Why Standards are not Enough & Self-Directed Learning is Important

Ken Richard (@kenrichard) asked a great question in response to an article that I wrote about self-directed learning.  He asked, “Any advice on the balance between standards / certifications and self directed learning?”  My response is a bit more philosophical rather than practical, but I appreciate the chance to think through this question a bit more.

For those who follow my blog, you’ve no doubt noticed my interest in and support for the value of self-directed learning.  I’m not averse to teacher-directed learning, as there are many situations where it plays a good and important role.  At the same time, if the goal of education is to liberate, then that means creating space for people to become learners who are capable of personal growth and development regardless of whether they are in a classroom with a teacher. At the same time, there are clearly many instances where one needs to grow and develop with regard to a set of specific standards.  I prefer going to a healthcare professional who at least met a minimum set of standards in medical school.  I seek out an electrician who has some demonstrated ability to comply with existing codes. Of course, meeting the standards is not adequate.  One of the reasons that I chose my current doctor is because she noted that she values staying current in the emerging research in medical journals.  In other words, her education did not stop at medical school.  She takes the initiative to continue learning and growing despite the fact that medical school is decades behind her.  Similarly, I don’t want an electrician who does little more than comply with the code.  I want one who can face new and unique situations in my hundred year old house and come up with creative and safe solutions that also keep things at a reasonable cost.  The standards work fine as a baseline, but it is not enough to be a person who earned the certification or met the standards.  The one who stops at the standards or certifications is the one who remains largely other-directed.

Imagine a group of teachers who stopped reading, studying, and learning when they graduated from college.  They only learn what they are “forced” to do so through administratively mandated professional development days.  Imagine if these teachers saw no reason to stay up on the amazing emerging research about the brain and learning.  Imagine if they didn’t have an interest in taking the time to learn about the unique needs and interests of a new student in the class.  What if they didn’t engage in the sort of reflective practice that allowed them to learn from their own teaching successes and failures.  This group represents people who have not discovered the power and possibility of self-directed learning in helping one to pursue and sometimes achieving increasingly greater levels of excellence on one’s vocation.  So, from this perspective, I accept the role of standards and certifications in helping people to meet baseline skills and competencies, but I don’t accept them as adequate for a liberal education that prepares one to be a full and active participant in a democratic society.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting the standards are necessarily the best starting point.  When possible, there is great power in providing people with ample space to experiment, explore, question and drive the learning apart from pre-determined standards. Amid this learning through discovery, the people will sometimes come to a point when they need to master a certain body of knowledge to meet a goal.  It is at that point that they embrace learning by standards in a new way, with a measure of purpose and intrinsic motivation.  Consider the example of learning to play baseball.  To play on a team, I need to learn the rules of the game, the nonnegotiables.  I can’t just run to bases in random order because I feel like it, all in the name of self-direction. And yet, what should I learn first?  Do we sit children down and quiz them on all the rules before they get a chance to experience parts of the game.  Or, do we go to games with the kids, let them experience it, play catch with them, give them a chance to swing at a few balls? Yes, a time will come when they will need to meet the minimum “standards” for playing the game, but that doesn’t always need to drive the learning.  There are many instances where first letting them explore and discover on their own has great benefits.

There are exceptions to this, like teaching certain fundamental safety rules before letting someone play with a dangerous object.  And yet, when time and safety considerations allow for it, leaving room for self-directed learning not only helps one meet immediate goals, but it helps them to develop the skills and character necessary to learn future things on their own.  Emerging brain research seems to support this.  If we want people to engage in deep learning, then it is important to move from teacher-directed to student-directed experiences. When asked what the recent brain research is telling us about how to teach, Dr. Matthew Peterson of the MIND Research Institute replied this way. “Stop telling them things. Have them do things, problem solve, build things, discover how things work (and don’t tell them how things work).” These sorts of challenges provide qualitatively different learning experiences and, over time, result in qualitatively different types of learners and people.

Simply teaching to the point of meeting set standards also has the added downside of failing to equip students who are at the greatest disadvantage. If schools focus upon only teaching to the standards, then the really deep and self-directed learning will happen outside of the classroom, potentially more often for the students who live on environments rich with tools, safety, encouragement, and resources that help promot independence and self-direction. So, without necessarily intending to do so, we have one population of students who stop at literate, while another continues on toward greater levels of fluency in a myriad of domains and skills that will help them take advantage of opportunities that remain largely unavailable to the simply literate.  Self-directed learning is partly about helping people progress throughout life toward fluency, deep learning, over-learning, and the type of immersive learning that leads to deep joy, satisfactions, and excellence.

In summary, I’m not pitting standards against self-directed learning.  I’m simply arguing that standards are almost always inadequate in helping to meet the central aims of education in a democratic society.

What is Successful Cheating?

If we are going to study cheating as a way to promote a culture of academic honesty and integrity, then it is valuable to agree upon some definitions. This Wikipedia article does an excellence job providing us with some initial definitions for academic cheating, dividing it into eight distinct categories: plagiarism, fabrication, deception, cheating, bribery, sabotage, professional misconduct, and personation.

The purpose of this short article is to offer yet another definition, “successful cheating.” If the goal of cheating is to earn a higher grade, then what is successful cheating?  Before answering this question, I should explain that I’m not condoning cheating.  I’m simply defining successful cheating in comparison to unsuccessful cheating.  I propose a simple working definition for successful cheating that has three important elements.  Successful cheating is an academic act that requires minimal effort, entails little to no chance of getting caught and results in a higher grade than one would have earned without cheating.

  1. It requires minimal effort. If it takes more effort to cheat than it would have to study or complete the assignment, then why cheat?  Interestingly, some people invest enormous amounts of time striving to subvert the system, when it would have been much easier to simply complete the assignment or study for the test/quiz.
  2. There is little to no chance of getting caught. If there is a high risk of getting caught, then the risk is greater than the small chance of being rewarded with a higher grade.
  3. One’s grade is better than if one had not cheated. Consider the scenario where students plagiarize or buy a paper only to discover that they earned a low or even a failing grade.  Chances are that the students could have earned a higher grade with minimal (perhaps close to no) effort.

Again, I’m not arguing that one should cheat or use this as a guide for how well you are cheating. Instead, it is simply a proposed definition for successful cheating.  If you have to spend hours on end cheating, then studying or doing the work offers you just as much potential for a good grade.  If you have a very high chance of getting caught, then you don’t simply risk a low grade.  There may be even more severe consequences.  Or, if the cheating doesn’t give you a better chance of getting a higher grade, then why do it?

Of course, all of this misses the arguably larger fact that cheating reduces one’s chance of learning.

Good Teachers Become Less Important (Part 2)

One of the most read posts on my blog is a recent article entitled, “Good Teachers Become Less Important.”  I’m delighted to see the rich conversation surrounding the article on LinkedIn groups, Twitter, and through a number of private messages with readers.  Toward that end, I thought that I would briefly expand on that first article, explaining more of what I mean by the statement, “Good Teachers Become Less Important.” There is no question that I created the title to provoke thought and discussion.  What I enjoy about the title is that it can be read in different ways, even though the article itself clarifies the way that I was using it.  If people read the title and did not go on to read the entire article, they might think I was claiming that teachers are somehow becoming less important or valuable.  The title could be read as a sort of news headline, claiming that something has changed today, and good teachers suddenly became less important. While it is true that the Internet and a variety of tools and resources are making it increasingly possible for us to learn apart from the traditional teacher and classroom environment, that was not my intended meaning in the title.

The title can be read in a very different sense, as a sort of philosophy statement about something that I consider important in education.  From that perspective, the title is drawing our attention to a fact that is largely intuitive, but is sometimes forgotten to the detriment of learners.  As I see it, teachers have the role and responsibility of helping students move toward independence with regard to a variety of tasks.  Good teachers learn to become increasingly less necessary as their students progress toward mastery of certain tasks.  Imagine a math teacher whose students are no more capable of solving math problems on their own at the end of the year than they were at the beginning of the year.  The math teacher might feel good about being needed by the students to solve the math problems, but that is not her job.  Her job is to help students in such a way that they will be able to use math for the rest of their lives, to use it in situations where a math teacher is not present to help them.  In other words, their job is to become less important, less necessary in the mathematical lives of the students.  We can disagree about the best way to help students achieve such independence, but not as much about the goal of helping students become increasingly independent.  This is too central and critical to a philosophy of education in a democratic society.

I noticed that one response to my first article described the teacher-student relationship as similar to that of a conductor and an orchestra.  That can be a helpful comparison for describing the present interactions in some classrooms, but I don’t think that it necessarily helps us think about the goals (future tense) of a good teacher, and this is part of my concern with too much of a teacher-centered approach to education.  A teacher-centered approach risks focusing largely on the present behaviors and actions of the teacher in orchestrating a harmonious class session or a well-behaved student in the present.  Ultimately, the goal of education is not to provide a present and harmonious learning environment.  It has one foot in the present and one in the future, thinking about how students are progressing toward independence, self-regulation, and self-direction in a wide array of subjects and tasks.  When students learns to drive, they usually have a guardian, guide or driver’s education instructor with them; but not forever.  That guide becomes increasingly less important as the students learn to drive alone. If this doesn’t happen, then little learning (and therefore little good teaching) took place. As a result, I contend that learning environments should help people develop at least a small measure of self-direction and self-regulation.

Some might argue that not all students are capable of independence and self-direction.  Even if this were true, there is little question that almost all people can learn to be a bit more independent and self-directed than where they started.  Part of good teaching involves helping to foster the types of spaces, experiences and environments where students are able to develop this independence.  Some learning environments are shaped more by the desire to keep students under control, ensure that they are coloring between the lines, and get students to follow the teacher’s instructions.  There are times to color between the lines and it is important to learn how to follow instructions, but it is also important to learn how to carry out tasks without instructions, to take the road less traveled, to learn through experimentation and exploration, and to take personal initiative. Part of good learning involves engaging in activities and experiences that help us to progress toward self-direction and independence, learning more about how to leverage one’s personal strengths, setting goals and establishing a plan to meet those goals.  If teachers always set the goals and establish the plans, how are students supposed to learn these important skills? If teachers always establish the priorities, how do students learn to prioritize?  This is why it is critical (for the sake of the students and their learning) that good teachers learn to gradually (or sometimes rapidly, depending upon the learner and context) become less important, less directive, and less essential to the learning experience.

“But my students would do nothing if I didn’t tell them what to do.”  That may be true, and I’m not arguing that teachers should never give instructions or direction.  In many learning contexts, simply abandoning such actions would be negligence.  However, here is the important question that good…even great teachers use to inform their actions.  How I can help this student progress toward independence…toward functioning on a given task without my help, direction, or re-direction?  Persistently asking and seeking answers to this question is an important step in helping to cultivating creative, courageous citizens and not simply producing what John Taylor Gatto might call complacent, compliant consumers.




Reflection Questions for High-Impact Learning Organizations

As I near the end of the traditional school year, I find myself thinking about the amazing team with which I’ve been blessed to work.  I’ve also been thinking about the attributes of the individuals on the team that make it distinct and help shape the culture that I value so much.  So, I decided to represent these traits in the form of questions that I can use for my own reflection and self-evaluation, and also something that I could invite others to consider using.  Here is the list that I have so far.  I post it with the thought that others serving in learning organizations might find value in them as well. Feel free to add some of your own questions in the comment section.

Self-direction & Innovation – What have I initiated over the past year with little to no direction from others?

Innovation and Lifelong Learning – What new ideas or possibilities have I brought to the team over the past year?

Interdisciplinary Thinking – How am I pulling from diverse disciplines/subjects (other than education) in order to inform my thinking?

Divergent Thinking – When have I ignored or moved beyond best practice, tradition, and the status quo in the pursuit of something better?

Servant Leadership – When have I sacrificed a personal preference in pursuit of excellence or the well-being of the group?

Servant Leadership & Commitment to Team – How have I helped other to be more successful, productive, or committed to our mission?

Servant Leadership – When have I put my work on hold in order to meet the needs of another person?

Lifelong Learning & Commitment to Personal Excellence – What am I better at now than I was twelve months ago?

Lifelong Learning & Forward-thinking – What possibilities inform my thinking that I didn’t know existed twelve months ago?

Commitment to Mission – How have I helped the team to be more focused on and faithful to our mission than we were twelve months ago?

Advocate for a Learner-centered Organization – How have I helped to make the student experience more enjoyable, engaging, challenging and transformational than it was twelve months ago?

Advocate for a Learner-centered Organization – What decisions have I made in the past 12 month that put the needs and interests of the students ahead of the the institution, faculty, etc.?