Sunday / July 21

Cultivate Self-Directed Learners with 5 Key Shifts

This blog is part two of a series on learning transfer. For more on teaching for transfer, see this first post 

Every time we poll teachers about their highest priority, student engagement tops the list. How can we move beyond “party tricks” and toward self-directed learning? We’ve found five shifts that can dramatically increase student investment in learning.  

Picture a classroom where students are busily editing proposals. There’s a buzz in the air as students swap ideas and offer insight. Most of the walls are used as visual thinking spaces, covered in sticky notes, connecting lines, and sketches of their early ideas.   

They began with the question: How can we make the school campus a more inclusive community for all? They applied disciplinary concepts to this question, pausing to think like a historian, scientist, mathematician, and artist, with the help of mentors from the local community. Then, each student pursued an aspect of the project that appealed to their interests. Now, each group is synthesizing their findings into a proposal. 

This is one example of what learning looks like when students are invested. To reach this vision, many areas of schooling need reframing to unleash the power of self-directed learning.  

Shift #1 and #2: The Role of the Teacher and Student  

In today’s changing world, students must learn how to learn, as they will have to continue learning far into their adult lives. We use the table below to think about our roles. Picture what this might look like in your classroom. 

Student Role  Teacher Role 
DIRECTOR of their own learning 

DETECTIVE of their own thinking 

COLLABORATOR with peers and teachers 

PATTERN SEEKER through diverse ideas and experiences 

DESIGNER of empowering lesson plans 

DETECTIVE of student thinking 

EVALUATOR of their own impact on learning 

CURATOR of diverse resources and experiences 

Might look like… 

·  Co-constructing success criteria 

·  Setting goals 

·  Monitoring their thinking 

·  Self-questioning 

·  Self-regulating 

·  Selecting among strategies 

·  Providing self- and peer-feedback 

·  Applying feedback 

·  Deciding what to investigate next 

·  Adjusting learning behavior 

Might look like… 

·  Establishing a collaborative, safe culture 

·  Establishing credibility 

·  Making thinking routine 

·  Modeling thinking 

·  Modeling risk-taking 

·  Modeling learning from errors 

·  Cognitive coaching students 

·  Providing and soliciting feedback 

·  Adjusting instruction 

A common theme across the examples above is the importance of centering intellectual growth in the classroom. We can empower students by demonstrating our own thinking, how we learn from our mistakes, and ways our thinking evolves as a result of monitoring, questioning, and even changing or revising our understanding. The two next-day strategies below can help to shift classroom culture.  

Next-Day Strategy #1: Facilitate a short discussion with your students about what “learning” means 

Ask students to think of a time when they have figured something out or had a light-bulb moment, when something suddenly became clear, and have them share their experience in small groups. Perhaps share an example of your own learning journey with a particular topic — such as learning how to bake, paint a room, or learn a language. Share the habits of mind you had — such as goal-setting, reflection, collaboration — and how each influenced your learning. Then, ask your students which habits of mind they would like to apply to learning in the classroom. 

Next Day Strategy #2: Peer Coaching 

Partner A  Partner B 
   Explain what you understand about the concept or skill 

   Ask for specific feedback so that your partner knows where to give the most attention. 

   Listen to your partner’s feedback without interruption and write it down. 

   Reflect and tell your partner what your next step is. 

– Listen to your partner without interrupting. 

– Write down the feedback they would like to receive to ensure your feedback is helpful and wanted. 

– Analyze your partner’s work and provide thoughtful feedback based on their request. 

– Acknowledge your partner’s reflection and direct them to any resources that will assist in their next step. 

Shift #3 and #4: The Role of Curriculum and Instruction  

The main shift here is to move from disconnected standards to disciplinary literacy with a structure of connected knowledge and skills. A simple yet powerful shift is to view standards of learning as the metaphorical floor, an important foundation but not the ultimate goal of learning. We can anchor our units in the most powerful, transferable concepts within our standards documents that give students the tools to unlock new situations, even those we have not explored in class. Less is truly more if we plan well. 

A shift to disciplinary literacy is a powerful way to figure out what is most important and how to help students see how the world is organized. Disciplinary literacy involves the specialized ways of knowing and doing that characterizes a particular field of study (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012). Try the strategy below to help shift to disciplinary literacy.  

Next Day Strategy #3: Disciplinary Lenses, Anchoring Concepts, Sub Concepts  

We can think about the “lenses” we want students to use in every new situation, as well as the anchoring concepts that ground a unit of study. Click here for more examples and use this template to make your own disciplinary literacy chart like the one below. Then model how you use these lenses and concepts when you encounter a new situation.  

Shift #5: The Role of Assessments 

Perhaps the most tremendous shift is moving from assessment as an accountability event to assessment as a system of feedback. When we make assessment synonymous with “test,” we cultivate an environment in which students think the sole purpose of learning is to perform on a test, and then quickly forget what they’ve learned.  

Conversely, when teachers and students perceive assessment as a system of feedback about learning, we create an environment where we constantly measure where we are against where we’re going using a wide variety of tools—tests and quizzes, sure, but also journal entries and discussions, even personal reflection. Students stop asking, Will this be on the test? And teachers stop using the test as a “gotcha” for kids whose effort is lacking. The fundamental purpose of assessment is to allow us all to gain an accurate picture of the quality of learning taking place—largely to inform our next steps on the learning journey, rather than a means to judge teachers and students. 

Strategies that ask students to monitor their thinking and reflect on their growth over time help to shift the culture of assessments. Try one of our favorites below. 

Next Day Strategy #4: Have Students Reflect on their Thinking Over Time 

At first I thought . . .   But then . . .   So now I think . . .  
Students identify the knowledge and understandings they had at the beginning of the lesson, week, or unit. This could be knowledge of individual concepts or skills, understanding of the relationships between concepts, or facts and examples students knew that relate to the concepts of study.   Students write down what strategies or contexts they explored that shifted or deepened their thinking.   Students articulate their new understanding after going through each concept attainment lesson or transfer context  

(Source: Adapted from Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011). 

The table below reflects the five key shifts in simple terms. As you read, reflect on where you fall on the continuum. The results we’ve witnessed in our own classrooms have been tremendous. In today’s changing world, our abilities to foster self-directed learning, their abilities to reflect on what they know and how well they can apply their learning to new situations, might matter more than anything at all.  

Written by

Julie Stern is the best-selling author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary, Visible Learning for Social Studies, and Learning That Transfers. She is the thought leader behind the global workshop series Making Sense of Learning Transfer, and is a certified trainer in Visible Learning Plus. Her passion is synthesizing the best of education research into practical tools that support educators in breaking free of the industrial model of schooling and moving toward teaching and learning that promotes sustainability, equity, and well-being. She is a James Madison Constitutional Fellow and taught social studies for many years in Washington, DC and her native Louisiana. Julie moves internationally every few years with her husband, a US diplomat, and her two young sons. Her website is   Krista Ferraro is a history teacher and department head at Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts. Her passions include civic education, social justice, and preparing students for effective global citizenship. Previously, she served as Deputy Director of Public Policy and Curriculum Innovation at Chavez Schools in Washington, DC, where she also taught history and public policy courses. Her published works include the bestselling Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary. Krista holds bachelor’s degrees in American Studies and Spanish from Cornell University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from American University. She is also an alumna of Teach for America.   Kayla Duncan is a personalized instruction coach for Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Georgia. Her passion centers around empowering student voice through meaningful, authentic experiences and increased ownership. Kayla currently supports personalized learning schools in creating their new vision for education through the design thinking process. She believes the voices of students and the community should drive what happens in the school building. Before her coaching role, Kayla taught elementary physical education and middle grades mathematics. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from the University of Georgia, a Master of Arts in Mathematics Education from Western Governors University, and an Educational Specialist in Learning, Design, and Technology from the University of Georgia. Kayla is pursuing a Doctor of Education in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia and hopes to use this new knowledge to propel schools toward innovative visions for education. Kayla resides in Georgia with her husband, a fellow educator, and their fourteen-year-old dog Georgie   Trevor Aleo is a middle school English teacher in Wilton, Connecticut where he designs meaningful learning experiences while reading and writing alongside his students. Prior to his current position, he taught high school and was a grade level lead in Prince William County, Virginia. In addition to leading teams at his own school, he’s drafted curriculum at the district level, created instructional resources for the Virginia Department of Education, and presented at local, state, and national conferences. He believes education should help people become better sense makers and story tellers and is a passionate believer in pedagogies that align with those values. Growing up in a house of teachers, he developed a love of learning that continues to serve as the driving force behind all his work. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in Teaching from James Madison University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Learning Design and Leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Trevor currently resides in Fairfield, Connecticut with his amazing wife Lindsey and will be welcoming a son into the world somewhere around the release of this book.

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  • Insightful and helpful.

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