Sunday, March 31, 2013

Getting Started in Self-Directed Learning

Know the problems and benefits of self-directed learning
before you embark on the process

Introduction to 21st-Century Skills

In talking with different educators and lay people about the 21st-century skills new educational methods are interested in honing, we've heard legitimate and important concerns about the fact that these new approaches are largely untested and that traditional practices have been successful in educating students, so why change them?

One of RealSchool's interests lies in giving students a voice in their classrooms, in their curricula and in the policies that shape the schools they attend. One of the ways RealSchool, which has primarily been an extra-curricular activity, has been able to empower students is by having them choose the teams and projects they want to join. Another way, in a course that was partially "RealSchool-ed," was by having seniors choose a topic they researched and blogged about all year. That project, called Frisch L.E.A.D.s (Learning. Exploring. Analyzing. Designing.) is culminating now in a term paper and/or multi-media project where students organize and present what they have learned. Herehere and here are posts about the components of the LEADs project.

Different Forms of Self-Directed Learning

Student Choice in Assessment 

Our esteemed colleague, Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky, the TechRav, has recently posted his concerns about self-directed learning, and we'd like to address his thoughtful points. Rabbi Pittinsky notes:

As a teacher in my own classroom, I find that while I want to allow my students to express themselves utilizing their talents and creativity, I also have a very strong idea of a curriculum that I wish to cover. I am especially proud of projects where I can maximize the two.

What Rabbi Pittinsky describes here is, to our mind, a form of self-directed learning. Allowing students to use their own talents and creativity in a class where the teacher is guiding the curriculum strongly is still a way to give students more voice and choice in their classes. Students are going to have higher levels of engagement if they feel more invested in the learning, either by choosing what they learn or, in this case, how they are assessed. 

Rabbi Pittinsky points to Rabbi Aaron Ross' meaningful and rich PBL (project-based learning) kashruth assignment as another way to empower students in the classroom, while still having the teacher maintain a high level of structure and organization in the curriculum. 

Student Choice in Project and Assessment

The Frisch LEADs project allows more student freedom than what Rabbi Pittinsky and Rabbi Ross have described in their work. For Frisch LEADs, students were allowed to choose the topic they wanted to research and then decide to some extent on how they would present their information. While all students had to complete at least a 10-12-page term paper, in order to demonstrate mastery of writing and depth of research, some students are choosing to do a long, 25-page research paper and no multi-media project, while others are choosing to leave their paper at 10-12 pages and complete projects such as: 

* a meal for the class
* a wiki
* an anti-bullying program for the freshmen
* a survey of religious development for the seniors and juniors
* art projects and an art exhibit

Though Frisch LEADs allows students choice in what they learn and how they are assessed, there is still structure in the project and teachers are facilitating and overseeing the students' learning. The Frisch LEADs projects did not take up an entire syllabus, however. The project was part of an AP English Literature course, during which students learned literature chosen by their teachers. What about classes that are even more self-directed and have what we would call self-organizing curricula, that is, entire curriculums based on what students want to learn and not on what teachers feel they need to teach?

Rabbi Pittinsky expresses a natural opinion:

I think that the most important opportunities for pure self-directed learning come in the area of extra-curricular activities. If students have an idea for a new club or publication, we must support them in every way possible. But in the classroom, kids crave clear direction from the teacher. This can come in many forms. Frontal teaching does not have to take up the bulk of this learning. But almost everything should be teacher-directed even those times when we allow our students to take control and teach the lesson.

Students Choose What and How They Learn

RS's App Making and Social Entrepreneurship teams
decide what's going to be in an app and how they're going to market it

RealSchool got started because students wanted more choice in what they learned and chose, after school in the club, to make apps, websites and videos; care for the environment and learn about their physical health; ask the Big Questions about religion that they didn't have time in class to ask; make fashion shows and art exhibits; and more. But why shouldn't students be able to do those things in a class? Why should a student sit through a course he/she isn't interested in when another one, just as vital to a student's development, could be offered? In fact, the English Department at Frisch will be offering Digital Media next year for students interested in web design, photoshop and other forms of digital expression. 

AP Environment is given at many schools (don't get us started on standardized testing, but we mention the course to show that it has legitimacy in mainstream venues); why not create one that's more project-based and creates relevance in the real world? One of the things we do at RealSchool is intertwine the interests of our different teams, to show students how their individual talents and interests can be used to serve a larger good. So for this year's Fashion Show, entitled Who's the Fairest of Them All?, we've focused on fair food and trade practices and are raising money to end slavery in the world. 

Jamie, a member of many RS teams, including Graphic Design,
is working on a logo for the Health and Environment team

The Health and Environment team is busy finding out about ethical trade practices in the food industry, and we've been debating whether kashruth certifications should show that a food has been created in an ethical manner. For example, does an owner of a kosher restaurant treat his workers well? One of our students has shared with us information about Uri L'Zedek, a Jewish Social Action organization, and its Tav HaYosher, a seal certifying a kosher restaurant has created a just environment. We've tied the interests of fashion and health, therefore, not only to each other, but also to a larger question students have about their religion, which is how can it be relevant in today's world?

All Jewish day schools are obviously very values-based, so we feel engaging students in this kind of whole-person learning is crucial, but what student, anywhere, wouldn't find meaning in whole-person learning? All humans want to feel there is value in what they learn and do. In fact, take a look at this article that Jeff Kiderman at AJE sent us:

All High School Courses Should Be Elective

Pretty radical title, but don't dismiss the idea out of hand. At least, begin discussion in your schools -- with parents, students (especially students!), teachers, administrators and board members -- about what students are gaining from their course work and what they'd like to see change. Students buy into the idea of RealSchool pretty quickly. They love the idea that they can choose what they want to learn; teachers need to feel they're in control and that chaos will not break out if students are in a learning lab environment as opposed to a classroom with a row of desks. We get that. Let's help each other get over that, though. There are a lot of steps we can take to make students more empowered and more engaged in their learning.

The many different ways to employ self-directed learning
Just a few days after we first wrote this post, we found this blog post about connecting learning, which is the tying of student passions into the classroom. The post extols the idea of appealing to students' interests, ones normally left for extra-curricular activities, by bringing them into the classroom setting.

Additional Resources on Giving Students Choice

Check out the Science Leadership Academy and its take on curriculum. We love this school and cannot wait to hear from Chris Lehman, its principal and a keynote speaker at EdJewCon. Check out Chris Lehman's blog for more on this visionary educator.

Here's a post from a website we love: Including Student Voice from Edutopia.