When you picture students directing their own learning, what comes to mind?

In my long career serving students far from the center of opportunity, I’ve grown as a professional by working with skillful colleagues, in schools built around a core of career-themed, work-based application.  In these schools, the teaching expectations included real-world problem solving, where students chose, designed, exhibited and defended their work.  Those expectations were held for—and reached by—all students, no matter their starting point.

Sometimes, when I’ve shared my stories with skeptics, this particular image, and idiom, comes to mind:

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”

Among these skeptics are educators who believe, based on experience, that not all students are able to direct their own learning.  I empathize with their stories; it would be exhausting to “pull” resistant or reluctant students into and through learning.

But, what if this picture is being framed the wrong way? Look again:  this time, imagine the horse is very thirsty, however he’s noticed something’s wrong with the water.  What story does this picture tell, now?

As described in the Behaviors of Learning and Teaching Continuum (a key resources in our collection), in student-directed Linked Learning environments, students:

  • Design their interdisciplinary learning experiences, and learning plans
  • Learn through an inquiry-based approach where their questions, choices, insights, and solutions lead the way
  • Pursue learning through feedback, reflection, revision, and defense of work

On a parallel track, as students demonstrate these behaviors, teachers:

  • Frame engaging, relevant learning experiences, with opportunities for independent inquiry
  • Provide students with individual assessment data and coaching that helps them to monitor and revise their plans and work
  • Readjust plans to respond to student interest and learning needs
  • Support collaboration with peers, interaction with industry partners, and revision of work

This framework draws attention to the unique, observable characteristics of successful pathways classrooms. However, these characteristics can only emerge when the “water,” or learning environment, is safe, healthy, and delicious for self-directed learning.

What makes a learning environment especially delicious? Here are just a few factors:

  • Expectations: all members of the pathway community demonstrate high expectations for learning, modelling learning-supportive mindsets, behaviors and values
  • Challenge: tasks and activities are worth the time and energy of a group, are connected to students’ interests and goals, and require critical thinking and problem solving
  • Participation: norms and protocols encourage equitable collaboration; structured opportunities for help are available to everyone
  • Autonomy: learners are encouraged to follow their curiosity and unique paths to solutions
  • Relationships: interactions communicate mutual respect and care; breeches of trust are addressed and restored as a community

To take the personal risks required for deep, meaningful learning, conditions matter—for everyone in a learning community. If a teacher has never personally experienced a supportive learning environment, it’s difficult to create one for others. Supportive workplace learning conditions for teachers are as important as supportive classroom and work-based learning environments for students because these environments are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

How can leaders, coaches and coordinators ensure “delicious water” for adult learning?  Check out a coming blog post for details!

Image Credit

-Jennifer Lutzenberger Phillips