A School Model for Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learners are at the helm of their education. For some people this comes naturally. For others it’s more of a struggle. But in the long run this education model benefits everyone. Why? Because it’s tailored to each individual’s needs and interests. And because it forms people who are self-reliant and who take responsibility for their learning and ultimately for their life.

But is such customization of learning possible within a school setting?

The traditional school model that most of us know doesn’t encourage self-directed learning. In fact, it promotes the opposite. It tells learners not only what they need to learn, but also when and how they must learn it. By doing so, traditional schooling stifles learners’ independence and self-motivation while breeding conformity and disengagement. And for more and more people this is becoming unacceptable. For some families the solution lies in unschooling. But clearly unschooling isn’t an option available to everyone.

An alternative school model is in the works at Summit Public Schools. Started in 2003, this growing school network is in the process of prototyping a model for self-directed learning accessible to more typical families. Are you curious what this kind of schooling looks like? How it differs from traditional schooling? If it would suit you? If yes, you’ll find answers in a recently published review, whose main findings I discuss below.

How is curriculum personalized? Each individual student has an online Personalized Learning Plan (PLP), which contains the student’s goals for the year along with a record of all the steps, strategies, and evaluations used along the way. How is this different from the Individualized Education Plan (IEP), Individualized Program Plan (IPP), or any similar plan commonly used in traditional schools? The difference is that here students are given ownership of their PLPs, which they themselves create and update. Although guided by mentors, it is the students themselves who track their own progress and choose what, when and how they learn in order to meet their goals.

How are different learning preferences and styles accommodated? The school uses a blended learning approach – a combination of customized, computer-assisted independent studying and teacher-mediated, classroom learning. Access to online learning “playlists” gives students a range of choices for how to learn the content required to meet their set goals. They have options such as doing interactive activities or practice problems, reading and watching videos. Examples of online learning resources are those offered by Khan Academy. Teacher-led seminars and classroom instruction are also available.

What is the schedule like? Every week students spend 8 hours of Personalized Learning Time (PLT) and 20 hours of Project Time (PT). The PLT is dedicated to content learning and may be spent studying independently on computer, attending seminars, or in tutoring sessions. Students must demonstrate their knowledge of a particular content area by scoring at least 8/10 on content-specific assessment tasks. It is up to each individual student when to complete these tasks, which can be tried more than once. During PT students team up to work on projects with assistance and guidance provided by teachers. Each project culminates with the students presenting what they learned and an assessment of the skills they acquired, e.g. inquiry, problem solving, and communication. In addition to PLT and PT, students participate in activities – such as Community Time, Expeditions, and Physical Education – designed to build essential life skills, health and wellbeing.

How does technology aid the learning process? Many essential aspects of the school program rely on technological tools available through computers. Students can use a variety of learning resources individually and at their own pace. The software is designed for personalized feedback and for assessing mastery of content on-demand. The entire learning process – including which content and in what way a student studies, how many times they tried an assessment task, and which concepts or skills they struggle with – is documented and saved in their PLP. The data provides detailed “live” information on how each individual student is doing and it allows mentors to personalize help.

What is the mentor’s role and involvement? Each student meets with their mentor weekly. These “mentor check-ins” are opportunities for students to reflect on their progress and challenges, and to brainstorm next steps. Mentors are expected to “calibrate” the support so that students can experience failure enough to build resilience but not too much as to lose confidence in themselves. Fine-tuning mentorship this way is key to self-directed learning.

And what are some challenges? What hardships and difficulties transpired in the report? What do we have to do in order for this school model to become more widely used?

We must move away from traditional views on schooling: The personalized, self-directed approach to learning is new and very different from the kind of schooling present-day adults and students are used to. Like any unfamiliar and still uncharted territory, it is regarded with uncertainty and suspicion, particularly by parents. A point of contention, for instance, is the absence of traditional homework. In this model, any school-related work that students do at home is project work, which doesn’t look like “real learning” to a traditionally schooled person. Or is criticized for lacking in rigour and structure. It is clear that the autonomy, the possibilities for personal growth, but also the responsibilities brought by self-directed learning beg for a completely new mindset. And convincing parents of this need should come first. Interestingly, the report found that middle-schoolers unlearn old attitudes and adjust to this model faster than high-school students. Which indicates that the sooner we switch kids to self-directed learning the smoother the transition will be.

We must develop and improve educational technology and software: The technological tools already in place are of great assistance in personalizing and giving students ownership of their learning. There is, however, significant room for improvement especially in steering the inquiry process and helping the user not only find the errors but also figure out how to correct them. It’s true that computer technology will never be able to provide a complete learning experience. The unique benefits of face-to-face instruction and live interaction with mentors and peers cannot be denied. However, technology still holds a lot of untapped potential in education which can be fulfilled using the lessons learned from places like Summit Public Schools.

We must provide adequate training for newly emerging roles in education: Self-directed learning doesn’t mean learning by yourself. You’re at the helm, but you have mentors available for guiding your learning. Students at Summit Public Schools spend a large chunk of time discussing with their mentors, and doing “teacher-facilitated” project work, both of which are essential activities for productive self-directed learning. But the job of a “mentor” or that of a “project-facilitator” have yet to be defined. These new roles must evolve fast given the strong pressure for change in education. For now these roles are filled by teachers trained for traditional teaching jobs. But this isn’t going to work for long. Improvising will only take us so far!

The Summit Public Schools drive the change towards self-directed learning. Their school model looks promising and robust. And suited to 21st century learning. Let’s hope it will take off!

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