New Book- Adventures in Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Nurturing Learner Agency and Ownership

I’m exited to announce the release of my fourth and newest book, Adventures in Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Nurturing Learner Agency and Ownership. This is a short text that comes from over a decade of research to build a compelling case for the importance of nurturing agency, ownership, and a capacity for self-education in learners. This is my chance to cast a vision for education in a connected age. You can expect a philosophical defense of self-education followed by practical suggestions for how to get started, and how to work through common challenges.

While those who lead self-directed schools might be interested in this book, my main audience includes people working and teaching in more traditional schools that are not necessarily designed to promote self-directed learning. I offer ideas on how to get started even in more teacher-centered contexts.

As such, the book is a collection of 8 short chapters. The first chapter defines self-directed learning. In chapter two, I make a case for the importance of self-directed learning. In the third chapter, I posit the idea of school as a resource for learning and not necessarily the sole source of learning. This is an important concept as we understand education in a connected age. From there we look at the idea of a learner with a thousand tutors and the personal learning network. In chapter five, we revisit the idea of the digital divide, and I illustrate why self-directed learning is such an important part of overcoming that divide. Next, I work through common barriers to self-directed learning, followed by a chapter devoted to how you can design a self-directed learning friendly school and classroom. Then I finish the book with a final chapter of concluding thoughts, suggestions and encouragements.

This is not a research heavy book. It is short accessible, builds a case for self-directed learning, and offers plenty of tips as well.

I invite you to join me in spreading the word about the book. Please consider sharing this with others who might be interested. Most proceeds will go toward funding my work on Etale, the MoonshotEduShow podcast, and some forthcoming projects at Birdhouse Learning Labs.

I am also grateful if you help spread the word on your favorite social media outlets.

If you are interested in ordering, you can get the best price right now by ordering directly from the publisher site. Or, you can get it on Amazon and other online bookstores.

Students & Parents as Producers Not Just Choosers in Education

In a recent interview with Matt Candler of 4.0 Schools, he said something that is turning into this persistent whisper for me. It is one of those comments that will not leave you alone. It belongs with you. It is the logical conclusion of your existing beliefs, values, and ideas; and it will not stop pestering you. In talking about re-distributing power in education, Matt explained how many of us serve as champions for school choice, allowing people to have choice on the type of school that they attend. Matt took it a step further. Why wouldn’t we also welcome these same students and faculty into the creation of learning communities and solutions to problems in our schools, education system, and our communities? How do we create a system where they are producers, not just choosers?

Matt shared a candid reflection on his years of work around starting new schools. Having started over twenty KIPP schools and countless others, Matt explained to me that he came to a realization. For all of those years, he was doing innovation to people instead of innovating with people. One is the “parent knows best” approach to educational innovation. We know what is best, and we take it upon ourselves to design the what and how for parents and students. Yet, there is an alternative to this. We can instead start thinking about what it looks like to let go of some of our power and positions of privileged in education, instead considering what it looks like when parents, students and others work together to solve problems that are meaningful to them, and to create the types of learning communities that align with their values and convictions.

Some argue that students and parents are not the experts or the professionals. How could they possibly know what is best for themselves? Yet, if we have an education system that thinks that way, how long is it before we have a government and nation that thinks that way as well. Instead of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people; we reduce it to an oligarchy that claims to be doing things for the people, what this select group deems best for the people. In fact, it becomes a exercise in the accumulation and protection of this small group’s power.

“I am doing this for your own good.” Many of us hear that from our parents at one point or another. Yet, schools and school leaders are not the parents of students and parents. That is a flawed, and I contend dangerous, metaphor. It is flawed because it does not align with a democratic understanding of society, at least not the type set up in the United States. It is dangerous because it risks undermining values, mindsets, and attitudes that are important to the life and future of a democracy or a republic.

A humane education system is one that honors people and what they have to say. It is one where people are co-learners and co-creators of a vibrant and positive learning community. We can still respect and learn from experts in such a community, but those experts are resources, not rulers.

What Educational Innovations Will Help us Develop the Potential of Each Learner?

In a recent question from Hanoi, Vietnam, David E. tweeted:

David started his Tweet with recognition of an important value that many of us hold in education toady. We are not just teaching groups of students. We are teaching classes of individuals. We are not just trying to throw some content out to a group with the hope that sume will sink and others will swim. School is not like fishing for the best and brightest minds and throwing the others back. From the earliest days, we’ve used metaphors for education that are associated with growth and nurture, and many of us today believe that the dignity and worth of the individual calls for us to invest in an education system, an education ecosystem that truly celebrates and nurtures each individual. Our celebration of statistics about an 80% pass rate, a 75% retention rate, or some other statistics descriptive of a group can be useful; but we don’t wan to forget the individual. How do we nurture and encourage the individuals in that 20% who did not pass and that 25% that did not retain?

This value for the potential of each individual is approached differently by people, but at the core, most of us believe that individual lives matter, not just lives packaged up in some sort of group or cohort. Guy Dowd, the 1986 National Teacher of the Year once told the story of how he started each day as a public elementary school teacher. Guy is a person of faith and this informed his beliefs about the inherent value of each student, and this moved him to establish a daily habit. Early morning, before the school day would start, before his official workday began, and before and anyone was around, Guy would go through his entire classroom, sitting in the desk of each student. As he sat in each desk, he thought specifically and only about that student, and he said a special prayer for that student. He thought about each student’s strengths, challenges, distinct gifts and abilities. I have no doubt that this ritual put a heightened value for the uniqueness of each student in his room. Whether this notion of faith and prayer resonates with you, one thing that I appreciate about this story is the tender care and attention that he gave to each person in the room.

For Guy, teaching constituted more than covering the curriculum, helping a few students, teaching to the middle, or other things of the sort. Guy wanted to help every student recognize and develop a distinct or unique set of gifts and abilities. He wanted to prepare each student for a myriad of future callings, challenges, and opportunities.

Thinking about developing the unique potential of each individual, we turn to the second part of Dave’s Tweet. “What are the commonalities of educational innovation to achieve that goal?

I thought about this question for quite a bit before writing this. As with many questions, we can read it in a few ways. It depends upon how we define educational innovation. Nonetheless, I’m going to give it a try and perhaps David will let me know if I was on the right track. If we are seeking educational innovations that help us achieve the goal of developing the potential of each learner, is there some core set of educational innovations that will help us do that?

It is a great question, one that is not without its challenges, however. I state this because I see educational innovations as fluid and contextual. What works today may not work tomorrow. What fits the philosophy and context of one school might not resonate in another. Nonetheless, I do think that we can talk about commonalities, and I’ll offer five in this article, each represented as a separate question.

What will help learners focus upon personal growth and development?

Some innovations of the past put the attention upon ranking and rating, and these innovations quickly distract learners (not to mention parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers) from the actual learning and personal development. Yet, among those of us who belief it is important to emphasize nurturing the potential of each learner, that calls for investing in assessment and feedback innovations that align with this goal. If we hold firm to past feedback and assessment innovations that place the emphasis upon rating and ranking, then we will find ourselves engaging in a battle against ourselves, holding two competing values that cancel each other out, or where the traditional value eats the other one for breakfast. I suspect that this is why many individualized learning efforts fail.

What will emphasize personal formation over coverage?

This is still a challenge in many learning organizations. Plenty of teachers still find themselves driven to cover the material, reach the end of the book or curriculum, or something that parallels this. I don’t want to dismiss the real and valid reasons that inform such approaches, but if we are going to use educational innovation to develop the potential of each learner, then we must invest in those technologies, methods, and models that focus upon personal formation of the learner; not covering the content.

Covering the content is nothing. In itself, it achieves nothing, not unless that content is forming and transforming someone. Imagine trying to keep a plant alive with the content coverage mindset. You have a set amount of water that you have to pour and you just do it every day on your pre-established schedule. You don’t check the soil of each plant first. You don’t consider which plants need more or less water. You don’t take into account other factors that influence what is needed. Your job is just to do the watering. It is up to the plans to grow. Some die. Some live. That is beyond your responsibility. If we want to celebrate and develop the unique potential of individuals, then we must invest in technologies, methods, models, contexts, and mindsets that emphasize growth and development of learners, not just coverage of content.

What nurtures reflection?

We are not just producing certain kinds of students as if school were some sort of factory. You can have a group of wonderfully high-performing students (on standardized tests) who still lack the ability to think for themselves, to reflect on their goals, strengths, challenges, and possible ways to overcome them. Achieving one’s potential depends upon learning to reflect and own one’s goals and aspirations. This doesn’t mean that a 9-year-old needs to know what she wants to be when she grows up. It does mean, however, that she learns how to set goals and achieve them, how to reflect on her successes and failures in positive ways, and that she learns how to reflect on her life, learning, and experiences in ways that benefit her and others. That is a core skill for personal growth and development, and any innovation that nurtures this is going to push us in the right direction.

What nurtures purpose?

Without a sense of purpose, we either do nothing or just do it out of compulsion. That isn’t enough to help people truly achieve their potential. They might survive, but they don’t thrive. People set out on the path of thriving when they see and value a purpose and they have the confidence to go for it. Any innovation that helps students discover purpose in what they are doing and why they are doing (along with the confidence to live it out) is going to be our friend in the effort to people achieve their potential.

What nurtures both curiosity and personal mastery?

Finding ways to tap into the curiosity of each student is essential for great learning environments. In the ideal, the learner discovers how to do this for himself or herself. A culture of curiosity can cover over a multitude of other educational flaws in a school. We can’t dismiss student comments about boredom. We also don’t just try to entertain them out of it. We want to embrace innovations, methods, models, and mindsets that help students learn and want to be deeply curious, and I contend that this aim is more important than many of our traditional priorities as educators.

At the same time, a deeply curious person who fails to discover the art and science of personal mastery will often find himself or herself falling short of true personal development and transformation. Some practice is better than other practice. Certain character traits and virtues help people thrive and learn. There are methods and there is research that can help us learn how to learn, learn how to progress toward mastery and excellence in anything from snowboarding to coding, building positive relationships to starting a successful business, being a social change agent to developing skill for a trade or profession. I suppose that some might just put this into the popular “learn how to learn” group that so many talk about today, but sometimes that conversation falls short by not investing enough time and attention to how you learn with the goal of achieving mastery or increasing levels of excellence. How do you get better and better at something that interests you or something that does not interest you but you understand it to be important?

I realize that these questions don’t list specific educational innovations, but they do represent commonalities about educational innovations that move us in the direction of better developing the potential of individuals.

Education is the Dangerous Business of Influencing People

A wise mentor once explained to me that, if you are in education, then you are in the business of influencing people. If you don’t like that, then you should find another field. While I couldn’t deny the truth in what he said, I didn’t like hearing it stated that explicitly. It took me years to figure out why I disliked it so much, but now I’m ready to explain it, even if ever so briefly.

Education is about growth. It is about personal formation and development. Yet that growth can take many forms. You can grow into a downright cruel and evil person. You can grow into a coward who runs away from the slightest challenge, even if it is for the grandest of causes. You can grow into a cold and calculated criminal. You can also grow into a self-controlled, confident, courageous, wise, and compassionate person. In other words, the direction of one’s education matters.

When we claim that someone is educated, what do we mean?

Most people probably use the term “educated” in reference to a person who is literature, informed, knowledgeable, and maybe even having acquired a certain set of credentials, typically including a high school and college diploma. Others usually reserve “educated” for people who are well-read and well-rounded in their knowledge of some valued cannon of knowledge, perhaps the Western classics or a set of words like the Harvard Classics.

Travel the world and ask people in different cultures what they mean by this term and you will probably find a few commonalities but also plenty of differences. You don’t even need to travel far from home to discover differences. Just interview people in a diverse community within the United States. This is because we do not agree upon the aims of education, at least not all of them. We can and do find common ground. In other instances, countless parents and students just don’t ask the question. They submit to the aims affirmed by the educational establishment or, in some places, the political establishment.

The Reason for My Discomfort

This is why I was uncomfortable years ago when that mentor drew my attention to education being a “business of influencing people.” First, I was never completely comfortable referring to education as a business because my impression of business was one that made financial gain a primary purpose. Yet, it was the “influencing people” part that troubled me.

Don’t get me wrong. I try to influence people all the time. I even seek to do it in this blog. I try to challenge myself and others to consider affordances and limitations, and to expand their awareness of the possibilities. I believe that the self-examined life is worth promoting. I value agency over mindless compliance and conformity. I also believe in the existence of classic concepts like truth, beauty, and goodness; and I value them over falsehood, ugliness, indifference, and evil. In that sense, as much as I embrace change and champion educational innovation, I still find an intellectual home in classical antiquity.

My issue is with establishing mandatory educational institutions that seek to push forward their agenda at the expense of other legitimate alternatives, even though we find ourselves disagreeing today over what is a legitimate alternative. We do this by claiming that some educational establishments should be government-funded while others should not. We do it by establishing policies that favor our agendas and muzzle those of others. We find our schools turning into political battlegrounds. We don’t value the pursuit of knowledge wherever it leads, but only wherever our agenda deems it appropriate to lead. We celebrate and seek to secure power and influence in education more than having a candid, substantive, persistent, and transparent exploration of ideas.

When we do this, we are not engaging in mere influence. We are dangerously close to turning schools into places shaped by propaganda and manipulation. We find ourselves using the very same tactics employed by middle school cliques or bullies. We use subtle or direct name calling. We use leading questions that would cause most to feel like fools if they did not follow in our desired direction. We push people to accept and move on instead of giving time for doubts, questions, and exploration. We muzzle dissident voices and evidence that does not support our cause. We can do this in wonderfully subtle and intellectual ways. We can use words and body language that aspire to civilize these efforts. We value ideological ends and wins over empowering people with a growing sense of agency and a robust intellectual toolkit.

This is why I struggled with the idea that education is the business of influencing people. It is because, while I can’t deny the truth of the statement, it must be kept in check, at least in a society of that values freedom. This is not easy. There are countless challenges along the way. It is, nonetheless, worth the effort.