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that they are providing a safe, engaging and appropriately socially connected learning environment.

The importance of self-directed learning

Every person is different, just as every brain is different. However, the actual flow of information and energy in every brain has many similarities. Self-directed learning is a critical part of maximising learning, as it is the student’s neurology that changes. As the brain changes, new learnings, memory formation, consolidation, and recall are taking place.

Knowles (1975, p. 18) observes that self-directed learning is “a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others”. Similarly, Hiemstra (1994) contends that self-directed learning plays an important role in advancing the learning, knowledge and understanding of students.

Indeed, Hiemstra argues that self-directed learning provides students intrinsic insights on application where they begin to appreciate and understand that they are, in fact, responsible for their learning. So, while the concept of the student being in charge of their ‘powerhouse’ for learning has been in the literature for decades, understandings of this from educational neuroscience show why this is the case (see, for example, Purnell [2020] and Teghe and Purnell [2020]).

Experiencing insight

The research, such as that by Purje and Purnell (2020), provides evidence that students in RT classrooms tend to experience deeper insights into the control of their thinking, behaviour and firing and rewiring of their brain. As a result of this insight, they are then also able to readily transfer their new skills, knowledge and abilities to other situations and circumstances.

This more rapid development of transferability of knowledge and skills is another key outcome of students experiencing RT classroom lessons. Students will be likely to show and present self-directed behaviours more frequently, rather than having to “be told what to do”.

Students will be taking responsibility for their learning, and they will be using their insight and power to better self-manage things, such as their choice of words, behaviours and positive engagement in their learning.

They soon learn what thoughts and actions to engage in that lead to constructive and positive results by consciously and purposefully using their brain’s neuroplasticity, and what thoughts and actions to resolutely not entertain. 

Responsibility Theory, used effectively, contributes to student beliefs, values and social behaviours in a positive way. And, students know and understand that these purposeful neurological changes are their responsibility.

Self-management and positive classroom behaviours

Woolfolk (1998) noted that self-management in a school setting is about informing and regularly emphasising to the students that if they want to advance and progress in their learning, this intrinsic desire needs to be turned into purposeful action. This means the student has to intentionally think about their education and behaviour, and to then purposefully take control of their behaviours, choices and learning by and through their self-motivated positive actions to all of their required tasks.

As noted in a personal communication by Ken Purnell in March 2013 to Ragnar Purje, students’ success in their academic achievements and in the presentation of acceptable behaviours (not only in the classroom but also in their overall personal and social life), is very much dependent on what they think – and purposefully – what thoughts they do not entertain. Indeed, Purnell noted that many psychologists argue that ‘you are your thoughts’. To tell you the truth, that is scary! As Purnell noted, the thoughts we choose to engage with, and which ones we purposefully refuse to entertain, are critical to our achievements and wellbeing, as these thoughts continually change the very form and function of our brain – as do our choices and behaviours – for which each individual is personally responsible.

Responsibility and the ability to learn remains within the student

From an educational perspective, Woolfolk (1998, p. 231) argues that ultimately the “responsibility and the ability to learn [remains] within the student, [no one can actually] learn for someone else”. Consequently, the intention, the action and the engagement in learning is a journey of the self, by the self, for the self, and managed by one’s self. The others in the life of a student such as family, significant others, teachers, peers, and friends can only provide encouragement, information, support and advice.

What the student focuses on and chooses to engage with from those people helps change their neurology and how they think and behave. This means students are not only responsible for their own learning, but they are very much in control of their own educational and personal choices and achievements. All of this aligns well with the quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson (ca 1875): “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be,” and also Jean-Paul Sartre who declares: “We are our choices.” Indeed, these quotes are core to RT.

Endnote: Pride is good!

A few thousand teachers both inservice and preservice are using RT consistently in their classrooms and report very positive and lasting results compared to previous ideas that they had previously employed (see, for example, Purje & Purnell, 2020), especially primary students who will often place their hands on their heads to indicate that they are using their powerhouse.

These ‘powerhouse students’ may come up to you at school or in the mall and say: ‘Miss, or Sir, I am using my powerhouse!’ To which you can reinforce that by stating ‘Are you using it well?’ Both you and the young person will likely smile and nod your heads in your shared and agreed understanding of this life transforming use of neuroplasticity and Responsibility Theory®.

Dr Ragnar Purje is the creator of Responsibility Theory® and an adjunct lecturer in the School of Education and the Arts at Central Queensland University

Professor Ken Purnell is from the School of Education and the Arts at Central Queensland University.

Glasser, W. (1965). Reality Therapy. New York: HarperCollins.
Glasser, W. (1986). Control Theory in the Classroom. Perennial Library, Harper & Row Publishers.
Hiemstra, R. (1994). Self-directed learning. In T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Education (2nd ed,). Pergamon Press. http://www-distance.syr.edu/sdlhdbk.html
Purje, R. (2014). Responsibility Theory®: Who’s got the power?® Purje Publications.
Purje, R. (2019). Dr Ragnar Purje on Responsibility Theory at the Melbourne Convention Centre on 21 March 2019. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=199&v=kJ3Bdgh6dHU
Purje, R. & Purnell, K. (2020, January). Responsibility Theory®:  A leap forward in behaviour management using brain-friendly strategies by students and teachers. Proceedings of the Hawaii International Conference on Education, USA, 755-756. http://hiceducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/EDU2020.pdf
Purnell, K. (2020).  Educational Neuroscience: Trans/Informing our practices through knowledge and use of Educational Neuroscience. MindBrained Think Tank+, 6(4), 33-36. https://www.mindbrained.org/april-2020-professional-development/
Teghe, D. & Purnell, K. (2020, January). The Social Brain: lessons from the development and delivery of PD online in Educational Neuroscience at a university. Proceedings of the Hawaii International Conference on Education, USA, 582-583. http://hiceducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/EDU2020.pdf
Williams, G.C., Wiener, M.W., Markakis, K.M., Reeve, J. & Deci, E.L. (1993). Medical student motivation for internal medicine. Annals of Internal Medicine. In Woolfolk, A.E. (1998). Educational Psychology (7th ed.). Allyn and Bacon.
Woolfolk, A.E. (1998). Educational Psychology (7th ed.). Allyn and Bacon.

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  1. Great article and excellent theory. I have been teaching for more than forty years and this theory corroborates what I have learned. Thank you for explaining and exploring it and I will use it in my next class.

  2. So there’s no actual peer reviewed publications on this, just a book, presentation and marketing?

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