Folks, I just want to say how awesome it feels to be here with you, such a group of thoughtful and powerful teachers and educators. I am really drawn to the specificity and reflectiveness of the posting here, and want to join in full tilt.
As to the question, “How do we support students developing as efficacious self-directed, social learners and involve parents as partners in that journey?” I offer a little of my own background here. I mostly directly teach undergraduates (and adults), so I deal with folks who have already been through a system that has largely (with some exceptions) encouraged them to be passive, to be attentive to the rules of the game, to be really, really conventionally successful (as defined by the institution), and who are often self-directed and social learners–OUTSIDE of the classroom. So long attentive to the rules of the game of school, they sometimes resent being asked to deeply engage in their own learning. Here’s a little recollection of my own journey through this as a teacher…
In my first year of teaching, at a fine undergraduate college, I tried to instruct without many rules. “I’m your friend,” I suggested to my students. I’m on your side. We’re going to put this course together mutually. I had just gotten out of graduate school, and from under the tyranny of white, male professordom (so I thought!). I understand. Really. I want us to do something different! My students were sullen, blank, and cross. Hey, I thought this course was an easy A in the education department! I just want to come in, listen to the lecture (not really), write the 3 papers, take the exams, and get out. Please don’t complicate this. Also, you, teacher, don’t have the reputation yet to get us all excited about doing so much work for you. You haven’t got the institutional cojenes to pull this off! What are you trying to do anyway? How can we trust you when we don’t know anything about you?
The next year I tried, against my principles, to be more “traditional.” I didn’t ask students to grade themselves, keep a portfolio of their work, or write endless self-reflective essays. I hired teaching assistants to run discussion groups and handed out rubrics for written work I’d gotten off the internet. Another misjudgment. Although the students understood the rules perfectly, I hated teaching this way. My heart just wasn’t in it. My teaching assistants, sensing that they might need to become the harsh end of institutional law, became whip-toting dominatrixes of the grade book-jamming kids (their peers) for handing papers in late, grading without much sense of heart or meaning, taking attendance vociferously, not accepting work that wasn’t in the right format. They became enforcers. (I say this like I knew what was going on, but I really didn’t. This is all with the benefit of hindsight.)
So finally, like Goldilocks, third year I started to get it just right. I spent a lot of time carefully explaining where I was coming from as a teacher. I didn’t have any teaching assistants, which put my face first in every student teacher interaction. (This was much more work, of course.) By then students did know me better and they were more willing to come along with me on an educational journey, to grade themselves, to reflect openly about what had happened to them in educational institutions in the past, to “own” the class as a space where they might actually say something powerful, important and new about themselves.
So based on this, and the now hundreds of classroom observations I do and conversations I have with teachers and kids in schools, it seems to me that to be a self-directed, deeply engaged learner, you have to believe that the task you are engaging in is:
- truly personally meaningful;
- that you will have choices all the way along about the nature/definition of the task;
- that you can control the pace of the learning, and how you show what you know;
- you can adjust the level of challenge based on how you are progressing.
This is a pretty high bar for most of us who also work in K-12 settings, where so many learning exercises are nothing like this. John Holt often described “learning, real learning” (as he would say) as an adventure, and you need a brave heart and a lot of self-confidence to engage in it.
Paula and Adam both talk about how they do this, real time, in the classroom every day. But how successful can we be, given the hardshell conventions of the classroom, AYP, NCLB?
I’m just trying to provoke here.
As to being social learners, my experience relates to something Aaron raised in his post. Most kids need to be taught collaboration skills pretty directly. Although they use collaborative tools very well, intellectual collaboration (I’ve found) is deeply related to the ability to listen to someone else’s point of view and be changed by it, without losing track of yourself; being able to amplify someone else’s work (to “plus up” your partner, as I sometimes say), and to be playful and broad. Most students need direct instruction on this, role-playing, case studies, scenarios, scripts.
So how are OUR tools as teachers? Do we collaborate well as social learners? If not, how can we teach kids?