Why We Should Let Students Choose When To Color And Other Ways To Nurture Self-Directed Learners
After only a few days of attending kindergarten, my brother returned home one day upset and irritable. Worried, my mother called his teacher to gain a little more insight into what had occurred. She learned that the source of his frustration stemmed from coloring time.
Seeing that my brother was not participating in the class activity to color a picture, the teacher asked, “Can I help you get started with your coloring?” to which my brother responded impertinently, “Look lady, I’m not here to color--I’m here to learn how to read!”
This story, now over 30 years old, has become one of those classic family favorites that is shared and reshared at meals and family gatherings. The story captures the passion that my brother still carries when he has set his mind on a specific goal.
But I think this vignette also raises some interesting questions about education. Does our current education system enable students to take ownership of their own learning? Does it support self-directed learners? Do all students need to learn at the same pace and on the same path?
By no means am I saying that creativity, and coloring time, is not important. I fully support coloring to help students foster their creativity. But I can’t help but imagine an education system in which a self-directed student--willing to take charge of her own learning--will be able to pursue that passion, even if it takes her on a different path than the mainstream class. Both creativity and learning to read are necessary for long-term success, but do all students need to learn these skills synchronously with their fellow classmates? (For the record, my brother both learned how to read and developed creativity--he is now a successful engineer with a degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA.)
Research has identified student ownership as a key component of college readiness. College students who take ownership of their own learning demonstrate the necessary grit and tenacity to persevere through the challenges that college will certainly present. These students are self-directed learners willing to move beyond simple regurgitation to engage in actual deep, meaningful learning.
As educators, how can we help our students take ownership of their own learning?
In his renowned book Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov shares a technique called “ratio.” The general premise of this technique involves shifting the cognitive load back to the students. Often, teachers do a majority of the heavy lifting, leaving students with a rather small mental workout. By shifting this mental workout back to the students, teachers are more cognizant of the “ratio” of the cognitive activity taking place in class, ensuring that the majority lies with the students.
As a high school teacher, I discovered that I often inadvertently picked up more of the cognitive load out of my desire to see my students succeed. Despite my good intentions, however, this did not encourage my students to explore, discover, or create--they simply needed to wait for me to do this for them.
I decided to change this by designing a two-week activity titled the “Self-Directed Project.” The structure of the project was rather simple: students would have two weeks to identify a topic or issue they would like to study, design a personal study plan to obtain knowledge, and create some type of project to share what they had learned with the class. Students were given access to computers and the library, and I set up a schedule to check-in with each student.
The results of this project were fascinating. Many of my lowest-performing students found themselves at the top of the class with this new learning structure. On the other hand, many of my highest-performing students struggled to gain traction in the new system as they continually requested more direction from me as their teacher. The projects themselves were impressive; students presented to the class on various medical disorders, the history of genocide, and several future career options, among others.
In their reflections on the project, students wrote things like, “This project was a hassle at first but then it became easy...we as students have to learn how to learn on our own because there will not be anyone guiding you through your whole entire life,” and, “I think self-directed work allows for you to be more creative...Self direction is getting us ready for being adults and having to pick what we like and make our own decisions.”
If we are going to help students succeed, we must assist them to become self-directed; we must create a structure that allows students to take ownership of their own learning. Making this shift will certainly take great effort from our students, but will also require changes in educator practice. We need to be willing to relinquish our control to provide room for student input. We also need to shift the cognitive load to our students to enable them to prepare for the future. And finally, we need to provide opportunities for students to pursue their own passions at their own pace--whether learning to read or learning to color.
Photo Credit: FreeImages.com/Stacy Conaway
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About Scott Johns - Guest Author
Scott is a former Associate Partner at Education Elements, who led our Personalized Learning Consulting Services in Houston ISD, Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Weld County School District 6, Uinta County School District 1, and several other projects. Scott holds a B.S. and M.S. in accountancy from Brigham Young University and an M.S. in education from Johns Hopkins University, and left Education Elements to pursue a graduate degree at Northwestern University.