A Realistic View for Self-Directed Learning

A virtual discussion with questions by Anthony Kim and responses from Scott Johns.

[Anthony Kim] Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could walk into a classroom and every student was engaged, motivated, and directing their own learning? If teachers in this classroom were coaching and challenging students individually and dynamically pulling students together to collaborate and to expand their reach in critical thinking and problem-solving? I know it would be tough. The truth is that, even as adults who have received multiple higher-education degrees, managing our own learning is complex and challenging with distractions and competing priorities.

So what is the path to preparing our students to be self-directed learners? We can’t just throw students and teachers into a room and say “let’s do self-directed learning.” It requires a specific set of skills and habits, like reflection, prioritization, and synthesis. Often we target specific strategies like student voice and choice, student reflections, and student agency, which are all components of self-directed learning, but we don’t consider how this evolves through skills, age, and prior knowledge.

I call the graphic below the Volume Model of Learning. It provides us with a multi-dimensional understanding of how learning is happening and the ultimate goal for learning. In this model, the goal is to understand how we get to the outer points of each axis, which I call the Big Box of Learning.

So what does the Big Box of Learning look like? Let me use the team here at Education Elements as an example. Education Elements is the premier partner to districts moving forward with personalized learning and our team are experts in the field.

  • Breadth of Learning: The Education Elements team works with hundreds of schools each year across the country. As a result, our knowledge of personalized learning is broad — we have developed extreme fluency in understanding all aspects of personalized learning implementations. To put it in terms of the graph, our team’s knowledge is above average (or above grade level).
  • Depth of Learning: The team is constantly solving complex issues districts face as they roll out personalized learning, from organizational challenges to selecting the right content to developing a multi-year plan. Not only do we work on large data sets from districts across the country, but we constantly create new tools and systems to make it increasingly easy for school districts to implement with less risk.
  • Stages of Learning: The skills, knowledge, and development of new tools and approaches are self-directed in the pursuit of excellence. The team is continuously re-prioritizing and reflecting on what works best and using design thinking to continuously improve the work. The team members don’t need to be told what to work on, but know to work on it because it will advance the field. When new members join the team they are initially reliant on our onboarding process and training to learn, but the longer they stay, the more self-directed they become.

Now consider the model again and think about the path you took to become an expert at something.

In order to move to a world of personalized learning in classrooms, we must figure out how to move students along a path to fill the Big Box of Learning.

I get it — this is complicated work. That’s why being able to synthesize information in visual representations is so critical to understanding. Below, Here’s the model I’ve been working on to understand the progression of self-directed learning:

  1. 1. Incidental: This is when self-directed learning situations arise that are not purposeful by the teacher or that are limited in frequency.
  2. 2. Collective agency: Working in small groups provides an opportunity for students to motivate each other. As students collaborate on projects, teachers guide them to set expectations and goals.
  3. 3. Self-managed: Students have control over the pace through a defined curriculum, with demonstration of competency as a guidepost.
  4. 4. Self-planned: This is where self-directed learning becomes more complex. Students and teachers co-create a curriculum based upon interest and student-led activities. Teachers serve as an expert participant to the creation of the curriculum.
  5. 5. Pure self-directed learning: The most complex level is pure self-directed learning. I think of this as something like a dissertation process, where a proposal or concept paper is developed by the student. The student would present this proposal, which would include a topic overview, methodology for study, a work plan, and description of needed resources.

[Anthony Kim, to Scott Johns] I promised a dialogue and yet I am doing all the talking! As a member of our Design and Implementation team who works closely with our districts and schools, what do you think? What level of self-directed learning is realistic in K-12 education?

[Scott Johns] Is it realistic to expect students to develop Pure Self-Direction while in grades K-12? While there may be no clear answer to this question for all students, we can be certain that the level of self-direction that students are able to attain will directly depend upon the authentic opportunities they are provided to engage with their own learning. In the vast majority of schools, creating these opportunities will require structural changes in classrooms as K-12 teachers shift away from strategies such as whole-group instruction which focus on factual memorization and provide a minimal contribution to the Big Box of Learning, at best.

Teachers will need to shift to instructional strategies that promote student agency, such as small-group instruction, flex learning environments and project-based learning, among others. We can only expect students to reach the level of self-directed learning that school structures allow. Can K-12 students accomplish Pure Self-Directed Learning (SDL)? Yes, but we do not currently have educational infrastructures in place everywhere that permit this type of learning to this degree.

[Anthony Kim] That makes a lot of sense, Scott. But is thinking about it as a K-12 problem too broad? How does that level of SDL that is possible differ by grade level: elementary, middle and high?

[Scott Johns] The spectrum above reveals that self-direction is not an instantaneous process; its development takes consistent effort over time to create opportunities for students. The opportunities for SDL will certainly look different at each level of K-12 education. Furthermore, students who are not exposed to self-direction in lower grades may face additional challenges when shifting to an SDL environment in higher grades. For example, a student who has not engaged in SDL in grades K-8 may resist self-direction in high school after a decade of being taught to think in a certain way.

For simplicity, I’ll address this question for three different levels: elementary school, middle school, and high school.

  • Elementary school: Elementary school students should reasonably be able to develop the beginning foundational skills for Collective Agency. Teachers can create opportunities for students to collaborate and develop teamwork by allowing students to work in small groups. The most advanced elementary schools today are creating opportunities for students to engage in some form of self-managed learning.
  • Middle school: By the time they enter middle school, students should have a solid foundation in Collective Agency and should reasonably be expected to succeed in self-managed learning. Developing self-managed learning proficiency will require students to learn the prioritization of task and responsibilities and will require teachers to actively mentor students in the development of these skills. While some middle schools have demonstrated that level 3 SDL is possible, many middle schools do not create an environment that fosters the SDL skills acquired in elementary school, which can cause students to stagnate (or even regress) in their development toward SDL.
  • High school: By high school, students should be able to engage in projects about which they are passionate, and they can co-create (e.g. self-planned learning) their learning environment and learning goals. In ideal situations, individual students may be able to reach a level 5 of SDL. However, many high schools only offer these types of opportunities to a select few students who are considered the most advanced, keeping the rest of their students from realizing their SDL potential.

[Anthony Kim] This is a complex topic and there are a lot of questions unanswered. However, if you would like continue the conversation with Scott and me, feel free to send us a note!


Originally published at www.edelements.com.