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Recently, I asked my students (pre-service teachers who are currently in their practicum) about the ultimate goal of education. Some described the need for raising democratic citizens who will think critically about the world. A larger group described the need for preparing students for the global economy. Others wanted students to develop into life-long learners. They wanted to see students fall in love with reading and writing and to geek out on ideas and to continue to make stuff on their own.

While these goals often conflict in education, I’m struck by the fact that they all require students to be self-directed in their learning. If we want students to have an impact on the world as engaged citizens, we will need them to take the initiative on the issues they care about. If we want them to fall in love with learning forever, they will need to know how to learn independently for fun. If we want them to succeed in the creative economy, they will need to be go-getters and problem-solvers. In other words, students need to be self-directed.

Self-directed learners they don’t wait their turn. They don’t wait for an opportunity. They don’t hope to be called on. They don’t expect an instruction manual. They are self-starters who turn an idea into a reality. They write their own rules. They know what it means to experiment and to test new ideas, even if it seems difficult. They are driven by the question “why not?” 

Students need to be self-starters.

It doesn’t end there. Starting something is one thing. However, many great ideas fizzle out within a few months when people lose interest.

There’s an often overlooked gritty and difficult side of self-direction that shows up every time you hear people use the phrase “It’s a grind.” Whether you’re a social activist or an artist or an engineer or an entrepreneur, you will have moments when you have to push through the challenging parts and keep going. In these moments, you need to be a self-manager. If being a self-starter is all about sparking innovation in the midst of chaos, self-management is all about knowing how to stick to deadlines and routines.    

Students need to be self-managers

To be self-directed, students will need to be self-starters who can take the initiative to own their learning but also self-managers who are able to finish tasks and push through when things get difficult. However, this requires students to own their learning.  The following video explores what happens when students own their learning.

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What Does Self-Directed Learning Look Like?

Student ownership was a challenge for me as a classroom teacher. I believed in student voice and choice but I was afraid. What would my principal think? How would my colleagues react? What would parents say about it? Would it look like I just wasn’t doing my job? I dreaded the noise and chaos that might occur if things were too unstructured. I worried about the test scores. However, over time, I made the shift toward empowering students. Students began doing self-assessment and peer assessments and I would meet with them one-on-one for conferences. They began to choose their topics based on their own geeky interests. Instead of asking all the questions, I encouraged them to engage in their own personal inquiry.

Over the next few years, I began to shift from rigid to adjustable systems so that students own the process. They can set their own pace, choose their own formats, and decide what resources they want to use to accomplish their goals. Rather than requiring specific scaffolds, I allowed students to access structures (like sentence stems), exemplars, and tutorials on their own.

It wasn’t always perfect. Even after nearly a decade, I still had moments when I provided too much structure and other times when I was too loose and I learned, the hard way, that I had to encourage interdependency in collaborative projects. But through all the missteps and scraped knees and false starts, I watched students grow more and more self-directed in their learning. The point is, it’s a long journey that I’m still discovering new ideas (and having a few epic fails) as I’ve moved from teaching middle school to teaching pre-service teachers.

If you’re thinking about getting started with student ownership, you might want to focus on one key area of student choice. You could let students choose their own topics in a Genius Hour Project. Or they could ask their own questions and engage in their own research in a Wonder Day Project. Or you could pilot a single project-based learning unit or design thinking project. However, you might want to start with something simple, like a choice menu. This is especially true if you are working with a tighter curriculum map or if you’re teaching standards that don’t align as well with inquiry-based learning or PBL.


Taking Choice Menus to the Next Level

Traditionally, choice menus allow students to choose how they will present what they are learning. It’s a great first step for students who aren’t used to having as much voice and choice in their learning. While choice menus are great, I thought I would share a variation on the choice menu that goes beyond choosing topics and toward student ownership of the learning targets and resources. Here’s what it looks like:

As a teacher, I would keep an ongoing online curation of resources for each unit that I taught. Any time I saw something fascinating or relevant, I would copy and paste the link into a document. Then, I would use that curated list of resources in the choice menus. When students chose podcasts, videos, etc., I would link the option to a one-page topic-neutral document with a list of best practices, tutorials with instructions, and rubrics for that particular option.

So, if students were learning about forces and motion in science, they might select a specific standard. Then they would watch a video or podcast and then click on the slideshow option where they could see reminders of best practices (remember to use visuals, use a solid contrast in colors, cite sources, etc.) and begin creating their product.

Notice that with this choice menu, students are deciding either the topics, concepts, or skills and then deciding on their own resources and strategies before ultimately deciding on their final product. This typically takes 1-3 class periods, depending on the complexity of the learning targets and the end products. I found that this worked well in the following contexts:

  • Early on in a unit, when they need to increase background knowledge
  • Toward the end of the unit, when they need to own the intervention process
  • When completing standards that don’t work as well with project-based learning or design thinking
  • In the moments when there is a time crunch and they don’t have as much time to search for resources or where some of the online resources actually reinforce misconceptions
  • If you are just making the leap into student-driven learning and you want to start with something that builds on student choice but doesn’t require a massive project

Although I love project-based learning and design thinking, I learned that there were times when I needed to teach a concept attainment model or model specific skills. When my students hit project fatigue, I realized that there was nothing wrong with a more traditional, Gradual Release Model. However, I also realized that I could incorporate choice and ownership into these lessons by using the previously mentioned choice menu.


Empower Your Students with Voice and Choice

Want to get started with student ownership? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the Empower Blueprint and Toolkit below.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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