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Designing schools for students self-directed learning

Innovation in education settings is not easy, and there seems to be no sense of urgency, which usually leads to disruption in the field. Many opposed parties will argue that students are learning just fine, and they are still going to colleges, getting degrees, and getting a job post-graduation. The meritocratic mindset that 'once students put in the effort, they will succeed' is still very prevalent.

But are they really learning? Or are they trained to just listen to teachers' orders? When it is students' time to take charge of their learning and future trajectories, do they even know where to begin? In this article, I will briefly go through the strategies that schools can employ to transition from the teacher-led education model to student-led education. While the examples presented in this article might be quite subjective to the context that these schools and students are based in, there are many lessons we could learn, and adapt for our own schools.

Strategies that schools can 'pilot' when experiment with deeper and students self-directed learning:

Stakeholder buy-in

When school leaders want to transition to deeper learning, they should listen to the voices of students and teachers. Especially teachers. Too frequently, teachers are usually not included in these changes, and external researchers' opinions are typically favored. However, teachers interact with their students every day, and they know best about what these kids need to learn deeply. Make sure you do empathy interviews with the field professionals, educators, researchers, parents, teachers, students, and other stakeholders to understand students' needs, desires and aspirations.

Teachers at a professional development workshop
Teachers at a professional development workshop

Doing extensive future trends research. It can be something other than research that are directly related to K-12 education, but it can be in areas like economics, politics, future of work, technology and more. Why are we doing this seemingly irrelevant research? So we can advocate the urgency to change our schooling to prepare the next generation for the future.

Teachers work together for classroom improvement
Teachers working together to improve students self-directed learning
Clarifying your goals

  • Refine your 'pilot program' or a 'prototype' with a specific blueprint, including mission, motivation for change, a success exemplar story to clarify your objectives

  • Be clear about your near-term as well as long-term goal defining.

  • Collaborate to build a strategic plan, a list of priorities or a project management chart to articulate the steps your school needs to take in order to meet desired outcomes.


Logistically, what does self-directed learning look like?

  • Flipped classroom — seminar style, self-paced courses (Maths, Science, Language, …) using e-learning platforms

  • Students can design their own elective courses. Using a set of frameworks and checklists, teachers and students can work together to create a course based on the student's interests and visions. Students can decide about the learning plans, assignments or projects they want to do in the class.

  • Students ask teachers questions, not the other way around. Teachers can choose to either answer or practice Socratic Questioning (which answers a student's question by other questions — either asking if they had sought help from classmates or referring them to appropriate resources.)

How students are challenged with their own questions
How students are challenged with their own questions
  • Learners set the pace, but teachers will monitor progress.

  • Advisory period — this could be an extra part of the core curriculum that schools usually use. Adding a period to do 1-1 check-in with your group of advisees can be extremely rewarding for the teachers, as well as the students.

  • Increase the number of courses that embody project-based learning.

  • Decrease the percentage of traditional assessments (multiple-choice hour-long test, graded 15-minute quizzes, oral test, academic essays…) and replace them with team projects, individual projects, self-made portfolios, alternative expressions of ideas such as video making, podcasts, photography, …

Students self-directed learning in a team project
Students self-directed learning in a team project

While we are still very far from transformational change (universal deep learning), many places are making incremental changes that, in sync, can disrupt the field. These are some strategies (low- and high-stake) that I want to throw out if any fellow educators want to start changing the way narrative of teaching and learning.

By Phuong Nguyen

IEG Consulting team


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