CQU academic’s ‘café classroom’ puts students in control for learning and life

Published:15 October 2020

Dr Ragnar Purje recently shared his experience with the self-management strategy of ‘self-talk’ in Australian publication Education Review.

He’s been teaching for nearly 40 years, and CQUniversity education academic Dr Ragnar Purje says avoiding conflict, or reducing it as much as possible, is vital for a happy classroom.

While Dr Purje acknowledges that may not always be possible, he says it's most likely avoided if teachers don't tell students what to do.

The innovative educator and author has instead designed a ‘café classroom’ for his students, where he implements his neuroeducation program Responsibility Theory®.

Students can rearrange classrooms as they choose, sit where they choose, and eat and drink during class as they choose – as long as they’re not impacting others, and remaining open to learning.

“If you’re talking at a café, no one puts up their hand to talk – and same in my classroom, because when you just shout out what you’re thinking, that means you’re engaged!”

Dr Purje says his pioneering approach, offering students the power to make their own choices, while reminding them of their responsibility to live with the consequences, has big implications beyond the classroom, too.

“Especially in this time of COVID-19, and all its impacts in the classroom and across society, having an understanding of Responsibility Theory and that we can only control how we respond to situations, has been vital,” he said.

Dr Purje recently shared his experience with the self-management strategy of ‘self-talk’, or students audibly talking themselves through steps required for achievement, in Australian publication Education Review.

The Adjunct Lecturer with CQUniversity’s School of Education and the Arts still teaches part-time in a north Queensland public school, and says students across primary and secondary grades respond positively to a sense of autonomy.

“My theory is based on my neuroscience and brain plasticity research, and essentially I tell the students, ‘If I can change my thinking, I can change my behaviour and my life’,” he said.

Since he started developing the method in 2014, Dr Purje said he’s seen many benefits as empowered students find ways to deal with bullying, cyberbullying, and negative lifestyles and peer influences.

“One mother came to me after class and said, ‘what happened?’ – her son had been dealing with anger issues for a long time, but in my class he realised he had control over how he responded to situations – and he no longer wanted that response to be anger,” he said.

As well as classroom experience, Dr Purje developed his approach through his PhD research, as he developed a pioneering form of complex movement therapy while he worked with acquired brain injury patient and former Australian boxing great Johnny Famechon.

That connection came from Dr Purje’s four decades practicing Goju karate, which has also informed his teaching.

“I was used to the karate dojo, where students wanted to be there, and discipline was essential.”

“They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink – all I can do is try to create the best environment for learning, and that’s how I developed Responsibility Theory.”

Dr Purje, who completed his PhD with CQUni in 2015, paid tribute to his supervisor Professor Ken Purnell for encouraging him to take his teaching theories to the world.

Prof Purnell has since included Dr Purje’s book Responsibility Theory as a prescribed text for CQUniversity’s Bachelor of Education.

Since 2015, many preservice graduate teachers have reported success in using the method, across a diverse range of primary and secondary schools.