Developing Self-Directed Learners

Forward-thinking teachers and schools are experimenting with “Genius Hour” and “20% time,” but it doesn’t always live up to their expectations. For example, a colleague of mine recently wrote:

We had students engaged in everything from a charity drive to provide materials for orphans in Ghana to students helping the maintenance staff repair small engines to a student designing a BMX track.  While students were engaged, their relative lack of experience with any “real” work or problem-solving often created challenges.  Students had difficulty with perseverance, making connections with the outside world, and sticking with a project once they got started.

He and I discussed why this was so and he thinks the root of the problem is that, “students were used to being directed.” He said teachers tried to help students map out the activities they would need to complete, along with tentative timelines, but students still “struggled with modifying their timelines or overcoming a challenge that they had not foreseen.”

We teach kids so many things, but do we teach them how to plan?  Do we teach them how to clarify an end result and then figure out all the things it will take to make that happen? Not so much. And it is very hard to help kids do that if we turn them all loose to do pursue their own projects and then we’ve got 30 or so “clients” with whom to “consult.” Believe me, I know. I’ve done that, and it wasn’t pretty.

I’ve found a good place to start is with a whole-class project.  Find something everyone thinks would be a good thing to do.  Then together, as a group, with the you as the leader, do some brainstorming.  “What will we have to do before that can happen.”  You’ll end up with a task list.  Then ask, “What’s the order for this stuff?  Which of these things do we need to do first?  Then what’s next?” You’ll have engaged the whole class first in a task analysis, or backward mapping process, and then in putting the various steps and tasks in a sequence. You’ll have the chance to introduce the concepts of dependent and independent sequences and, if you’ve got an advanced group, the planning concept of “critical path.” Next, work together to assign responsibilities, estimate costs, et cetera. Essentially, you’ll be modeling the planning process.  You’re not talking about how to plan, you and the kids are planning.  You add value as the teacher who knows how to plan.



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