Three Insights on “Self-Directed Learning”—and How to Aim for Equity



By 09/05/2014

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Last week, FSG Consulting’s Matt Wilka and Jeff Cohen released a case study, “Self-Directed Learning at Summit Public Schools,” as part of a Gates Foundation-sponsored effort to catalogue Summit Public Schools’ model. It’s a good up-to-date look at some of the new efforts afoot in the Bay Area-based charter management organization. The authors do an excellent job showing how shifting from a teacher-driven to a student-directed model impacts students, teachers, parents, and administrators respectively.

Given its overlap with blended, personalized, and competency-based education, I personally am still trying to understand exactly how we should define “self-directed learning” in a manner that will be useful to the field. I worry that deployed irresponsibly, a “self-directed” approach could suffer some of the same pitfalls in terms of equity that online and competency-based education may suffer: that is, students who can take advantage of greater flexibility or ownership can sail ahead, leaving other students in the dust. Luckily Summit Public Schools maintains an unwavering commitment to closing the achievement gap, so if anyone can square self-directed learning and equity, it’s them. With that in mind, here are three of my takeaways from the new case study:

(1) Self-directed still means differentiated—especially if we are focused on equity. Self-directed learning, as described here, is not the free-for-all that the term might suggest. The report takes great pains to describe the specific practices and guard rails that Summit Public Schools has put in place to erect a system in which students can chart their own learning. As the authors describe, the organization “underestimated the degree of model shock this group of students would experience.” Although some students took quickly to more self-direction, the majority needed more scaffolding to get there, and some needed extensive supports. This range of student needs means that teachers are indeed still doing differentiated instruction around both skills and content (although the report clarifies that skills—particularly non-cognitive skills—become more important in this new paradigm). In fact, the concept of differentiated supports is even more vital to driving success among all students once those students have greater autonomy over their learning. I think that as we introduce this “new” concept to the field, we need to be careful to clarify that longstanding commitment to data-driven differentiated instruction still remains at the heart of a self-directed approach, even if students are experiencing teaching and learning in radically new ways that imbue ownership.

(2) The edtech software market will need to evolve to support self-directed competency-based approaches. Although the report emphasizes the role of technology in Summit Public Schools’ model, the field more broadly still lacks robust demand for tools that can support self-directed approaches. Indeed, the competency-based world is still trying to figure out key questions: What technology infrastructure can best track student progress at a flexible pace? To what degree should online-learning programs in a competency-based setting be “assignable” versus “adaptive”? Which programs support which types of learners best? Additionally, as the report notes, online-learning programs may not always supply adequate supports to drive self-directed learning: “technology can quickly tell a student what they got right or wrong, but understanding why is a more complex process, grounded in inquiry and relationships with teachers and peers.” This particular shortcoming is one that blended-learning systems in general need to tackle. First and foremost, addressing this blind spot requires schools getting good, actionable data out of online-learning programs. Over time, as online assessments can begin to track students’ “moves” during an assessment or performance task, rather than simply spitting out the students’ correct or incorrect answer, educators may gain greater insights into what students do and don’t grasp. Schools with an eye toward equity should be especially vested in demanding such solutions. Only with these clear insights into what students are doing (or not doing) online will more personalized, blended-learning models like that of Summit Public Schools be able to drive toward closing the achievement gap.

(3) We might still need new categories to describe new paradigms. Part of ensuring that a new approach stands to benefit all students is accurately defining that approach before trying to bring it to scale. “Self-directed” learning joins the edu-dictionary of often very capacious, vague phrases that the field is using to describe radical new models like that of Summit Public Schools. But I’m not convinced that we’re sufficiently letting go of old terms and concepts to get there. For example, the section in the case study exploring the role of teachers focuses on “coaching,” “mentoring” and “facilitating.” These are all words that educators and administrators are familiar with. These words, however, tell us little to nothing about the circumstances that students find themselves in and what exact adult-student or peer-to-peer interaction would provide a fruitful intervention on behalf of that student. The real innovation behind Summit Public Schools’ work is that it appears its teachers and leaders are beginning to identify, in this new context, what role to play when and for which students. Taken from the perspective of the student, the types of adults and supports the student needs might actually drive a new framework for the teaching profession, rather than rejiggering old concepts to fit this new model in a way that might replicate the achievement gap down the line.

-Julia Freeland

Julia Freeland is a research fellow in education at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This first appeared on the Christensen Institute’s blog.




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