Category Archives: Self-Directed Learning

The word "priority" in a red speech bubble

Setting Our Priorities in the Apocalypse

It’s hard not to feel post-apocalyptic in the face of so much tumult. Harvey, Irma, and Maria have proven that Bill Nye is not the only guy who believes in climate change. Stevie Wonder has been flying up and down the east coast playing at global and national unity concerts. Betsy DeVos has turned back the clock on progress made against sexual harassment on college campuses during the Obama years. And 45 spent a weekend on Twitter rather than dealing with the crisis in Puerto Rico.

We are a society living in the middle of one long silent scream that started in the late evening on November 8, 2016.

We know that there is potential for it all to fall apart, and yet, we continue to whittle away at the less incendiary of our problems.

We quite civilly argue for technology in the schools, for STEM, or STEAM, for SEL, for experiential learning, for less testing. We advocate for a new approach to higher education, one that better prepares our young people for a workplace we can’t yet describe. We openly air our concerns about AI, but in an academic, intellectual way.

We seem to be maintaining, even preparing, but can we really move forward under such confounding circumstances? Will progress make any difference when even this civility fades?

Having narrowly escaped being MOOC’d out of existence . . .

“Tomorrow” can be such a relative term when it comes to education.

In the early 2000s, the forecast was momentarily bleak when higher education saw its life pass before its eyes with the advent of Coursera and the MOOC. Coursera was swiftly followed by edX, Udacity, and others. In November, 2012, Laura Pappano provided an early, albeit cynical history in “The Year of the MOOC”. Still, while she and others argued the meaning of success in a course with videotaped lectures, electronically-graded quizzes, and relatively low completion rates, millions of people were signing up, and other Ivy’s and the rest soon followed.

If anything, the MOOC was a wake-up call for higher ed, proving that people were indeed hungry to learn, that they did not necessarily need or want to come in to the classroom to do so, and were not always asking for traditional credit, either.

In many ways, higher ed is still figuring out how to maintain the relevance of a four-year, campus-based degree. Of course, it is more than online learning that challenges higher education these days. It’s the manner in which learning needs to mutate and adapt to the world around us. As the workplace continues to evolve, so must the way we prepare our young people to enter it. With such rapid change, the whole construct, the whole model of education is being questioned.

Education, having gone too long without significant change, is trying to work things out. Teachers are incorporating more technology into their daily practice. Classroom space is being reconfigured. But the very premise on which our children’s day is based, is not necessarily changing. There is very little self-directed learning and very little choice. We treat our kids a certain way for 16 years, and turn them over to college expecting them to emerge in four more years as semi-independent members of society prepared to fend for themselves.

It’s not working.

Meanwhile, back at the “45” yard line . . .

This is a very big problem to be working on while trying to keep our president from getting us all blown away by either seemingly natural or more conspicuous political disasters. And yet, we do continue to refine our models, gather our experts, test our theories, all in the interest of creating a new paradigm for the new world in which we keep finding ourselves.

For example, on November 8, 2016, I was at a higher ed conference on marketing. On the evening of the 8th, I fell asleep thinking Hillary Clinton would be our next president. We all woke up to a very different reality. That day, despite this, and except for a few incredibly discreet comments, we carried on with the business at hand, with sessions on Marking and RecruitingOptimizing Video for Marketing,Personalizing Education’s ROI, etc. As professionals, this is what we are meant to do. Carry on. Ten months later, the vitriol from the White House thickens, battles within Congress escalate, protests mount, and those academic conferences . . . continue.

Are we stuck or are we recycling new naterial?

For the past couple of years, I had the pleasure of attending the annual New York Times “Schools for Tomorrow” conferences. What always struck me about these gatherings, despite the star-studded panels we heard from, were how steeped in the past much of it seemed to be.

For example, among the people we got to hear were Anant Agarwal, Michael Crow, Rahm Emanuel, Daphne Koller, and Nancy Zimpher each one talking about the latest technology, partnerships, and management over vast systems of higher learning. Not too shabby.

In addition, each year there were the requisite panels on diversity, college sports, and sexual assault. At least, they seemed requisite.

What’s old is new again, or is It?

So, each year, as I sit at one academic conference or another and listen to the deans, presidents, and provosts of the most distinguished schools of this nation walk through their approach to diversity, for example, I’ve been thinking, aren’t we passed this? What about the educational stuff? When are we going to get to the discussion on sleek new learning design?

I’ll admit to similar feelings during sessions on sexual assault. Grateful for the added clarity and protections granted under the “Dear Colleague Letter,” I wondered why we were covering this in such detail during a conference on the future of education. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that we have been tripping over the complexities of Title IX for some time now, and I believe that the Obama administration had made quite a lot of headway in providing further protections under its letter of guidance.

Now that Betsy is rescinding the 2011 and 2014 guidelines, what should be old is new again.

Now that 45 is fighting with football players protesting for civil rights, what’s old is new again.

And while we should be past all of this, and we should really be focusing on how to improve education, right?

The truth is, we’ve been consistently moving toward this moment for a long time. That long, silent scream that started on November 8, 2016 is just the latest incarnation of it.

It’s a real-life sim, and we need to buck up.

Perhaps one of the best lessons I learned during my early learning design days with Roger Schank and the team at Cognitive Arts, was the concept of “confounding factors”. Working through a needs analysis with a client, you collect examples of what can go wrong in any typical execution of whatever task it is you are simulating. You then take those and through the efforts of some very talented writing and design staff, weave them into the simulation that learners will immerse themselves in before executing the task for real.

It’s not always that easy for people who are familiar with, or even expert at, completing a regular task to deconstruct it and communicate that to someone else. They seemingly do that by rote.

I sometimes wonder if we became too well adjusted to how we have been living and did not notice the flaws all around us. But the truth is that under confounding societal circumstances, we cannot wait to fix anything.

Backward Planning to a Love of Learning

Clearly, learning and development at a corporate level is moving forward. Continuous learning is making huge inroads with CLOs such as John Palmer leading reskilling efforts at AT&T and providing employees with much more input into the future of their own careers. In the UK, companies such as Fuse Universal are re-envisioning learning with a platform that combines access to expert advice, curated content, offline learning content, peer-provided expertise and more. Content curation is another area where huge inroads are being made in terms of how we access and personalize information. Look at Anders Pink for a great example of that.

It’s K-16 that concerns me the most. I see no sense in arguing between STEM and SEL, for example. Kids need skills and the means by which to continually adjust and build on those skills as the workplace continues to evolve. They need to develop and maintain a passion for learning.

To sum up what may appear at first to seem like a bleak September forecast:

  • We have taken an unfortunate step backward in terms of racial discrimination, and we will need to regain and build on any progress made since the 1960s.
  • Rescinding stricter interpretations of Title IX protections is a bad idea. We need to do better with protections against gender bias and sexual assault. So, yes, the conversation will need to continue.
  • Education does not exist in a vacuum. As society falters, we need to carry on with improving teaching and learning to ensure that the next generation does better than we have.
Chalkboard with alarm with the words back to school

How Significant Will September Be in the Future?

If April is the cruelest month, September may be one of the more complex ones. With the latter part of the month signals the beginning of “meteorological” Fall, the beginning of September represents a paradigm that many people still accept as true but which no longer makes much sense: the beginning of the school year. September is a firm dividing line between summer fun and the months of hard work ahead. Summer, for many kids, means much less structured time, more time outside, more time pursuing personal interests, whether that means reading whatever you like, perfecting a favorite sport, or spending a few weeks in rock and roll camp. Sounds like an ideal setup for self-directed learning!

Think about the way our kids access information these days. Consider the availability and promise of personalized learning. There are so ways kids can learn when they have to or want to. “September” may be losing some of its previously assigned cultural significance.

Questions Raised by the Beginning of the New School Year

As the Fall engines rev up, here are some simple questions to ask yourself about the very paradigm of “September,”

  1. Has your child been looking forward to the start of the school year?
  2. Did your child learn anything new this summer? If so, how? In what setting?
  3. How does your child spend his or her time outside of school?
  4. How does your child enjoy spending his or her time?
  5. Does your child talk to you about school? What is a typical conversation like?
  6. How much homework does your child have every day? To what end?
  7. Do you help your child with homework? Is it easy to get your child to do homework? Can you do the work?
  8. How much art or music is included in your school curriculum? If it isn’t a lot, or none at all, do you supplement?
  9. Does your child play a team sport in school or participate in sports outside of school?
  10. If your child did not start school each September, what would he or she be doing?

It’s important to ask these questions of ourselves as parents, and vital to reflect honestly on the answers, and not take for granted that the current way that your child is being educated is the only way.

Alternatives to the September Paradigm

The September Paradigm is really just another way of referring to School as Usual. These are very tough times during which our kids are returning to school, and we certainly can’t underestimate the multi-faceted workload that teachers face now and every year. Teachers are working harder than ever to make school a meaningful experience. Even though there has been much progress in terms of integrating technology into the schools and with that some personalized learning tools and methodologies, the construct of school remains antithetical to “real life.”

I’m all for kids (and their accompanying adults) getting a break, but I’d like to see less of a line drawn between learning and whatever else we do every day. This is what is happening in the corporate world, with more support for continuous learning and hopefully what will start happening at the college level. In other words, learning will be designed so that graduates can more easily find their place in an increasingly complex world. Do we need to start in Kindergarten, you ask?

Well, yeah. K-12 needs to let more of the real world in as well. We have traditionally referred to or identified specific schools within districts as “buildings,” reflecting the institutional nature of our educational system. Even taking the safety of our children into account, these “buildings” can be extremely closed off, again forming that barrier between child and family, school and the outside world, learning and summer vacation, etc.

It’s great to hear that projects such as the Beam Center in New York City, for example, are coming into the classroom, or bring teachers and students to their location in Red Hook, Brooklyn for maker workshops. Longer terms projects instill a greater sense of community and connectivity while introducing great skills across curricula.

Tools at Schools is another real world, project-based group that partners with corporations to bring design thinking into the schools. Six-month projects result in products designed to solve real problems, including the sneaker of the future with Puma, and furniture for the classroom produced by Bernhardt Design, whose manufacturing facility the students visited as part of the project.

Less Could Mean More

Less time in the actual . . . buildings could mean that kids are synthesizing what they are learning into activities that take place in the “outside world” every day. In addition to experiential, project-based learning partnerships such as the examples given above (and many others), including online learning either in the classroom or out, and for older (high school) students, more apprenticeships earlier on and independent, community-based learning activities could alleviate so much of the “school fatigue” we see in our children.

We could even play around with the calendar! There really is no season for learning. So there, September!

Hacking an Eagle’s Nest to Teach Ourselves

The most effective education doesn’t usually take place in the classroom. Whether you’re a public or private school advocate, charter school supporter, homeschooler, or unschooler, we all recognize that the greatest learning often occurs at the time of extreme need, when facing a real-life problem that needs to be solved. These high-stake lessons may also take place when we are in the service of helping others.

What follows is a tribute to learning that triumphed in the worst of circumstances.

Hacking is the method used to stimulate Eagle nesting and Eagle population recovery in a particular area by releasing fledgling Eagles into the wild from an artificial nesting tower.

The principle behind Eagle Hacking is that Eagles tend to return to the area from which they were raised and fledged (within approximately 75 miles) after they choose a lifelong mate.

Eagle Hacking, the American Eagle Foundation

A Tale of Two July Fourths

On July 4, 1999, President Bill Clinton held a ceremony at the White House commending the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) for their work in helping to restore the environment on and around the Anacostia River and reintroducing the bald eagle to that area. Eight years later, DDT had been banned, and the bald eagle was taken off the Endangered Species list. The team at the ECC had successfully introduced many young eaglets to a hacked nest along the river, and the first pair of breeding eagles had made their home in the area right near the Metropolitan Police Station. In 2013, another pair (the ones I have been following) made their home in the National Arboretum and have successfully hatched two sets of eaglets.

In contrast to that turn-of-the-century celebration of our nation and the very symbol that represents it, this Fourth of July was marred by the shooting of a juvenile bald eagle who later had to be euthanized.

The fate of these baby eagles is something my fellow D.C. Eagle Cam followers and I watch very closely and oftentimes, very anxiously. We always learn something.

Working Through A Constant State of Grief

What many eagle watchers and others may not be aware of is the story of the team responsible for their return. They may not know how the filmmaker Bob Nixon started working with a group of disadvantaged youths in part to fulfill a promise to Dian Fossey, and that through the process of caring for the river and its inhabitants, he saw them evolve into avid conservationists.

More poignantly still, people may not know that in the first 11 years of the program, nine Core members had succumbed to the violence of the streets of Ward 8, leaving their teammates in a nearly constant state of grief even as they sought to save not only the eagles but themselves. As Nixon said in a 2003 article published in The Washington Post, “When I volunteered to oversee the fledging national service program in 1992, I did not realize I was also signing up to be a pallbearer.” The ECC would eventually lose 26 members over the period of 25 years, which Nixon attributes to both the violence in and around Ward 8 and illness associated with the poverty so prevalent there.

Nixon and his team at the ECC captured the early years in the film “Endangered Species,” released in 2004. More than a decade later, its lessons still ring true.

As we return to this full work week after what may be this nation’s oddest July 4 ever, the success of that original ECC team and those who followed is more than evident in their restoration efforts and in the positive impact they have made in their neighborhood.

But we have not as a nation escaped the issues they faced, and we are in danger of unlearning the lessons they so bravely learned.

One Mile Southeast of All That

The story of the Earth Conservation Corps is simultaneously cautionary and inspiring. As Twan Woods, the narrator of the film tells us, “We didn’t do it for the fish or birds; we did it because the river was dying and all our friends were being murdered.” Much of this violence was concentrated in D.C.’s Ward 8, one of eight wards and 179 neighborhoods in the commonwealth, and one of its poorest. It sits just about a mile southeast of Ward 2, Twan tell us, where the White House is located.

The Anacostia River takes on the burden of several decades of neglect as well as becoming the life source of not only the returning eagle but the Corps members, their families, and by extension, their community. Woods’s commentary throughout the film guides us through the journey these young people took in banding together to restore the river and themselves. “Back then,” he says at one point, “people thought only the birds and fish needed a clean river. Man, were they wrong.”

In the 15 years since the film was made, the ECC did indeed make an impact on the river, the birds, and those living along the Anacostia.

Walling People off from Nature

The film reminds us of earlier times when the Anacostia was clean and people swam, fished, and were baptized in the river. As the Anacostia fell victim to increasing industrialization, all of that ended, and over time, the community also suffered. And the eagles left.

Julius Lowery talks about growing up on the river, and speaks of the peace and serenity that the river seemed to bring in those days, emphasizing the connection between the access to nature and one’s growing up in a peaceful environment. “The young people today,” he concludes, “would make fewer problems for themselves if the river and the parkland were available to them like it was to me.”

Reiterating this is Brenda Richardson, a community leader and environmentalist with strong ties to the ECC. Richardson cites the state of then boarded up but subsequently razed Valley Greene housing projects as an illustration of people being “walled off from nature.”

”Nature gives communities a sense of connectedness that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” she advises.

The cruelest evidence of the disconnect is the death toll it took on an astounding number of early Corps members. The first was killed in August, 1992, not too long after the start of the project. Monique Johnson was an inspiration to her teammates, and it was her sense of dedication that motivated them to continue their efforts despite the pain of her loss. The first eagle to be named in honor of a fallen Corps member was named after Monique.

As the film progresses, you can’t help but be struck by the pain of each loss and to start seeing the ongoing efforts of the ECC as some epic battle between nature, the evils that man has wrought upon it, and those who seek to save it.

Can there be a winner in such a battle? Can hacking nature have any impact at all?

The Eagles Could Have Warned Us

Woods compares the eagles of today to the canaries of the past, endowing them with the ability to warn us of the danger up ahead. Today we face a great many challenges to victories of the recent past, including threats to the environment and our great national monuments, threats to diversity of all kinds, threats to healthcare and the potential loss of millions of lives as a result, and threats to our young people through senseless gun violence.

The work of the ECC expanded over time. They have built parks and walkways, and hosted educational events. Team members have graduated from the program to go on to college through the Americorps scholarship program, earned their GEDs, found jobs, or stayed on, as Woods did, with the ECC.

The spirit of those that were lost lives on not only in the fledging eaglets released over the years but also in the revitalized river and parkland. The ECC has been involved in a number of initiatives, ranging from Anacostia Explorers, which extends the original ECC mission to encompass clean-up, protection, and educational programs; to Guns to Roses, which turns firearms to works of art, and in the process trains participants for work in the construction industry.

On April 25, 2017, the ECC celebrated its 25th anniversary with an eaglet naming ceremony, the name having been chosen in an online contest in which 10,000 people participated. The newest addition to the Police Academy nest was named Spirit; she fledged on June 3, and returned to the nest on June 5, an event that brought together thousands of avid eagle watchers from across the country, online communities of people who may never meet each other but who share a passion for these wonderful creatures.

On May 20, 2017, NPR aired “In Washington, D.C., A Program in Which Birds and People Lift Each Other Up”. The report provides an update on the program and highlights the work of Rodney Stotts, an early ECC participant who went on to become one of only 30 African-American falconers in the U.S. Stotts attributes his time with the ECC with saving his life. “I’d have been dead,” he says in the NPR report. “If I didn’t get into animals, I’d have died in the street.”

Stotts continues the work of educating young people about raptors through Rodney’s Raptors and ongoing work with the ECC.

In the days leading to this July 4, much was made of the rescue of a bald eagle in Washington, D.C., thought to be Justice, the parent eagle of the above-mentioned Spirit. While it was heartwarming to see the nation rally around this now-recovering bird, there is still so much work to be done to ensure their safety and survival, and ours as well.

Is it true that the eagle can help us save ourselves?

This Fourth of July was very different for a nation struggling to right itself in the midst of a great deal of political, social, and economic turbulence. Much of our nation was reflective and poised to continue the fight for the return of . . . justice.

As Woods says, I still think we can learn from eagles. More than that, I think we can learn from the brave members of the ECC, and their ongoing efforts to save the wildlife around them, and in the process, save their communities and themselves.

Can We Teach Someone to Be More Self-Directed?

If you are familiar with the story of Timothy Doner, the kid who taught himself 20 languages, you are probably not only impressed by his linguistic prowess but also by his belief that language opens you to a new world view.

Doner tells us that his language learning journey began after years of instruction at school, instruction that started with French class in third grade and continued with Latin in seventh grade. He was unable to converse in French, and in learning Latin, he was really learning some systems for analyzing language but not really a means for communicating through it.

So how did he transition from old school to a new way of learning language that enabled him to learn 20 languages over a period of a few years? On his own?

The Power of Self-Directed Learning

Listening to how Doner talks about his language learning journey, I was struck by how his story is a testament to the power of self-directed learning, even if his own narrative is focused on the relationship between language and culture.

Wanting to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Doner started to teach himself Hebrew by listening to the lyrics of popular Israeli rap music. He eventually started visiting Israeli cafes in New York neighborhoods, perfecting his accent, vocabulary and listening skills along the way. From there he went on to Arabic, practicing at first with street vendors, and moved on to Persian, Russian, Mandarin, Swahili, and others.

Like most self-directed learners, Doner was compelled to teach himself something and found the means to do so outside of school-as-usual.

The Traits of a Self-Directed Learner

Self-directed learners are by nature independently minded and driven in their pursuit of knowledge. In addition to this, studies on self-directed learning tell us that:

  • Self-directed learners take more responsibility for decisions associated with their pursuit of learning.
  • Not all self-directed learning takes place in isolation.
  • Self-directed learners can transfer learning from one situation to another.
  • Activities associated with self-directed learning include: self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, etc.

 

Doner’s initial forays into language learning did not yield very positive results. Learning a language in absence of a cultural context and need makes it difficult for most of us. Once he found his motivation (a need for first-hand knowledge), he began to develop a means to teach himself (Israeli rap music). Having laid that foundation, he started to expand not only his repertoire but his toolset as well.

An Evolving Toolset for Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learners are resourceful. In today’s digital world, there’s no shortage of good sources for learning almost anything, especially language learning, including traditional text-based materials, online lessons, discussion groups, etc. Doner doesn’t mention much of that and instead began with rap music as his textbook and neighborhood cafes as his classroom.

As he started to build his repertoire, he expanded his classroom to include outdoor vendors, bookstore owners and practically anyone who would talk with him in whatever language he had undertaken. When that became limiting, he posted videos of himself on YouTube and grew his classroom even further.

Talk about the power of social media! Doner notes that he had teachers and conversation partners for any language he wanted to study.

 What We Can Learn about Failure from Self-Directed Learners

When I think of Doner out there, I see him as an intrepid explorer of new worlds, new ways of thinking and refusing to fear failure. He created his own community of learners, as he has pointed out, by “visiting the outer boroughs and embarrassing himself.” As he worked to improve his language skills, he oftentimes struggled in those conversations with native speakers. “Maybe you have to use a lot of English. Maybe you aren’t that articulate or interesting when you talk.” He illustrates how through one awkward exchange, he learned a word that he will never forget. He appears to be a fearless learner.

Does Self-Directed Learning Have a Place in Institutional Learning?

We’re divided in our perspective of education. Depending on where you live, how much money you have, and how much impact you want to have on your child’s learning, there may or may not be very obvious options for how they do so. Doner’s story is admittedly extreme, but it should serve to excite us about the possibilities that exist when kids can find and fuel a passion for learning.

How does that translate into the public or private education systems today?

There’s a few things we can do to provide opportunities for engagement where currently there is not enough room for generating interest on a student-by-student basis. And it needs to happen on a curricular level so that teachers are left with the room and capacity to spark individual flames of interest.

If we look back at the list of traits of self-directed learners, we know we need to make room for:

  1. Project-based learning activities that provide the time and leeway for kids to take on more responsibility and to discover, albeit in a more structured format than outside of school, areas of interest that may grow over time.
  2. With project-based learning and other more extended engagementscomes an opportunity to fail, change course, and maintain a sense of confidence that can engage kids more significantly than when asked to complete short-term exercises that demand right or wrong answers without much opportunity for exploration. An interesting take on this was presented in an article this month on math education in KQED’s Mind/Shift column.
  3. Design thinking and maker curriculum opportunities can provide the tools and processes for young learners to start exploring on their own. Provided with the experience of working together on shared and guided projects, kids might build on such opportunities to engage in projects of their own.
  4. Modeling mentorships within the school system can help kids gain the confidence to work with the support of an adult or peer mentor on projects of their own interest.

At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about teaching people to be more self-directed, it’s really about providing opportunities where kids can become independent thinkers and problem solvers and feel confident about exploring their own passions. In the workplace, we are seeing how expanding the opportunities for informal learning is positively impacting workplace performance. We’re also seeing how corporate training is evolving into more of a curatorial role in order to make learning available to meet the needs of different learners in different situations. A one-size-fits-all approach to learning doesn’t work anywhere along the continuum of the learning experience.

The bottom line is that we need to start early on to help kids find the spark that will develop into a lifetime passion for learning and doing.

For more on Timothy Doner, see this article on Ideas.Ted.Com as well as his very entertaining TEDxTeen Talk from 2014.

Letter to My High School Graduate

Tomorrow you will participate in a ceremony at one of this city’s most prestigious cultural institutions to celebrate your graduation from high school. I am so proud of you for making it to this point and for the choices you have made in order to get here.  And I so respect the decisions you have come to in planning out the next few years of your life. I know that situations change, and yours probably will, too, but you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, and you’re off to a great start.

From the very beginning, you knew your own mind. One might even say it started on the day you were born, arriving earlier than the doctors predicted. “Come on,” you must have said to yourself. “It’s time to get started.”

From a very early age, you displayed a talent for performance and attached yourself to artistic endeavors as a means of learning and as a means of expression. In those earliest of school plays, you appeared at ease with yourself on stage and took joy in entertaining others. There was a high degree of professionalism instilled in these youthful experiences. While you sometimes chafed at the intensity of practice and rehearsal, you were steadfast. The foundation was being laid for the work to come.

Still in elementary school, you engaged in movie making, learning the technology and script writing skills that you’ve utilized since then to produce projects that would take you through the college application process.

Transitions have always been challenging for you, and in middle school, art seemed to take a hiatus in deference to academics. You chose this highly academic school yourself and exposed yourself to the rigors of the entrance exam and the course of study in order to be with the majority of your friends, but it did come with something of a cost. There were the piano lessons after school for a while, and the summer theater camp, but school was school and not much art was there for you to engage in.

When the time came for you to apply to high school, you chose not to sit for the city’s specialized school exams but instead to focus on auditions for the performing arts schools, I knew you had already discovered a large part of who you are. Through those weekly voice lessons and train rides out to Brooklyn to be coached in acting, not only were you perfecting your natural talents, but you were building character as well. Add to that the experience of auditioning at the city’s top performing arts schools, and you should reflect on how hard you worked to get to this point.

Winning a place in the most competitive of those schools was bittersweet, I know. Your first love was acting and here you were accepted to the vocal studio instead. Working through the disappointment was one of your more challenging battles. Yet, these four years of preparing for and performing at school and by invitation at venues across the city have culminated in an even stronger voice, musically and otherwise.

The college application process was one of the most grueling experiences you could have endured, and yet, what did you do? You wrote a song about it!

As I have applauded each performance, I applaud you now for all you have accomplished to date, and all that is to come. You are intellectually curious and compassionate, and you have skills that you owe to your own perseverance and achievement. Brava!

This week, over 50,000 students will graduate from New York City high schools. While the city will continue to boast of increased graduation rates, we know that we cannot take graduation for granted and that we need to continue to make school more relevant for today’s kids and tomorrow’s. The pressures on today’s school children, teachers and parents are deeply ingrained in the traditions created years ago and impacted on by the reforms of the present day. There are shining examples of schools that are breaking these molds and focusing on technology-enhanced, truly learner-centric and project-based learning methodologies. I look forward to the day when alternatives become the norm.

What a Mountain Climber Can Teach Us about Education

“He climbed with partners now and then but mostly spent time by himself and free-soloed — first on easy routes and then, as his confidence grew, on steadily more difficult terrain. Honnold lived this way for two years, continuing to study climbing history and the rarefied lineage of great free-soloists past, a grand total of three people over 30 years.” “The Heart-Stopping Climbs of Alex Honnold”

Alex Honnold is at 29 years old the world’s best free-soloist, which means that he climbs alone and without ropes. How many of us could learn to do such a thing?

Reading about Honnold this past weekend got me to thinking about self-directed learners, and how incorporating more of the principles of SDL into our K-12 curriculum could result in more engagement for this group of learners.

The Landscape of Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning, or autodidactism, is basically when you teach yourself. What do we know about self-directed learners that can help us incorporate this into a school-based environment?

Studies on self-directed learning indicate that:

  • Individual learners can become empowered to take increasingly more responsibility for various decisions associated with the learning endeavor;
  • Self-direction is best viewed as a continuum or characteristic that exists to some degree in every person and learning situation;
  • Self-direction does not necessarily mean all learning will take place in isolation from others;
  • Self-directed learners appear able to transfer learning, in terms of both knowledge and study skill, from one situation to another;
  • Self-directed study can involve various activities and resources, such as self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, and reflective writing activities;
  • Effective roles for teachers in self-directed learning are possible, such as dialogue with learners, securing resources, evaluating outcomes, and promoting critical thinking;
  • Some educational institutions are finding ways to support self-directed study through open-learning programs, individualized study options, non-traditional course offerings, and other innovative programs.

Implications for the Classroom

Perhaps one way to think about incorporating aspects of self-directed learning into the classroom is to back into it from where we are today. Consider the most test-centered and grades obsessed environment and, applying the most student-centered learning approach possible, enable kids to focus on learning that matters to them. But we all know it’s not as simple as that.

When we talk about project-based learning, for example, we are also expanding the walls of the classroom to include activities that are relevant to students and the direction of which are also decided by students. Students choose tools, technology and practices from the real world to support their learning. The teacher functions more as a guide or facilitator than in traditional learning environments, but still plays a big role in the design and evaluation of learning.

Letting Go and Stepping Back: The Independent Project

We need to go beyond stepping back, as we do with Project-Based Learning, to “getting out of the way,” as the teachers at Monument Mountain High School did when they undertook “The Independent Project.” When a group of eight students were given the opportunity to create a school within a school for a semester, they worked independently and together to finish their own projects and to explore areas of academics that many of them never thought of themselves as doing.

As student project founder Sam Levin noted, the students “learned how to learn, how to teach, and how to work.” By providing an opportunity for kids to be in charge of their own education, they re-engaged with learning again.

Self-Directed Learning and 70:20:10

Allen Tough first wrote about self-directed learning in 1971 in the Adult Learning Project, noting that “About 70% of all learning projects are planned by the learner himself, who seeks help and subject matter from a variety of acquaintances, experts and printed resources.” While the focus of the study was on adult learners in the workplace, Tough also made it clear that they had also interviewed 10-year-olds and 16-year-olds as part of the study, and “Their out-of-schooling learning is extensive, and is similar in some ways to adult learning. Schools and colleges are increasingly recognizing and fostering such learning, thus preparing their students to be competent adult learners.”

Interesting how these kids appeared to be preparing themselves to be better learners as adults.

Later on, in the1980s, the researchers Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger, and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership delineated the blend of learning that they felt best “blend” for successful managers included 70% of on-the-job experiences (informal), 20% through interactions with people (social), and 10% from courses and books (formal).

Today, the foremost authority and practitioner of 70:20:10, Charles Jennings, reminds us that the blend is not meant to prescriptive, but is rather a reference model for looking at how people best learn and improve in the workplace.

What we can glean from all of this is that there are a range of modalities through which people learn, but the large percentage of that is on your own through the actual doing of something (preferably of your own choice).

Why Today is Such an Opportune Time to Explore Self-Directed Learning

Many educators will talk about how theories come and go, making their appearance if not in necessarily cyclical patterns, but returning to popularity after so many years out of the limelight. Let’s return to our cliffhanger, Alex Honnold, for some thoughts on this.

If Honnold had been born 20 years earlier, before the proliferation of climbing gyms, he probably wouldn’t have found the sport until adulthood, if at all. Instead, he grew up in the 1990s among the first generation of American climbers to have almost unlimited access to good training facilities, a phenomenon that has produced startling leaps in climbing skill. Wolownick first took Honnold to a rock-climbing gym when he was 5, only to have him scale 40 feet when she turned her back. By 10, he was climbing at a gym many times a week, usually with his father . . .

It’s interesting to note that Honnold’s love for climbing was facilitated by the advent of the indoor climbing gym. He had the tools and technology from his earliest years through which to develop his skills.

What do we have today to help foster the development of self-directed learners inside and outside of the classroom?

  • Technology is definitely one tool that continues to evolve and continues to grow opportunities for the autodidact to access quality learning.
  • Neurodiversity’s acceptance has led to more ways for people with different ways of thinking and learning styles to excel as learners, both in traditional learning environments and outside of it.
  • Alternative learning opportunities outside of traditional schooling provide “homes” for self-directed learners, either physically such as the democratic modelled Sudbury Schools, and NorthStar, for example; or online with Blake Boles’ Zero Tuition College program helping self-directed teens with resources and networks to support their independent learning and career building.

How Do We Know We Are Ready to Try Self-Directed Learning?

We know that students are unhappy. The growing Opt Out movement that supports students and families (and teachers and schools) that want to opt out of standardized testing is a huge indicator of how the current approach is not working. We also know that over a million kids a year are still leaving school.

The original eight students who participated in the Monument Mountain High School “Independent Project,” included honor students and students who were on the verge of dropping out. Levin, the project’s founder, noted “There was a breaking point for me. It seemed like everyone around me was unhappy. I realized that my friends were spending six hours a day, a hundred and eighty days a year just being unhappy. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

It seems like there are many kids out there at the breaking point, and we need a way for them to re-engage and find the joy in learning again. As Sue Engel, a psychology professor and mother of Sam Levin concluded, implementing an alternative school within a school “Doesn’t involve hiring a lot of fancy people and implementing a lot of fancy programs. The potential for this is inside every school.”

I wonder how many schools would be willing to give it a try. After all, it can’t be as dangerous as hanging from El Capitan at 3,000 feet without a rope.