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Self-Directed Learners?: Better Improve YOUR Tool Set

I am going to take the liberty of discussing the parental role of this discussion prior to discussing ways of making students “self-directed, social learners” for one reason and one reason alone. Following my first year of teaching, I sat down and asked myself a series of questions. One of which was the following:

What aspects of school this year was I unable to alter or change regardless of what I did?

I only came up with two answers and realized that they could either allow me to rise to a higher level of understanding or doom my outlook on the profession. The answer is simple: the bodies in the seats and the bodies at home. Everything else you can change. The problem is that changing the mindset of parents to become more involved with their students is much harder than changing the mindset of kids towards school. This is especially true by the time students get to high school. The economic situation of the world has only further exacerbated this problem.

Since this realization, I have continued to work to bring parents into the equation, but never consider them part of it. In other words, I act as though they do not exist when the student goes home. Is this pessimistic? I don’t think so. I think it provides an equal opportunity for me to develop strong bonds with every one of my students and take more of a nurturing stance on how I deal with their every day struggles.

I continue to contact parents with praise or problems and continue to send my monthly newsletter and update e-mails while asking them for feedback or questions. I get a number of them normally, but almost always from the same parents every time. I normally get a handful of e-mails from parents throughout the year but only to ask why a student’s grade is not to their liking. The key is that it doesn’t depress me or bother me or make me feel as though I can slack. It makes me work even harder to ensure that students become self-directed, social learners (the first part of the question).

When it comes to developing self-directed learners, I feel that there is only one way to do it. Kids need subtle hints at areas that interest them, and they need to be well-grounded in the skills that are required to aid them in learning on their own. The social component comes in after, and only after, they have been grounded in such skills. No student can be a self-directed learner if they cannot complete basic functions that allow them to search, digest, and interpret material. The utopian adage that “if students are passionate about a topic they will stop at nothing to learn it” is irrational. Not because they can’t teach themselves these skills but because they can’t identify the skills they need in order to fix the deficiency.

My favorite thing in the world is baseball. When I was a kid, I would play baseball all day long for hours at a time and try to mimic what professional players were trying to accomplish. Problem is that I never had the same results. In fact, my results were never even close to what they could do on a baseball field. I couldn’t hit a ball 500 feet or throw 95 MPH. The fact that I was seven never even entered my mind as a factor as to why I couldn’t. What I started to do was read everything I could read about baseball strategy, have discussions with everyone who knew anything about how to play the game, and watch as much baseball as possible. It led me to a long career of all-star teams, high school honors, and college honors.

The key to my success wasn’t mimicking what major league players did. It was learning the basics and how to play the game by understanding the thinking complexities behind the sport. It was also self-directed….but not. I needed those others to tell me what I was doing right and wrong.

Learning is only as self-directed as the quality of the toolset around the learner and the quality of the resources available. If you want to create self-directed learners, you need to advance your tool set first; not theirs.

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About Aaron Eyler

Aaron is a U.S. history teacher in a Central Jersey school district. In addition, to his Bachelor's degree in History and Education certification, he has a Master's degree in Educational Administration and Leadership.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Self-Directed Learners?: Better Improve YOUR Tool Set

  1. Aaron, your question is a powerful one, and is a great example of the fact that we don’t teach in a vacuum. No matter how well planned we are, there are variables outside of our control, and one of our tasks is how to best be adaptable.

    I have two minds about your statement that you pretend that parents do not exist. My first reaction is that this is folly and how can you have a strong relationship with your students as whole people if you don’t acknowledge the reality of their parents and home life? Also, even if you don’t consider parents to be part of a student’s learning, they are regardless. So how do you address this? How do you address the “schooling” that kids receive at home, whether this is support in their studies, apathetic attitudes, or downright disrespect of teachers and learning? In some instances the tides at home are downright opposed to those in the classroom, is there a way you can think of to try to get them more in sync?

    On the other hand, I can appreciate your intent to approach all kids equally, but with the above in mind, I just don’t get how it works to really get to know your kids unless you know what is happening at home.

    Always pushing,
    Adam

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 12, 2010, 7:19 pm
  2. Aaron – it’s important for teachers to realize that they can control their behaviors and create safe and exciting classrooms by offering their best to colleagues, students, and parents.

    I admire your care and attention for students. My work over the past few years has led me in a different direction and pushed me to assess carefully how I work with each student depending on his or her experiences with parents and other adults. To a certain extent, our behaviors and habits reflect our past more than our present. Students attitudes towards educators are shaped by the attitudes, expectations, and actions of the adults present throughout their lives.

    I’ve found it useful to compare my habits to those of the other adults in my students’ lives. When what I want to do seems equally helpful and nurturing by comparison, I act accordingly. When what I want to do echoes behavior that triggers student resistance, I try to break my conditioning and find another way to support the student. This is monitoring and adjustment is difficult work, but it’s vital to healing some students.

    Have you found that for some students, you absolutely have to acknowledge the roles of parents and past teachers in their lives? If so, how have you worked differently with these students than with those whose parents – or past teachers – seem, from your point of view, less integral to your work?

    Considering a parent who’s involved with school, but not dogmatic about it, what would be your plan for educating him or her about your vision of #edreform?

    Best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 12, 2010, 8:15 pm
  3. Adam & Chad,

    You’re dead on with your statements about the constant (positive and negative) impact that adults, namely parents, have on a kid’s life. I think the key to what I am saying is more along the lines of constant flexibility than rigidity. I always feel that teachers work really hard to cookie-cutter every student’s situation. I echo what Adam says when he states “I just don’t get how it works to really get to know your kids unless you know what is happening at home”. I spend a lot of time with my kids before and after school especially when they have discussions. It’s amazing what kids will tell ya when they are in an informal setting and don’t have to consider their peers reactions. (One student actually called me an asshole for caring about every kid in class when not every one of them wanted to learn. He couldn’t rationalize why I should work with them if they were clearly taking advantage of me.)

    I’m not a pessimist, but I feel as though I perform at my optimal when I know that all the cards in the deck are stacked against me. That’s why my mindset at the beginning of the year is always that I have no support at home, they have learned nothing before me, and even colleagues want me to fail. From that point, I adjust according to how kids react and differentiate my emotions towards them as well as how I work with them on a daily basis. I feel like a lot of teachers start off either overly optimistic or “feel it out” for a while in the beginning. What ends up happening is that the kids who need the most support don’t get it until the second month (at best) of school. That only leaves me with nine academic months left to make the impact that I want to make. Nine months isn’t good enough for me.

    I guess what I am really saying is that every kid is on a continuum, but rather than starting in the middle, I start at the low end. It’s more about philosophy than anything else.

    Posted by Aaron Eyler | April 13, 2010, 9:01 am
  4. Aaron,

    Thanks for the elaboration, it clears up a few things for me.

    Informal settings are certainly best for having revealing conversations with students. Things like playing pool, basketball, hikes, etc., really provide the means for guards to come down.

    I appreciate your dedication to all of your students and your drive to make the most of the time you have–not just academically but in terms of building relationships as well.

    In the wilderness first responder training I have had, the analogy of a big net is used. Meaning that until you rule something out then it stays in the net. This reminds me of your approach to “start at the low end.” You make no assumptions that an issue is not present until you have evidence that you can rule it out. There is certainly good value in that.

    -Adam

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 13, 2010, 9:21 pm
  5. Aaron, thanks for your response!

    Like Adam, I appreciate your dedication to kids and willingness to take on students’ needs in your teaching.

    How would you build your ideal PLC, team, house, school-within-a-school, or whole school culture? I’m struck by your valuation of colleagues wanting you to fail. What do you think the adults on an educational team need to do to foster a community of support for one another in the difficult, taxing, rewarding work of helping students learn? How would it impact your teaching if you trusted that all colleagues wanted you to succeed?

    Best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 14, 2010, 12:10 am
  6. Aaron, just to add to what’s already been said here–I too have questions about how deeply you can know kids without knowing their families (does someone know you without knowing anything about your life, where you came from, who’s in your house every day?), but what I think you are saying is you can’t CONTROL the influence of family, so you try to engage– but not obsess if you can’t. What kids always tell me is the teacher who tries to know something about their whole lives, who makes an effort to get to know them, brings parts of them into the equation of the classroom that makes them whole, makes them real. To themselves.

    I really respect what you’re saying about tools. “Learning is only as self-directed as the quality of the toolset around the learner and the quality of the resources available. If you want to create self-directed learners, you need to advance your tool set first; not theirs.” If we’re not self-directed learners ourselves, with deep passions around real things that turn our heads and make us voraciously curious, how can we model that for others? Are we passionate ourselves? Do we experience learning as deeply pleasurable in our own lives?

    Do we self direct our own learning every day?

    Posted by oldsow | April 14, 2010, 10:30 am
  7. I have to admit that I do not communicate and interact with my students’ parents nearly often enough. This is somehing I am going to strive to do a better job of before the end of the year.

    I have been using my iPhone as a means of communicating and assessing my students via video and podcasts and then emailing that info to my students. I am goingto get parent emails next so that I can contact them too.
    I think I’ll blog about this with screenshots.

    Nice post Aaron.

    Posted by Joe Bower | April 14, 2010, 7:31 pm

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