Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
I often get asked about tips for helping self-directed learners independently self-direct in the classroom. Teachers commonly enter the world of student-led learning inspired and confident but quickly discover that many of their students are not able to self-direct, and that can be really frustrating.
Your excitement is squashed and you are disappointed because it didn’t unfold the way you expected. So now what? Call it a day and get back to teacher-directed learning? Or mentor and train learners to self-direct effectively? The strategies in this blog post are to encourage you to choose the latter.
The idea of this post is to answer that very common question, how to train, mentor, and develop self-directed learners that can effectively and independently lead their own learning experiences in the classroom.
The reality is that most of your students will either start off resistant to self-directing their own learning experiences, they do not know how to self-direct, or more commonly, a little of both; they are resistant because they don’t know how to self-direct. Being able to self-direct comes with changing the mindset and helping students build the skills to do so.
“Students’ progress from one stage to another is anything but orderly or direct…We want the students to move steadily and quickly through the stages; however, students do not develop in a linear fashion. It takes time.” - The Experiential Educator by Alice and Dave Kolb.
What the authors are referring to here are the transitional stages from teacher-directed to more student-directed.
My high school students rarely came to me with the skills to self-direct because their experiences in the classroom up to that point were teacher-centered. My students were accustomed to having ideas, concepts, and learning activities delivered to them through textbooks, worksheets, lectures, etc.
And while these methods of teaching may have value here and there, they do not provide opportunities for students to develop the desired skills to self-direct.
These teaching strategies also fortify the mindset that learning doesn’t come from experience in a real-world context. It just magically appears in front of you as soon as you walk into the classroom.
This isn’t life. Teachers and parents are not always going to be there mass-producing volumes of information to students, and even if they were, does that benefit the learner long-term?
The benefit of self-directed learning is giving students the tools to manage life’s projects on their own, locate information when it is not readily available, and creatively problem-solve life’s inevitable challenges.
Student-centered learning helps students build the skills such as organizing details, decision-making, task management, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, and more, to self-direct. As students develop these skills through student-centered learning experiences they will eventually be confident and skilled enough to design, manage, and lead learning experiences on their own.
The question, then, is how? How do I develop self-directed learners in the classroom that can effectively, independently, and confidently self-direct?
With time, patience, and the following strategies.
How to Help Self-Directed Learners Confidently Self-Direct
The strategies listed have been categorized into three themes: 1) personalization/relationship-building, 2) Training, and 3) Systems. There will be some overlap. For example, one training strategy might also be a great way to build relationships and culture in the classroom. They’re all integrated into one large system, and that integration is what makes self-directed learners successful.
Personalization and Relationship-Building:
To effectively transition from teacher-directed to student-directed, you want to look at every individual as just that; an individual.
If you put the same expectations on every child, expecting each individual to produce outcomes of equal quality and grandeur, you’re going to be disappointed. If you expect every student to walk into your classroom with the same skill set, you’re going to be disappointed.
Every student is going to walk into your classroom with diverse backgrounds, interests, life experiences, needs, challenges, goals, strengths, and yes, skill sets, and thus, learning needs to be personalized.
What is preventing one student from self-directing might be a lack of organizational skills. Another student might lack confidence and is in need of a mindset shift, while another lacks experience locating information. The list goes on. Each student is going to start where they are, not where you are or where you expect them to be.
For you to help your students get to a place of confident self-direction, you’re going to have to meet them where they are at, and to do that, you have to know them.
My students and I spend the entire first week of school just getting to know each other. That might seem like a stretch, but culture-building from the start is essential for effective student-led learning. I get to know my students, they get to know each other, a safe space is created to share and challenge ideas, communication and collaborations skills are built, and so on.
And I don’t stop with this get-to-know-you culture-building after the first week. Student-led classroom culture and relationship-building requires consistency because our students are always evolving, which is what we want for self-directed learners.
Here are some personalization and culture-building strategies that I use to encourage independent self-directed learning:
I put a lot of emphasis on free-flow discussion. This is a great way to get to know my students and for them to get to know each other. My students and I spend the entire first week simply getting to know each other. Discussions can be casual and off-the-cuff or in response to an experience such as watching a news segment together or discussing an assigned reading.
2. Personal Learning Plans:
Every one of my students has a personal learning plan. This is one of the ways that I gauge which stage of the self-directed transition each student is in. They take the first week of school to create a personal learning plan (from a template that I give them). They share their challenges, goals, strengths, aspirations, personal histories, etc.
I then have a PLP meeting with each student and use those insights to develop a successful learning plan for the quarter. We revisit this PLP every couple of weeks.
I have my students self-direct a mini-project within the first week of school to gauge their skills and abilities to self-direct. I make note of challenges, such as time-management struggles and apply that observation to their personal learning plan.
4. Student-Centered Get-to-Know-You Activities:
I often start my students off with learning activities that are designed around both getting to know my students and giving the self-directed skill-building opportunities.
Training Self-Directed Learners:
As I’ve already said, and you may have experienced yourself, your students may not have the skills to self-direct. Not yet. How can you help students build those skills?
Keep in mind that even using the strategies listed below doesn’t mean your students will independently self-direct overnight. As Kolb said, it takes time and the transition process is not linear. It may seem like one of your students has it down and the next day they flounder. This will happen. Be patient, look at growth, and count small wins!
1. Student Mentors:
We started a program in our school where our veteran self-directed learners paired up with incoming students to mentor and teach them how to self-direct learning experiences.
This helps build school culture and peer relationships. It gives experienced self-directed learners a chance to share their skills and lead in other ways. It helps incoming students who are unfamiliar with self-directed learning learn how to self-direct from an experienced peer rather than from another teacher.
2. Group Projects:
Self-directed learning can come in many forms, but my students are always working toward self-directed project-based learning. We do quarterly class projects for a variety of reasons, one of which is to model what project-based learning looks like.
Students observe project management in action, participate in identifying community experts and resources, are given assigned tasks that teach follow-through, and so on. They are doing as a group what they will eventually be doing on their own when they self-direct projects.
3. Team Projects:
The small group strategy offers similar benefits as group projects. I like to have students self-direct projects in small teams, especially when the team is made up of students with mixed levels of self-directed learning experiences and skills levels.
Having a group of four with one student who is a self-directed learning veteran, another who has shown strong organizational skills, and another who is a beginner self-directed learner helps all students learn from each other.
4. Self-Directed Skill-Building Exercises:
I will often incorporate skill-building opportunities into our regular day to help students develop the skills that they need to successfully self-direct learning experiences.
For example, identifying and managing tasks are necessary skills to successfully self-direct. Mini-projects are great ways to practice these skills.
Locating information and resources is another skill that is necessary to self-direct. An example exercise to build this skill is a genius hour. Have students dive into a topic of choice for an hour, digging up diverse and credible sources of information.
5. Training Seminar:
How a training seminar pans out for you will depend on your situation, schedule, structure, etc.
We have had our experienced self-directed learners train new students in a 2-day seminar. We have required new students to take a teacher-led quarter-long course on how to self-direct learning. I had a group of experienced self-directed learners develop a training video for incoming students as a self-directed PBL experience of their own.
I like training seminars specifically because they effectively teach learners how to self-direct, but they give students the chance to go through the experience with a cohort of peers, which helps build confidence and culture sooner rather than later.
Systems and Routines:
Yes, self-directed learners design and lead their own learning experiences, but that doesn’t render you useless. Part of your job as a teacher in a self-directed classroom is to mentor, coach, and above all, facilitate learning. This means that you’ll put systems in place that help self-directed learners stay on track, keep focused, and evolve the skills to self-direct.
Systems help point learners in the right direction. Saying “yes, cool topic idea, start your project!” is a disaster waiting to happen. SHOW students how to self-direct, offer guiding materials, and model how to self-direct with organizational routines, checkpoints, expectations, feedback systems, and more.
1. Learning Experience Guiding Materials:
I provide self-directed learning tool kits for my students that guide them through a variety of self-directed learning experiences.
For example, if a student is interested in exploring a specific topic through self-directed project-based learning, they grab pages from the tool kit located on the bookshelf at the back of the room and walk through the entirety of the experience from start to finish using that one kit. Tool kits or other guiding materials promote independence and self-direction.
2. Transition System:
Moving students from teacher-directed learning activities to self-directed is going to take time and practice. I have developed guiding materials designed around varying abilities to self-direct.
I offer teacher-directed activities for beginners, teacher-guided resources for those somewhere in the middle with choice sprinkled in, tool kits to guide those that are ready for authentic self-led learning.
My students thrive on routine. I try to develop a schedule and stick to it. My students know that we present projects on Fridays, for example, so they spend the week preparing for it. Routines help students independently manage tasks and also models organization, time-management, and follow-through.
4. Revisiting Personal Learning Plans:
A strategy for supporting, encouraging, and teaching self-directed learners to effectively self-direct is creating personalized learning plans. But making those plans is only the beginning. Revisiting and adjusting that plan regularly is just as important as creating one. Develop a system around reviewing, checking, and adjusting personal learning plans.
5. Implementation Systems:
Your job as a self-directed learning teacher is to facilitate learning experiences. You need to be aware of every student’s project and progress so that you can effectively guide them.
That might sound overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. I have developed a simple system. An implementation spreadsheet for self-directed learners (grab it for free!) I can see and monitor at a glance each student, each project, and where each student is in the process.
6. Teacher Reflection and Growth:
I have personal reflection and growth systems. On occasion I still find myself, after 15 years in experiential education trying to control the student learning process and outcomes. If you’re like me, your deeply ingrained experiences and biases may be one of the reasons your students are struggling to self-direct effectively.
I have found that developing systems around self-reflection and continuous learning are really helpful. I have systems in place for reflecting on ME, my role, my behaviors, my actions in the classroom, and my philosophy.
I have systems, habits, and goals that revolve around continuous learning and improvement as a facilitator of student-led learning.
Student-directed learning is powerful and the benefits are astronomical. You might feel as if your students aren’t cut out for this at times (or maybe that you’re not). I encourage you to squash that misconception, try out some of these strategies and see what happens.
I am at the point in my career where I don’t see lack of self-direction as a challenge or a problem. It is expected. Your students may not know how to learn, and comes as no surprise to me. It is my job to be patient, give it time, unravel habits, encourage a mindset shift, and teach them how to self-direct. Teach them how to learn.
The feeling you get watching a student (that couldn’t even get a pencil without you when you first met) self-direct a learning experience for the first time compares to no other feeling you get as a teacher. Everyone will be happier and more successful with some of these strategies in place for developing self-directed learners. Give your students the confidence to self-direct independently. They will thank you!
High School Student-Led Learning Resources:
Self-Directed Learning Blog Posts:
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.