“Mr Purje! I’ve got the power! I’ve got the power!” A student, arms flailing, is gesturing wildly at their head.
He might be behind the wheel when, squished up in the rear window of the car in front, he’ll spy an enthused child mouthing “I’m using my powerhouse!” through the glass.
Nothing could delight the Queensland educator more.
As the creator of Responsibility Theory, an empowering approach that gives students the knowledge that they alone can take control of their thinking, learning and behaviour, the researcher and long-time teacher sees evidence both inside and outside the classroom that his theory is changing lives for the better.
“The success that I’m getting is far and beyond my expectation,” Purje says.
“By the time I was applying Responsibility Theory I had been in education for over 20-25 years and the success of it was even surprising me, even though I’m the initiator of it.”
Purje’s interest in the brain’s ability to re-wire itself was sparked back in the early ’90s, a time when the idea of brain plasticity was largely a foreign concept in academic literature.
It was while standing before a disruptive class that Purje had an epiphany of sorts.
“I was thinking to myself ‘what needs to happen here to change?’, and my thought was this: ‘well, the children need to change themselves, there’s no point me pointing the finger and shouting at them ‘you have got to do this because this is good for you’’.”
It was a pivotal realisation, and one which framed much of Purje’s research focus when he pursued a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at CQ University.
“I said [to the students] ‘look, you have got this power within yourself’, again it was intuitive, and I said, ‘you have this power, you own your learning, you own your capacities’, and they took it on and they were yelling and shouting ‘I’ve got the power!’”
Keen to weed out research that might back his “intuitive” hunch, Purje delved into Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and William Glasser’s Reality Therapy, among others.
“Glasser, he says this: ‘you can’t change the past, you can think about the future but what we have is now’,” Purje recalls.
“And I said to myself ‘well that makes sense in the classroom; when a child comes into the classroom … I want the best for the child in those circumstances…’”
Purje now runs all his classes according to the tenants of Responsibility Theory.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Prep or Year 12, and I’ve taught them all, I say ‘I am not going to force you to pick up your pencil, I’m not going to punish you for picking up your pencil – there’s no rewards or punishments in this class, however there are consequences for your behaviours.’”
Results have been dramatic.
“It’s stopped all bullying … it simply stopped the children engaging with a process that was detrimental to them and they just didn’t see the value in engaging in something that was affecting their thinking, and this is its power.”