school improvement

Summative Season and the Self-Directed Learner

It is summative season once again. IB Exams are in progress. Summative teacher evaluations are due. Report cards are on the horizon, and schools are scrambling to get the last bits of data that will inform the next academic year’s instructional goals, both for children and adults.

During this summative season, when we are reflecting on the actions that have been enacted and continue to be until the last day of school, do we ever consider how much of what we do actually builds a culture of self-directedness?

In the Twitter chat on self-directed learning, collaborating minds raised the following points.

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The views from the Twitterchat on Self-Directed Learning suggest what Costa, Garmston and Zimmerman pose as a guiding principle of self-directed learning, that “the gates of learning are only opened from within and that motivation to learn or change cannot be externally coerced” (2014, p. xvi in Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2015).

I left the Twitterchat with more questions.

If schools want self-directed individuals, how do we reconcile the reliance on external assessments of learning with our aim to promote self-directed learning? When the assessments of learning are significantly anchored to someone outside of the self, how do we shift learners toward internal motivation?

Asking these questions in their latest book Teacher Self-Supervision; Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it (John Catt, 2015), Powell and Kusuma-Powell present schools with the task of examining our assumptions about self-directedness and how the adult learning structures as they exist might use a lot more reflection.

Assumptions guiding teacher evaluation

Powell and Kusuma-Powell (2015) suggest the following assumptions guiding current practices in teacher evaluation:

  1. External feedback systems gives teachers ways to improve instruction and hence student learning.
  2. Student learning is like an algebraic algorithm and deficits can be addressed technically as in the equation, if x then y must follow.
  3. Schools can be operated like factories.
  4. Relationships, especially trusting relationships, are not significant aspects of schools as learning organizations.
  5. External rewards and punishments are necessary to coerce teachers to be better at facilitating learning.
  6. Teachers need to be praised and affirmed by someone else all the time.
  7. Principals and supervisors are the best source of knowledge about teaching and learning.
  8. One principal can mentor 40 or 50 teachers at a time and be effective at it.
  9. Compliance is more important than personal investment.
  10. If you cannot reduce something to an algorithm or a quantity, it does not exist.

The above assumptions, if they guide teacher evaluation, direct us to a culture wherein:

  • Teachers are infantilized.
  • Internal motivation is not a resource for school development.
  • We waste a lot of time, and we do not guarantee that teachers learn how to facilitate learning better for our students.

Patterns are the best teacher, suggests Wellman (2013). If school patterns of behavior hinge upon the premise that the adults in the school learn best with external coercion, how will those adults facilitate self-directedness in themselves and in their students?

We need a new set of assumptions if our schools are to create cultures of self-directedness. What if we created our schools based on these assumptions?

  • That each person, including teachers, learn best when they are motivated internally.
  • That each person has the capacity to self-assess, self-monitor and self-modify.

And what if we created systems in our schools, which honor and respect the learner within each individual?


Garmston, R. & Wellman, B. (2013). The Adaptive School: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Powell, W. & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2015). Teacher Self-Supervision; Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt.

Photo Credit: Toutes direction By Dyon Joël (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Polarity: Rigor and Inclusion

There are some ‘problems’ that surface every year in schools. One of these is the tug-of-war between being rigorous and inclusive. Sometimes, we think that the solution to every issue is to become more rigorous: raise the standards and the engagement and achievement will follow. Other times, we think that the solution to every issue is to be inclusive; if we offer enough personalized learning, everyone is happy and the issues disappear.

But with many of these ‘problems,’ we realize that one-sided solutions do not work very well. If we are too inclusive in the sense that we offer personalized solutions for everyone, we begin to question whether our criteria for success are relative and hence not able to be guaranteed in a consistent way. If we are too rigorous, we could potentially alienate so many students that we end up with an unhappy school.

The problem is that we treat these ‘problems’ as problems even though they are not. Barry Johnson (1996) suggests that there are tensions in organizations, which are not actually problems, but polarities. Polarities are conditions that co-exist, which cannot be solved by focusing on one to the detriment of focusing on the other. Rigor and inclusion for instance, must co-exist in a school in order for the school to guarantee the leaving credential but also to allow each individual to have access to the learning and the capacity to successfully learn.

By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsBy Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) via Wikimedia Commons

Johnson suggests that polarities are unsolvable, and that they are better off managed in their co-existence. “Polarities to be managed are sets of opposites that can’t function well independently; they require both-and thinking. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a solution and neglect the other,” writes Carolyn McKanders (in Garmston and Wellman, 2013).

A faculty mapped the polarity between rigor and inclusion and learned the upsides and downsides of focusing on one to the neglect of the other.


Polarity Map® is © 2016 by Polarity Partnerships, LLC, All Rights Reserved.

Here is an application.

While reviewing the assessment policy this year, the group dialogued on the goal to be both inclusive and rigorous. The faculty wanted students to have multiple access points to learning and multiple ways to show they had learned. They also wanted students to engage in the rigorous program and to achieve at the highest levels for which they possessed the knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes to do so. The school wanted to be both rigorous and inclusive.

One of the solutions to become more rigorous was to revise the policy so that students:
• Invested in their own learning every day
• Became conversant in the criteria for success
• Used approaches to learning they had learned to perform well on each summative assessment

In order to foster rigor, teachers decided that students had to:
• Show up every day ready to learn
• Learned and used self-management skills to keep track of their learning
• Reflected on approaches to learning—how ATL skills worked, how to get better at them, and how to evaluate them so they might decide which to use for what tasks

The faculty also had to provide action plans for how to become more inclusive. Being inclusive meant finding approaches for students to have personal entry points to learning. It also meant designing assessments, which had personal significance to the student; had multiple ways to express understanding; and called upon a repertoire of skill sets which may differ from student to student.

Solutions to become more rigorous and inclusive at the same time meant that teachers had to inquire into powerful questions such as:
• How do we motivate students to invest personally in the learning?
• How do we empower students to follow personal trajectories into units of inquiry?
• How do we inspire students to make connections?

Questions such as these fueled teachers’ reflective practices. They began to ask, what needs to happen, to inspire personal investment and self-directedness in the students? What needs to happen to provide an environment where risk-taking and inquiry are at the heart of learning? And what can we do to encourage students to unlearn unproductive habits like coming to school late and being absent, and to learn ways to become curious, inspired and motivated to be better at who they are? How do we create the belief that we are here for important reasons and that the learning we do is relevant?

The inquiry goes on. The value of the polarity mapping for this faculty was not in finding answers that stop inquiry, but in providing the spark that allowed the adults in the school to find relevance in the inquiry process itself. By deciding to map the polarity between rigor and inclusion, the teachers began an inquiry, which has launched a journey of school improvement with leadership from the classroom.

When polarities are present, as they are in every organization, they can become resources instead of problems. Harnessing the cognitive conflict, which resides in polarity management is an adaptive response to the recurrent issues that revisit a school unceasingly. Through inquiry and collaboration, these issues can become inquiries that can revitalize a community of learners.

To learn more about polarities and managing them, visit these resources:
Garmston, R. and Wellman, B. (2013). The Adaptive School; A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups, 2nd Ed. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Johnson, B. (1996). Polarity Management. Amherst, MA: HRD Press, Inc.

Polarity Map® is © 2016 by Polarity Partnerships, LLC, All Rights Reserved. For more information on resources, please see

Photo Credit: Photo of Child By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Thank you for reading The Learner’s Toolbox. We are passionate about self-directed learning. Join us on Twitter for a chat on Self-Directed Learning on May 12 1600 UTC by following the hashtag #sdlchat. Co-hosted by @alohalavina and @EricDemore.SDL_graphic_small