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NYC Helpline: How To: Develop as a Professional

Using Self-Directed Learning to Prepare Students
 for 21st Century Thinking and Living

By Theresa London Cooper

This year I had the pleasure of working with a forward thinking group of teacher leaders, assistant principals, and network leader. In collaboration with the Network Leader, we designed a series of sessions focusing on three important educational topics, Professional Learning Communities, Self-Directed Learning, and the importance of Meaningful Feedback. This article will focus on the power of Self-Directed Learning for Educators.

Information is in abundance these days and we cannot know everything. With budget cuts and limited resources, on-site professional development is not as readily available as it has been in the past. However, it is important that we find ways to continue to remain abreast of current changes and effective modifications in instruction. In preparing our students to possess 21st century skills, we must begin with ourselves. As professionals we should possess a wealth of knowledge on issues relevant to our profession, for the research (Linda Darling Hammond) indicates the teacher is the single most important factor determining student achievement. What if we don’t have the knowledge? Let’s be proactive. It is advantageous to have a process to use when you desire to learn about something you need or want to know. For example, when you analyze your student data, have your ever discovered a topic that your students need to know on which you may not be well versed? This scenario is a perfect opportunity to employ self directed learning.

According to Malcolm Knowles, an American adult educator, self-directed learning (SDL) in its broadest meaning is a process in which an individual takes the initiative, with or with out the help of others. There are five steps in this process:

Step 1.     Diagnose learning needs. Look at multiple forms of data to determine what the needs are.

Step 2.     Formulate learning goals. Today, we use SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, results-based, time bound) goals to improve student learning and they can apply to our own learning.

Step 3.     Identify resources for learning. Consult the Internet, colleagues and bookstores to identify useful resources.

Step 4.     Select and implement learning strategies. Decide how you will learn what you need to know. SQ3R, mind maps, focused readings, and study groups are four examples that you may find helpful.

Step 5.     Evaluate Learning Outcomes. You may want to create a checklist or rubric for this step. It is important to use concrete evidence to determine the effectiveness of your learning.

Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel authors of 21st Century Skills Learning for Life in Our Time (2009), have a similar model which is a bit more succinct: define, plan, do, review, and share.

I facilitated the process this year and it was the beginning of an empowering experience, as it gives the individual ownership of his learning – making decisions as to how to proceed. We advanced in the following manner:

  • The groups and I began by looking at relevant data and selecting an area of study in which students needed to improve and we desired deeper knowledge.

  • Then, each of us selected an essential question that was open-ended yet specific enough to address.

  • We discussed various ways, beyond  attending a workshop, to learn more. For this step, we consulted the National Staff Development Council (www.nscs.org) I encourage you to reference the website. For example, my topic was brain research and its implications for classroom instruction. One of the suggestions made was to write an article about your work. Indeed, after some extensive reading, I wrote an article and shared it with you.

  • The next step was developing a learning experience action plan addressing the five W’s - what? why? when? who? and how? Putting our plans in writing is pivotal in this process as it serves as a reminder of our intentions and how we plan to carry them out. With all the events that occur in a school day, it is easy to lose focus. Therefore, we spent a great deal of time creating an action plan that was feasible and embedded in the work we already do.

  • We are still working on the process, and discovered that authentic study can be messy and doesn’t necessarily follow all of the steps of our action plan, since external factors can influence the time we spend on the learning and/or discoveries can take us in another direction. However, having the process and the essential question kept us focused.

In the process, we have all learned a great deal, some of it expected and some of it unexpected. One of the most important lessons learned is the power of self-directed learning as it helps us concentrate and learn much more than we would have through a haphazard process of hit or miss. SDL promotes creativity and innovation which are 21st century skills. It is a process that is needed for 21st century progress and the changes in teaching and learning that must be made in order to prepare our students to be successful in their future.

I suggest that you attempt this process during the summer once you have reflected on the school year, on what you have learned, and on what you need to learn. When you have rested, try the process two to three weeks before you return to school. Be sure to choose a topic that builds your background knowledge, supports your students’ learning, and facilitates student achievement.

Once you become comfortable using the process, you may want to share it with your students for their own self-directed learning, as they will need to be more self-directed to become successful 21st century citizens. Embed it in your independent projects for advanced students Start small and work through the process for yourself and your students. Remember, it is a messy process so don’t be discouraged, but focus on the learning. Think about exploring the process with a critical friend. This article gives the basics of self-directed learning. You may want to conduct research, as I did, to find out more about the process.

Lastly, I found the information below on-line as part of my self-directed learning. It incorporates the Stripling Model of Inquiry. You can use it for yourself as well as your students. I’m often the first one to try out the activities I share with my students.

Planning an Inquiry Lesson using the Stripling Inquiry Model (2003)

In order to plan an inquiry lesson or unit, it is important to understand the inquiry model. The following model can be used as a guide to plan and implement inquiry based research projects.

Connect:       Connect to self and previous knowledge, gain background knowledge, observe and experience to gain overview.

Wonder:        Develop question, make predictions and hypotheses.

Investigate: Find and Evaluate information to answer questions and test
hypotheses think about the information to illuminate new questions and hypotheses.

Construct:    Build New Understandings, Draw Conclusions about questions and hypotheses.

Express:        Communicate new ideas, apply understandings to a new concept or situation.

Reflect:          Reflect on one’s own process of learning and new understandings gained from inquiry, pose new questions.

To start an inquiry lesson the students must be given the opportunity to reflect on their prior knowledge and connect with potential question. A teacher can help facilitate the connection process by using a prompt such as a field trip, a movie, a web quest, a song, or a piece of art to help the students explore topics. Have students annotate a text such as a poem, newspaper article, or historical document Use Socratic Seminar format to introduce a theme, idea, genre. Have students do a free write on a particular subject. Have students interview family members or others about a subject. Having students do a KWL, KWS, Or KWLQ Chart

The key piece to an inquiry lesson is to let the students wonder and hypothesize about subjects. A teacher can help facilitate the Wonder by Introducing Bloom’s Taxonomy or other questioning techniques. Have students take questions out of Socratic Seminar. Have students create their “What if”, “I wonder why” or “How would I?” questions. Create lessons that require students to create their own questions or products about a certain subject.

Once a student has developed their question or focus, they must start their investigation. A teacher can help facilitate the investigation process Help Students identify possible sources. Teach students how to access sources Encourage note-taking through Cornell Note style, Research Folders, or other process. Teach students how to synthesize and evaluate sources for bias. Have students record process on library log or in journal.

Once students have investigated their topic or questions, it is important to allow the students time to construct meaning from the information they have found. A teacher can help facilitate construction. Have students finish a KWL. Have students meet in peer groups to discuss information and knowledge Have the student conference with teacher or Library Media Specialist to give information. Have students keep a journal of ‘ahas’. Have students create a concept map which connects information together

This is the assessment piece of the project or lesson. Whether this piece is predetermined by the teacher or developed by the student, a teacher can help facilitate the Expression Process. Provide a Rubric to the student which shows what is expected. Give examples of possible projects. Allow students alternatives to assessment. Allow students to share Expression with peers/ Peer evaluations. Encourage students to use technology. Teach students proper citation techniques.

In order to internalize an Inquiry lesson, a student must be offered the opportunity to reflect on the process and outcome. A teacher can help facilitate the reflection process. Encourage students to journal while they are going through the inquiry process. Incorporate a self-evaluation sheet into the final assessment. Allow students to reflect with peers about what went wrong, what went right, what they would do differently. Allow the students to pose new or unanswered questions


Do you have a question or comment about this article? E-mail Theresa.


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