Self-directed Learning: It’s Elementary!

How can technology redefine the student-teacher relationship?

In the typical mind’s eye, students are seen taking the lead from teachers. A transition occurs between subjects. Teachers give students a lesson or instructions on which task they need to complete next. Students get to work until the teacher calls for another transition. This rinse and repeat cycle drives teacher-directed learning. But what if we turned the tables and allowed students opportunities to take control of their own learning? 

There is much abuzz about self-directed learning (SLD) in education communities. Coined in 1975 by Malcolm Knowles, SLD was originally tied to adult learning where it fit with his concept of andragogy or the teaching of adults. With the explosion of ubiquitous information and technology, SLD has filtered down to younger learners and is finding its way into pedagogical practice in the K-12 arena. In this space, it is imperative that teachers thoughtfully plan how to implement self-directed initiatives such as project-based learning (PBL), Genius Hour, 20% Time, Design Thinking, and the like. The lesson logistics and management behind these strategies is called heutagogy or the leading of self.

Heutagogy, the leading of self, may have roots in adult learning but technology makes it ripe for young learners, too.

In a world where information is readily tapped with technology, the role of the teacher is evolving. Teachers need to prepare students to navigate this new landscape; they need to teach students how to learn in addition to hitting the content standards. Moving to a more student-centered learning model allows teachers to integrate the what to learn with the how to learn. Technology tools can facilitate this transition.

So what does self-directed learning look like at the elementary level? Let’s take a peek into Hopkins School.

Clearly posted instructions remind students of the learning process.

In the art room, Ms. Philips practices Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB), which is a choice-based approach to teaching art. Her room is organized into several stations including ceramics, collage, sculpture, painting, drawing and technology. As the year unfolds, she instructs students on the process for using the tools and materials at each station and prominently posts the directions. Students choose which station to work at when they come into the art room and track their progress on a chart board. As students complete their work, they take a picture with an iPad and upload it to their online portfolios. During class time, Ms. Philips if free to consult with individual students and help enhance their skills as they explore the wonders of art.

In science, Ms. Kaufman embarked on project-based learning (PBL) with her 5th graders while they explored landforms. She used technology, including Google Classroom, Forms and Docs, along with paper-based planning tools with students to manage the project on the backend, however, student-driven learning was front and center. Here’s what she had to say about her adventure.

Students create a 3D model of what their landform might look like in 25,000 years.

“Our very first project-based-learning experience of the year went surprisingly well. Using driving questions to “steer” inquiry and research was a new concept to most of the students, but it helped keep them on task and helped them be more efficient in organizing their information. Trying to make a grand leap in their thinking by making a prediction of how a specific landform might change in 25,000 years forced them to first try to figure out how the landform had been formed to begin with and how it has changed since then. Watching groups share, discuss, and revise their ideas was exciting. While they were told they had to have a 3D model of their prediction, they were told they could use other means of showcasing their research. The best part was the end result in which the students shared their work with family and other fourth and fifth grade students. When everything was said and done, one of the most important components of this process was the reflection. Students were able to recognize their strengths and areas for improvements that enabled them to set personal goals for themselves for their next project-based-learning experience.”

A reflective goal form keeps students on track and teachers informed.

During technology and library time, Mrs. Weldon and Ms. Doty are guiding 5th graders through a year-long changemaker project. Students are tasked with identifying a real-world problem and using design thinking to raise awareness and create a product-based solution. At the onset, collaboration occurred organically as students sought out others who had identified the same or a similar issue. Technology tools including Google Classroom, Forms, Docs, and help students navigate the design process and keep their teachers apprised of their progress.

Although disparate in content, all three exemplars empower students. And when students are allowed to engage in their individual learning processes, they learn valuable soft skills that will help propel them to become capable people.  

By: Steph Doty
 Technology Integration Coordinator
 Hopkins School
 @HopkinsTechLib / @BlendedTeaching
Cross-posted to

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