8 Simple Ideas for Helping Students Become Self-directed Learners This Year

8 Simple Ways SDLEducation is about more than setting up a fish (knowledge) distribution center and handing fish out to all who come to the institution. Education is about fishing lessons, equipping people with the competence and confidence to fish (learn) for the rest of their lives. This is not simply about job preparation. This is preparation for life: family, church, community, work, avocations, leisure time, and relationships. That is the liberal arts vision behind education. As such, an education that simply disseminates knowledge is a limited one.

As we read headlines about whether MOOCs will disrupt the modern University or if the cost of eduction exceeds the benefit, we risk missing the main goal. The main goal of education is not about credits, diplomas, letter grades, degrees, or classes. It is about cultivating knowledge, skills, and dispositions that empower us to live the good life, to develop wisdom and eloquence, to become lifelong learners, and to use what we learn in service to our neighbor.

At this moment, countless educators and students are heading back to school for another year of what we hope to be a rich and full education. Here are eight simple ideas that educators, parents, students, and learning organizations might want to consider; ideas that promise to help with the goal of fishing lessons over simple fish distribution.

1) Learning in Depth – I wrote about a program / project recently known and Learning in Depth, but in this case I am using the phrase more broadly. The Learning in Depth movement is about giving each young person, often in the first years of school, a single word that they will personally investigate and study until they graduate from high school. They will look at it from different disciplinary perspectives (biology, literature, religious studies, statistics, etc.) and leave as one of the leading experts on this narrow topic. The words are concrete items like cats, clothing, mountains, whales or tunnels; and the students do not choose the word. Through this exercise, students learn the benefits of persistence and studying something on their own for an extended period. This not only develops new knowledge, but it builds confidence and skill in learning how to learn.

More generally, learning in-depth can happen by giving students a narrow topic to explore for a long time: over an entire course, semester, year or several years; also having students report back in small groups about their ongoing learning in their assigned or chosen area. These small groups become times when you get to teach students to give each other guidance, support and encouragement; learning from and teaching one another. Such an activity is rich with skills that contribute to lifelong learning.

2) Create a “My” Learning Journal – This can be a physical or digital journal, but the goal is to document three or four aspects of your learning over an extended period. 1) What am I learning? 2) Why am I learning it? 3) How am I learning it? 4) Where am I learning it? This is not just about keeping track of what teachers assign in classes. It is a journal about lessons from all of life: lessons from school, relationships, personal media consumption and leisure time. It allows students to expand their understanding of learning as something that is larger than just what happens in classes. At the same time, it allows one to develop valuable self-reflective and meta-cognitive skills that help them become more thoughtful and intentional about what, how, why, and where they learn. The “why” is an especially interesting element to document. In some cases, it might be because a teacher assigned it, but this also allows one to begin to recognize times, situations, and topics that motivate them to learn for much different reasons, perhaps giving insight to a potential future calling in life that turns into a profession or meaningful avocation.

3) Have Students Enroll in and Complete a MOOC or an Open Course – Free and open courses of study are all over the web (iTunes U, Coursera, Canvas.net, CourseSites, Edx, Udemy, Udacity, Peer-to-Peer University, etc.). While the total number of learners in these open learning opportunities reaches the millions, many lack the awareness, interest, or skill to thrive in these sorts of learning environments, despite the rich body of knowledge and the continually growing quality of guidance and instruction available to the world through these outlets.

One promising practice in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges involves having students in a traditional school/class sign up for and complete one or more MOOCs. This may be done in small teams from the same school and with the guidance of a face-to-face teacher from the school, helping the students with time management, study skills, and providing some extra tutoring as needed. This serve as a potential means of helping these students progress toward a place where they have the confidence and knowledge to take advantage of these learning experiences for the rest of their lives. They do it at cost that even the lowest priced local community college is not able to beat.

4) Have Students Develop and Gradually Build a Personal Learning Network – Google the phrase and you will find most of the examples focused upon teachers and other professionals leveraging digital tools and communities to develop a network of people and resource that they use for their ongoing professional growth and development. It might include networks like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, following certain blogs and tracking certain people and organizations on YouTube or iTunes University.

With that said, the concept of a personal learning network can be much broader than that. Part of a network might also include family members, the local library, colleagues, friends and professionals which whom I connect via email and listserves, journals that I read, clubs and book groups, television shows, as well as community organizations like churches and the local nature preserve. This is a network of people, resources, and organizations that we leverage to learn (and help others learn). Why not encourage students to start building and mapping out their own networks right now, adding to it as they progress through school. This serves as a way to help students become more aware of their existing and developing networks. It also helps them become more conscious of the way people and groups shape, help, and influence their learning in different aspects of their lives.

5) Have the Students Find a Problem, Solve it, and Report Back to Class – You might point out that you already do this in the form of a paper or project. Yet, most students do not experience a paper or project as identifying and solving real problems. My suggestion is to make it about the problem and the solution, not the paper and the grade. Just challenge students to find an actual problem in the world that relates to the broad topic for the course and become a resident expert on that. Think of it as a sort of show and tell exercise where students informally report back at set times throughout the class, sharing how they are or are not progressing. They can use these sharing times to get feedback from the group in a more informal and authentic way. Some students will run with this more than others and that is fine. You are at least giving them the space and encouragement to give it a try.

6) Have the Students Flip the Class – Yes, the Flipped Classroom is a popular educational buzz phrase right now, but I am referring to student-led flipping, where students create at least part the content and resources that other students use outside of class. This allows students to learn by teaching; sharing the illustrations, examples, and metaphors that help them make sense of a new concept. In doing so, they learn about their own learning and they reach others with examples that many of us teachers might have never considered.

7) “How I Did It” Show and Tell – In many classes, we focus upon what students did and what they did or did not learn. Those are important. It is also valuable to spend time thinking and talking about how they learned something. Creating a time and venue for students to share how they learned something, studied for a test and earned a good grade, designed an especially impressive project or wrote an exemplary paper gives others students insights into best practices and helpful heuristics as a student. Without doing this, we risk leaving these best practices a secret among some students while leaving others students to fall further and further behind simply because they do not know what they do not know.

8) Teach About the Vocation of Student – From Latin, vocation refers to a calling. I encourage students to think of their role of student as a vocation. The ultimate purpose of a vocation (whether it is a work vocation like a banker or teacher, or if it is a vocation like citizen, son, sister, or mother) is about using your knowledge, gifts and abilities to love your neighbor. Framing the role of student as a vocation is an invitation for students to look at how they think and act in terms of love for others. I study and prepare so that I can use this to the benefit of others. When I read a book, I might even think of the author as my neighbor, someone that deserves my attention and respect (even if I ultimately disagree with key points by the author). When I push through a hard week, I recognize that this is helping me develop character and the ability to persevere under adversity, a trait that will serve me well in the future as I live out my other callings. This also helps to frame education as being rich with meaning and purpose that goes well beyond earning a passing grade and getting a diploma. Grades might motivate the achievers in the room, but it leaves others dreading the next class, missing the purpose behind all of it, turning school into a game, and/or leaving school with many missed opportunities and valuable life lessons. The vocation of student is valuable, noble, and important; not just for that student but for the people that will benefit from the knowledge and skills that the student develops.