Teachers often say that they wish their pupils were more responsible for their own learning.

If we want to understand and develop more self-directed learners, it’s productive to focus on what such a learner should be able to do.

As a minimum, self-directed learners should be able to:

  • focus on a given activity
  • manage distractions
  • organise information they are given
  • focus on teachers and what they are saying.

But this is all from a compliance view of learning where learning is “taught” by the “sage on stage”.  With support self-directed learners can start to generate their own inquiries, plan how they’ll go about an activity,  monitor how well an activity is going and review whether the strategies they have used have proved effective.

At best, self-directed learners can generate their own learning, select from their environment appropriate resources needed for learning,  generate with others motivation and goals, promote and develop with others dialogue for learning and inter-relate learning from various contexts of their learning landscapes. Classrooms become learning communities.

Is there any point in developing self-directed learners, especially when teachers have been landed with the responsibility for learners’ performance? Yes – even in these performances pressured current times, those pupils who work in a collaborative classroom where they can plan and reflect get significantly better marks in GCSE. More long-term, if young people are to make the most of themselves in a fast-changing world, their competence as self-directed learners is vital!

teaching impact teachersHow to Put Self-Directed Learning to Work

So what does a classroom that promotes self-directed learning look like?

You should see pupils:

  • making choices – of activities, within activities, when an activity is completed
    • they are making goals their own
    • pupils are involved in planning how they will proceed
    • given encouragement to offer commentary on their learning – talking aloud
    • students should get support in reviewing their experience – telling the story
    • evaluating the end-product
    • it is vital if the student is able to ask others for help
    • motivated by internal incentives
  • curious and willing to try new things
  • viewing problems as challenges, desiring change and enjoying learning
  • motivated and persistent, independent, self-disciplined, self-confident and goal-oriented
  • searching for information in multiple texts, employ different strategies to achieve goals, and to represent ideas in different forms (Drawing and writing)
  • pursuing their own interests so that learning becomes more meaningful (It is not always possible to allow “free choice “but teachers can, for instance, establish a thematic framework within which students are given choices).

To encourage self-learning and risk-taking, teachers need to capitalise on learners’ strong points instead of focusing on weaknesses. You can encourage peer discussions as even without fully intact answers, the process can yield new and valuable insights.

Teachers can also bring real-life problems into the classroom for learners to work on so activities are more meaningful.
Teachers also need to model learning strategies such as predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing, so that students develop the ability to use these strategies on their own. They also need to allow individual learners to approach a task in different ways using different strategies.

Researchers have found that as children grow, they have an increasing desire for autonomy. Self-directed learning may be one way of harnessing that natural desire.

So how do we guide students to become self-directed learners?

Below are some suggestions to help your students along the path to a meaningful learning experience that will last through adulthood.

Dependent learners

Rely authority figures to give them explicit directions on what to do, how to do it and when to do it. For these students, learning is teacher-centred- “stand and deliver / the sage on the stage “. They either treat teachers as experts who know what the student needs to do, or they passively slide through the educational system, responding mainly to teachers who “make” them learn. Some dependent learners become excellent students as they can be systematic, thorough and disciplined. They can master a subject or transmit it in a fixed tradition to gain qualifications. Being a dependent learner is not a defect, it can, however, be a limitation.

Interested learners

Respond to motivational techniques. They are willing to do assignments if they are interested and can see a purpose.  The teacher brings enthusiasm to the classroom, sweeping learners along with the excitement of learning. Such a teacher will persuade, explain, and “sell” using a directed but highly supportive approach that reinforces the learner’s willingness and enthusiasm. Learners go along if they understand why, if the instructor provides direction and help – or because they like the teacher. Teachers give clear explanations as to why the skills are important and how the assignments will help the students. Motivated and encouraged, students continue to work.

learning with imapct teachersAt this stage, teachers can prepare students to become more self-directing by training them in such basic skills as goal setting. They can use praise, but with an eye to phasing out praise (Extrinsic motivation) and phasing in encouragement (Which builds intrinsic motivation). Teachers can continue to build confidence while building skills. They can help students begin to recognize their different personality types, life-goals and styles of learning.

The Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society is an example of working with interested learners. He challenges a jaded but accessible group of boys to become excited about poetry. His methods are theatrical- he is a master performer who also requires them to become involved, to stand before the class and recite their own work, to take risks. Interestingly, in response to his encouragement, they form their own poetry group but their self-direction is situational – they do not also form a Geography group!

Involved learners

Develop critical thinking and a sense of themselves as co-creators. Consequently they work well with the teacher and with each other in the design and implementation of learning projects. The teacher is a participant in the learning experience. Teacher and students share in decision-making, with students taking an increasingly dominant role. The Teacher concentrates on facilitation and communication and supports students in using the skills they have acquired.

Like an experienced “local guide” the teacher leads students through terrain. Like a guide the teacher offers tools, methods, techniques, and ways of interpreting the experience. The teacher-guide shares experiences and opens others to the experiences. The teacher-guide will help students toward independence. Learners can be assigned to work in groups on open-ended but carefully-designed projects. Written criteria, learning contracts and evaluation checklists can help learners monitor their own progress. As they become more competent at setting goal and pace, learners can take on greater freedom and more difficult assignments.

Self-directed learners

Set their own goals and standards, with or without help from experts. They use experts and other resources to pursue these goals. Being independent does not mean being a loner- many independent learners are highly social
Learners at this stage are both able and willing to take responsibility for their learning, direction and productivity. They exercise skills in time management, project management, goal-setting, self-evaluation, peer critique, information gathering and use of educational resources. Self directed learners can not completely do away with “teachers”. As there are certain skills and bodies of knowledge which are best and mastered under the tutelage of an expert!

The progression is now complete from the subject-matter focus of the earliest stages to the learner-focus where the “teacher’s” role is not to teach subject matter but to cultivate the student’s ability to learn. “Teachers” may still need to:

  • Consult with learners to develop written criteria, an evaluation checklist, a timetable, and a management chart for each project they develop.
  • Hold regular meetings so students can chart and discuss everyone’s progress and discuss problems.
  • Encourage students to cooperate and consult with each other, but not to abandon responsibility.
  • Focus on the process of being productive, as well as the product. Work on more advanced projects
  • Bring in speakers who represent each stage in such a journey.
  • Suggest biographies of role models.
  • Require self-evaluation.

learn with impact teachersAdvanced self-directed learners

As enjoyable as it is to interact with such advanced learners, the “teacher”will fade back, so that the learner’s own efforts become the unequivocal focus. The “teacher” can actively monitor progress to ensure success, but steps in only to assist students in acquiring the skills to be self-directing and self-monitoring. The “teacher” has weaned the student off being taught! The “teacher’s “ role now might be to:

  • inspire and mentor
  • challenge or provoke the learner, then step back
  • plant concepts, questions, or paradoxes in the learner’s mind which require time to work through
  • available for consultation or as a sounding board.

As a “teacher “you will have helped to develop a self-directed, lifelong adult learner surely a most important outcome of a formal education. Your pupils as students and adults will be able to make progress, rise to the occasion, and use what they know. You will have achieved your ultimate goal as a teacher – and become unnecessary to this student and ready to start promoting self directed learning with your next student!

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