The Cautions to Self-Directed Learning
Not everything with self-directed learning is wonderful and perfect. There are certainly more than a few drawbacks and struggles one might need to navigate along the way. Here are a few of our observations, based on what we witnessed over the course of the year:
- At certain points in the year, especially when someone has tried something new, students can become very trendy in what they learn or how they demonstrate their new understanding. On one hand, the enthusiasm and contagious inspiration to learn what has recently peaked their interest is admirable and natural. On the other hand, student perspectives can be limited by focusing only on what they see. There can be phases during the year when multiple student inquiries fall into the same concept, but with slightly different content, like when many of my students kept learning about fruit or animal adaptations for the first few months.
- Some students, albeit a minority, can view self-directed learning as an opportunity to relax and chat more than they normally would in class. On one hand, relaxing and being more social might be more of an authentic learning environment for students, with less formal and rigid routines found in time-constrained classrooms. On the other hand, some students might begin to see SDL as a chance to drop their learning guard, so to speak, and not make effective use of their time. With a few simple redirections throughout the school year, this can be easily corrected by managing where and with whom those students learn.
- Some students really enjoy learning with a friend, which is wonderful. However, when a student only works in partnerships, it can take away the opportunity to demonstrate that they can learn on their own and apply independent skills. We all know students who can easily mask their abilities by flying just behind their peers in partnerships and small groups. If there is a student who only works in partnerships, it is easy to encourage them to find a more balanced and independent approach across the year with some simple encouragement.
- Certain technological skills may be beyond the teacher's comfort zone or capacity to guide students in their proper use. If time allows, it would be beneficial for you to struggle through those technologies alongside the student, modeling the process of perseverance and problem-solving. If you are not able to dedicate that much time to one student, an alternative would be to have another staff member, such as a digital learning coach, assist them until they can stand on their own two feet.
- As the year goes on, students might fall into the habit of resource limitation, only seeking out information from a tiny minority of data sources. For example, students might become overly dependent on YouTube or Wikipedia to the point of rarely considering other sources of information. Although it should be recognized that the manner in which this generation accesses information is vastly different than it was during our generation (not to mention 5-10 yeas ago), this lack of digging deep and wide could cause potential problems in their future. If students learn to become overly dependent on a tiny handful of data sources, the perspectives and media they are exposed to will greatly reduce their ability to search, retrieve, evaluate and synthesize information--which has the potential to lead to dogmatic indoctrination in the future. It is a double-edged sword in the fact that students are actively seeking out appropriate sources for learning, but at the same time doing so from a highly limited data pool.
- With so much choice in how students might go about communicating their new learning, visual design skills have the potential to be compromised due to over-diversification. How a student effectively communicates differs greatly based on the medium they choose: poster, blog post, infographic, iMovie, eBook, Powtoon, Green Screen, website, illustration, etc. With so many modes of communication being utilized at the same time, the attention to detail and specific skills pertinent to each one can be lost. The resultant demonstrations of understanding can be lacking in effective and disciplined design principles.
- Sometimes, students need to be redirected towards inner self-restraint to achieve an external purpose. At times, when trending “products” are exposed to students, they want to jump on the bandwagon and create one as well. The problem lies in students not reflecting on the most effective mode for communicating their learning. Rather, they can be pulled towards creating a mode based on interest and what's popular at the time. It is a bit of a balancing act for teachers to help them reflect on using a different mode, or help clarify their intent with the trending mode, whilst not putting out their passion. It always comes down to: What’s your purpose? How best can you communicate that? How do you think your audience will learn the most?
- With ever-changing topics, technologies and modes catching the eyes of students, it is a ripe environment for students to jump from one inquiry to the next. It’s important to have flexible expectations for when this happens, as it inevitably will. How many times will you allow students to change their topic soon after starting a new inquiry? How do we encourage resilience and perseverance through struggles, while still understanding that sometimes we change our minds about what we thought we were interested in? How do we teach students to value the process of learning (quality) more than moving onto their next inquiry (quantity)?
- At certain points in the year, especially when a new technology or medium is introduced to the collective awareness, students might attempt to abandon the knowledge and concept component in order to over-emphasize the skill. For example, students might want to learn how to use stop-motion or green screen, but do so with little knowledge or context within it. As a result, they might under-emphasize the importance of the story or message within the medium they want to become more skilled in. When students' goals are simply to learn how to use a particular app, the depth of learning decreases. It might be more productive if they learn about something of their interest (building knowledge and concepts), and then demonstrate what they have learned through the tool or app. Otherwise, their tech inquiries seem a bit watered down and lacking when they only focus on learning the skill, neglecting thoughtful attention to the purpose and message within it.
- One of the more unexpected effects of offering 20% time to students is how protective they can be of that time, sometimes to the point of mental inflexibility. On days when something outside the normal schedule occurs and their 20% gets taken away, some students tend to resent me for it. They often expect that their time should be given back at the cost of something else in the curriculum. This has led to some, not all, students taking on a more spoiled or entitled mindset. It is as if some students, since being exposed to 20% time, have taken on a “I should only have to do what I to do” mindset. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it is definitely more noticeable than years past when students didn’t have self-directed learning. Of all the potential drawbacks to SDL, this is the one that concerns me the most. The drawbacks or cautions mentioned above can easily be remedied with slight structural shifts and improved expectation systems. However, one of my new questions to come out of this observation is, “Does a more personalized learning environment unintentionally promote a sense of entitlement and create an inauthentic and misleading sense of always getting what you want in life?” Based on what I've seen so far, I don’t think it has caused an extreme shift in an attitudinal entitlement, but it is something we should be on the lookout for. When necessary, it might be valuable to reflect and remind students that 20% time is negotiable, rather than being their inalienable right in schools. With growing maturity and perspective, hopefully students will see the wisdom in the bigger picture, and this will dissipate.