So, you’ve heard about student agency or student-driven learning, and possibly the same thing under some other awesome buzzword :-). The idea of learners taking charge of, and feeling responsible for their learning is yet to challenge any teacher I’ve spoken to. But there are issues. The problem lies in three common questions:
- Are all children capable of driving their own learning?
- What’s the role of the teacher?
- How do I start?
So we need to consider what this looks like in all contexts. I can confirm that it does apply in all situations but is only successful if the teachers know their role and they equip students with the tools to, and practice in driving their own learning. So I thought I’d produce a simple template for teachers to use to develop their student-driven learning. I’ve written before about the most difficult part in this process being the shifting of both teacher and student mindsets. It requires an open mind in regards to the purpose of school and the idea that maybe existing education approaches have failed to ready most teenagers for what the “real-world” has in-store … as if they don’t already exist as citizens in the real world already!
Learning to drive
When people seem pessimistic towards student-driven learning, I often find myself making the ironic conversational segue to “learning to drive.” Even the most conservative teacher or parent accepts that to learn to drive a car, people have to drive a car! Even one’s first driving lesson includes making the car go forward yourself. Driving a car is one of the most dangerous things we do in life and yet we still don’t hesitate to place 16-year-olds immediately behind the wheel if we expect them to cope on the road after lessons. It’s the role of the driving instructor we need to consider. The instructor’s role (sometimes carried out less than successfully by parents) is to ensure the learner will be able to drive without them. This seems like an obvious and sensible approach, so why do most schools still take the opposite approach to learning other things? After 13 years of education, most 18-year-olds are still being coached by their teacher, point-by-point in preparing for assessments. The classroom might be the primary vehicle for learning but teachers must start letting students drive the vehicle if they expect them to cope without their direct instruction.
Tools for learning
The first thing needed is learners equiped to learn. To learn anything, one needs to be immersed in an authentic situation as possible, be making decisions and learning from them, aware of all options available, including time and collaborators, and measuring success and planning next steps. For example, this is exactly how I learnt to both blog at the age of 35 and skateboard at the age of 12. In a world that prioritises one’s ability to adapt and relearn, the new role for teachers is equipping students with the tools, experience, and thus confidence to take charge of their own learning.
This includes tools that allow the learners to:
- Think deeply (time – discussion)
- Set goals/purpose and choose/locate resources (people/info)
- Organise workflow (What to do 1st/2nd/3rd)
- Measure current success (Designing assessment matrix)
- Plan next steps (What to develop / move on from)
Teachers need to equip students to quickly point to the tools they use to:
- Know what to tighten / do next (What’s my adjustable spanner?)
- Design thinking is a good example of this.
- measure current success (What’s my tape measure?)
- co-constructed assessment matrix are good for this
- Decide from a range of outcome / output options (What’s my paintbrush?)
- Presented in class, published to the world, connected to community?
- manage time and resources (What’s my stopwatch?)
- Project management apps and negotiated timetables can help students feel responsible for time and resources.
- communicate and connect with people inside and outside the classroom. (Where’s the conversation?)
- The professional use of social media is still alien to most classrooms.
A teacher’s new script
The primary tool in developing student-driven learning, while also helping to change the mindset towards learning for all involved is a new script for teachers. This is the part that I personally found difficult. Despite discussing it for decades, thousands of teachers still struggle with switching from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” To be a successful guide or mentor, you have to use a different script from that of a teacher. How teachers communicate with students can define who feels responsible for the learning, so choose your words carefully. Any questions to students need to emphasise their responsibility for progressing further. The conversations need to be learning focused rather than topic focused and expect further thinking. Here are just some examples:
- move from “What are you doing?” to “Why are you doing this?” or “Why is this the priority at the moment?”
- move from “how’s it going?” to “What do you need to improve so far?” or “How do you know you’re on track?”
- move from “Are you finished?” to “What might this lead to next?” or “Who could this project or information have an impact on?”
- move from “Do you understand that topic X is ABC?” to “How do you know you understand that topic X is?”
Questions must demand specific, quantifiable answers from learners who show an obvious sense of responsibility for the activity. This can’t be achieved if the ground work isn’t done by teachers to equip the students with the learning tools, skills and most importantly, the expectations that they can drive their own learning.