From Show Me to Let Me

Do you watch the Simpsons? Silly question. Let me rephrase. Have you seen the Simpsons episode where Bart is tested at school and it’s discovered that he’s gifted? If you haven’t here’s a clip.

He ends up transferring from Springfield Elementary to the Enriched Learning Centre for Gifted Children. Ms. Milan, Bart’s learning coordinator (aka teacher), tells him right off the bat that they have one rule and that is for students to make their own rules. If students are tired, they can nap. If they are bored, they should feel free to take out a book from the in-class library and start reading. Bart dutifully asks, “What should I read, mam” and Ms. Milan responds, “Why anything you want, Bart.”

Self-directed learning does not only need to be for gifted students at special learning centres. If you’ve read my post that talks about motivation then you’ll hopefully see the connection between motivation and self-directed learning. I would argue that independent learning is where we should be aiming to get all learners. If learners own their learning then they will be more motivated to carry it through. They will be willing to carry it through because they inherently enjoy what they are doing — no rewards (or punishments) necessary to get them to do it. Without a study in hand to prove it, I would venture a guess that strong self-directed learners would also score high on intrinsic motivation for learning.

Here’s a position to consider: over time, the best coaches/facilitators/ instructors/teachers make themselves obsolete to learners.

Obviously, getting learners to the point of independence is not an overnight process. The predominant approach to instruction today is still one of transmission and therefore learners have been conditioned from a very early age that learning is a passive, not an active, occupation. If it took years to get learners to that dependent state, it’s going to also take a lengthy period of time to get them to shift to a state of independence.

Two things that could help with the transition are Mosston’s Spectrum of Teaching Styles and Pearson and Gallagher’s Gradual Release of Responsibility Theory.

First comes the Gradual Release of Responsibility GRR) Theory. It’s a framework that shows the phases in moving a learner from dependent on the instructor for learning to independent of the instructor. The four phases of GRR are:

1. Focused lesson/direct instruction

2. Guided instruction

3. Collaborative learning

4. Independent tasks

These phases can be summed up by looking at the learner’s and the instructor’s role in each.

Focused lesson — Instructor says: “I do”; Learner says: “Show me”

Guided instruction — Instructor says: “We do”; Learner says: “Help me”

Collaborative learning — Instructor says: “You do together”; Learner says: “Let us”

Independent tasks — Instructor says: “You do”; Learner says: “Let me”

Even with only that sparse level of description, it still comes across as simple and clear. A theory like this could help guide both the learner and the instructor in making the transition to self-directed learning.

The second piece is the Teaching Styles Spectrum. Created in the 1960’s by a physical education teacher educator, the Spectrum was first used solely in physical education. “It is a comprehensive framework for understanding the teaching/learning process,” says the Spectrum’s website, “and has continued to be researched, developed, and implemented in classrooms around the world.”

The Spectrum was created by establishing who — instructor or learner — makes what decisions in the teaching and learning process. The decisions include:

  • what is to be taught
  • how it will be taught
  • the instructor-learner and learner-learner interaction levels during the lesson
  • who will provide assessment and/or feedback

This led to the creation of eleven landmark teaching styles placed along a continuum. At one end of that continuum the instructor makes all the decisions while at the other, the learner makes all the decisions. Through the styles that exist between those two points there is a gradual shift in decision making between instructor and learner.

While Mosston’s Spectrum doesn’t align seamlessly with Pearson and Gallagher’s GRR Theory, it does give you a variety of teaching styles you could use in order to start the journey of moving learners from “show me” to “let me”.