Inspire self-directed learning

In an educational environment that is increasingly focused on differentiation, student choice and personalized learning, nurturing self-direction in students is of obvious interest to teachers. But when the same environment is still largely based on traditional models of learning, where are interested educators supposed to start? Here are some models and some personal notes from the field.

Getting inspired (a primer)

Step 1: For a free and concise introduction to the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) approach to building student autonomy, start by reviewing ASCD’s Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, 2nd Edition by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey.

Step 2: Get some practical ideas about how GRR works in the classroom by reading about math teacher Tim McCaffrey, who rethought GRR and then applied the model to his class by “reelin’ his students in.”

Step 3: Especially if you work with older students, explore the Mazur Group’s Peer-to-Peer Instruction model as an alternative method for creating student autonomy through student-led discussions.

Step 4: Finally, embrace messy learning like Joshua Block by adopting a teaching philosophy that not only accepts the potential for chaos in your classroom, but attempts to use that chaos for the better educational good of your students.

Notes from the field

Imagine inverting a duck swimming in a pond. By which I mean, take the phrase usually meant to describe looking cool above water, while furiously paddling underneath, completely reverse it, and you’ve got the right idea for what to expect when first creating space for greater student autonomy. But don’t worry -- no duck is going to thrash underwater for long before righting itself and gliding calmly and steadily across the water. Here are some tips from personal experience that may help you start gliding faster:

Tip #1: Context is everything. The release of responsibility should be gradual, but how gradual should be a matter of your best judgment. Make sure you take into account the abilities of your students, the support of your administration, and the willingness of your community as you build toward student autonomy.

Tip #2: Let your students control the content and some of the logistics, but reserve the big decisions and final calendar due dates for yourself -- at least, at first and with younger students. When I first started, I thought giving students control over due dates would empower them and make them organized self-learners. In reality, it obfuscated my learning and teaching goals with social tensions as students debated with each other about the pace of learning and which extracurricular conflicts should be prioritized in assigning due dates. (“Baseball practice is more important than rehearsal for the charity fashion show!”) Maintain your role as arbiter and guide; your students are still children after all.

Tip #3: Keep a laser focus on differentiation and mastery learning. When you empower your students to take control of their own learning, it decreases your role as the “sage on the stage” and you compromise crowd control for individual accessibility. This is perhaps the greatest benefit of nurturing student autonomy, so take advantage of it! One of the weakest approaches to the self-directed classroom is to sit in the corner of the room as the students work away, lording over your fief and patting yourself on the back. Effective instruction in the “messy classroom” involves careful observation and record-keeping, combined with infiltrations of the student domain to extract individuals who need a little more coaching on this, or a bit more practice with that.

Tip #4: It’s all about agility and improvisation. Taking advantage of a classroom of self-directed learners means you have to become comfortable with that occasional chaos, and understand that no number of contingency plans will prepare you for every eventuality. You need to develop skill and comfort levels in thinking on your feet and reacting to the flow of the group. This is actually the most exhilarating part of adopting self-directed learning: the brilliance and creativity of students shines through most clearly in the myriad goals they conceive, the directions they take to achieve them, and the ways they choose to celebrate their achievements. So be ready to embark on a process of co-creation that makes every minute of every class surprising, enlightening and rewarding -- not only for students, but for the teacher as well.

Named a Teacher Who Makes a Difference by The New York Times and a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University, William Tolley currently teaches and learns at the International School of Beijing and blogs for the Center for Teaching Quality. His professional interests include innovative learning strategies, future-building, and redefining learning space/time. He is eager to participate in professional learning networks worldwide. Connect with him on Twitter @wjtolley.

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