self-directed learning

Frame and Canvas for Student Designed Assessment

Self-directed change as performance of understanding

In every unit of inquiry there is potential for student-generated assessment. As learning is a response to deliberately designed experiences, learning is a change in the learner’s skills, knowledge, understanding as well as post-unit decisions or actions. Action as a result of learning can be owned and led by students. Teachers provide the frame for learning, but what’s on the canvas belongs to the student.

Contextual framework of a unit on Change and Relationships

The problem that prompted the interdisciplinary unit “Be the Change” was a set of behavioral habits of many members of a class. Many members of this (middle school) class for which the unit was designed had poor impulse control exhibited by behaviors like talking over each other because they did not practice wait time or did not subscribe to the classroom agreements for supporting own and others’ learning. As a result of these unproductive habits, learning was often interrupted in the class, and over the years the students had developed many conceptual gaps, which emerged in underachievement in a wide range of subjects.

Conceptual frame of the unit

The team of teachers approached the unit design with their own questions from the context in which they wanted to impact the students’ thinking, and these questions reflected how the students would learn in the unit. The teachers asked:

  • How might students learn through the concepts so that their own choices change their behavior?
  • How might students learn about how the brain and cognition command outwardly expressed behavior?
  • How might students apply their learning in authentic ways relevant to themselves?
  • What sort of summative task would sustain students-led action?

These questions became the teachers’ context for the overarching goals for student learning in the unit. The design considerations inherent in the teachers’ questions gave them the goal of helping students to learn that “Change in how a person feels, thinks and acts can change how they perceive, understand and form relationships.” This became the statement of understanding in the unit. Through the unit, students might attain the concept of change as it pertained to thinking and resultant behavior. Through the conceptual learning of concepts patterns and relationships, students might learn of the relationships between how their thinking affected how they perceived others and themselves. Through the content illustrating the concepts, students might learn specific ways by which cognition controlled behavior. Through the open-ended task of the unit, students might find ways to sustain a change in their behavior as a result of learning.

The teachers created a few guiding questions for the unit designed to guide the conceptual inquiry.

  • Factual question: How does the brain work that results in how people feel, think and act?
  • Conceptual questions: How do people learn? How do people change because of what they learn?
  • Debatable question: To what extent can we change ourselves and change our relationships?

Construct of the unit

Prior to beginning the unit, the teachers had facilitated essential agreements between teachers and the class. They had dialogued about the expectations of the school and asked the students to discuss with them the behaviors, which would allow the students to express the expectations in how they behaved. These agreements became the basis for classroom management protocols used in each class the students attended. The agreements were made the year prior to the unit itself; these agreements had been revisited in the year when the unit was conceived just before it was taught. The need for the inquiry stemmed from the persisting habits which hindered the students’ learning.

The teachers used the authentic context of the conflicts that resulted between students and other students, conflicts between students and teachers, as the basis for the unit of inquiry. This global context of Identities and relationships was real to the individuals who spent time learning together every day, and created a significant cognitive landscape for learning in the unit.

The content the teachers prepared consisted of knowledge about how people learn. How people learn was explored in depth through texts on how the brain learns and how habits form.

A menu of texts were prepared by the teachers, ranging from a popular science article on brain function and habits, a set of Youtube videos explaining aspects of how the brain learned, parts of the brain, how habits are formed, TED videos to provoke thinking and questioning by the students. Interacting with the materials, students began to form connections between the brain and how the brain learned, and how personal ways to learn become habits, for instance how patterns of thinking affect how people perceive tasks or challenges, which was a conclusion students arrived at as they exhausted their factual study. As students began to grow in their understanding of the connections between the brain and learning, students began to ask their own questions. A research frenzy ensued, driven by students’ curiosity about their own individual learning. Their questions stemmed from personal concerns, like “Will less sleep make me less smart?” and “Do video games really harm children?” and “Is personality permanent?”

The students’ own inquiries based on personally relevant learning questions were guided by the teachers toward the big idea of learning as a source of change, the main concept framing the unit. As students attained conceptual understanding by making connections between content and concepts, they arrived at their own conclusions about what people have to do to change as a result of what and how they learned. Students had authentic concerns for themselves and their learning, and these became the basis for the students’ design of their own tasks for the summative assessment of the unit.

1280px-Schulsport_-_Weitsprung

Schulsport by Maximilian Schonherr. CC via Wikimedia Commons

Student-designed assessment tasks

The teachers designed an open-ended assessment. Students were asked to formulate a plan of change. In the plan, students had to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and understanding of learning as a source of change (unit concept) using what they understood about patterns (unit concept) of learning they had learned through the source materials
  • identify a context for their intended change based on how their current behavior affected their relationships (unit concept) in a specific situation
  • explain how their plan addressed a change that would improve the relationship in their context, and justify how the changes in their behavior were supported by what they had learned in the unit
  • articulate a plan to monitor their own behavior in the context they described, and what success of changing would look like and how it would affect the relationships in their context.

This open-ended assessment task allowed students to:

  • Use knowledge and conceptual understanding
  • Find personal significance for their action plan
  • Structure a process by which their learning in the unit transferred to a real-life situation
  • Structure into their implementation process personal ways to monitor and self-assess

The power of the personally significant, student-generated questions drove the learning in the unit. The potential for each student to discover his or her own empowerment served to propel the students forward in the unit, especially since this unit assessment was not awarded any grade. In the larger scheme of things, the unit was designed around advisory time, which was not graded.

The students remained engaged, and continued to remain engaged in enacting their personal change as a performance of understanding.

Sustainable learning resulting from a performance of understanding

The potential for transformational learning is evident in this unit. A student in this class devised a simple way for him to keep track of his behavioral goal, which was “to decrease the number of times I spoke without taking my turn and increase the number of times I raised my hand to volunteer.” His approach was to use an index card to tally the number of times he spoke out of turn without waiting, and to tally the number of times he raised his hand to volunteer and wait to be called. Every week, he monitored his tallies on the index card, and rewarded himself if he met the goal of decreasing impulsivity and increasing impulse control.

Units that intend for students to perform conceptual understanding require a complex set of design considerations, which allow students to deepen both how they learn and what they understand in the units of learning. The deliberate ways by which teachers can design the rehearsal of thinking skills into a unit of work lead to opportunities by which students are able to draw upon their understanding of concepts and skills to solve unfamiliar problems in assessments requiring the performance of understanding.

Photo credits

Cover Photo বাংলা: বাংলার By Md Raihan rana – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Schulsport By Maximilian Schönherr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Learner in Charge

Learning is scalable.

The fractal of how we learn transfers into smaller versions of the full design—such as the specific process of learning how to write from personal significance, with a personalized process, seeking our own audiences and feedback to get better at writing. These patterns also transfer into larger-scale systems predicated on assumptions that people have the capacity for self-directedness. Approaches to learning, for example, could be a system-wide approach to using metacognitive strategies.

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Romanesco broccoli fractals By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because learning is scalable, we can infer patterns in the larger expression of a fractal, say a culture of self-directedness, from the iterations of behavior in smaller sections of the fractal, like individual self-directedness. In other words, individuals together behaving in certain ways make up the concerted behavior of a whole community.

So how do we enact a culture of self-directed learning?

We might begin with what’s happening with the individual learner.

In their collaborative work The Art and Science of Portraiture, Sara Lawrence- Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis (1997) engage in a dialog on the value of a self-portrait as a form of learning process and product.

They suggest that the creation of a self-portrait “is an intentionally generous and eclectic process that begins by searching for what is good and healthy and assumes that the expression of goodness will always be laced with imperfections.” If we ask ‘what is good?’ we are “likely to absorb a very different reality than one who is on a mission to discover the sources of failure” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9).

The generosity of this developmental self-portrait hinges, it seems, upon the assumptions that people want to seek what is good and start this inquiry from a stance of positive intentions and aspirations. Considering assumptions about self-development consider that “Not only do portraits seek to capture the origins and expression of goodness, they are also concerned with documenting how the subjects or actors in the setting define goodness” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9).

The process might be more concrete if we thought about the self-portrait as a portfolio.

In developing a documentation of learning and achievement, which is the basis for a portfolio, the learner becomes participant in this inquiry and dialog on What is good, how do we find it, and what expressions might be exemplars of this search and its discoveries?

The portfolio becomes an ever-transforming map of growth. As the learner curates his or her own documentation of growth, the reflective nature of constructing this self-portrait facilitates and sustains the inquiry. This is a pattern of the self-directness that we consider a significant cornerstone of transformational learning.

How does this individual pattern influence the larger patterns in the places where we facilitate learning?

Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) suggest that the self-portrait is a conversation. In this sense they are also “acts of intervention” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11) in that within the process of creating self-portraits we engage others in conversations about what is good; we engage in acts of transformation; we provoke thinking and reflection. “This is provocative work that can disturb the natural rhythms of social reality and encounter” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

In her book The Good High School; Portraits of Character and Culture Lawrence-Lightfoot (1983) suggests that the actors within a school context “create conversations and find shared meanings, the significance of the voice of teachers, and the crucial importance of local context as well as the commitment of a scholar to truth and solidarity” (in Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

The conversations about what is good propels our inquiries into constructions of criteria for best practice within the contexts of our schools. In these co-constructions; we seek our mentors and teachers in our peers and in our networks; and we revisit again and again a common ownership of learning.

We influence the story of our school’s focus on learning.

From conversations and patterns of self-directedness emerges a narrative. The resulting narrative tells the story of the landscape of transformation for the individual as well as the group. Together, our portraits of growth collectively “document the human behavior and experience in context.” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

So it may follow that culture is influenced by individuals creating portraits of best practice.

In the conversation between practitioners, we find a similar idea to Eudora Welty’s distinction between the storyteller and the one who listens to a story. Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997, p. 12) suggest that “The latter is a much more active, engaged position in which one searches for the story, seeks it out, is central to its creation.”

In this inductive inquiry, we may recognize the “persistent irony” that “as one moves closer to the unique characteristic of a person or a place, one discovers the universal” (Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis, 1997, p. 14).

Discoveries of the universal within the personal suggest that learning is scalable. Individuals in self-directedness make up the human landscape of a self-directed organization. By putting the learner in charge of his or her learning, we cultivate resonance within our selves and our organizations.

 

References

Lawrence-Lightfoot S. & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The Art and Science of Portraiture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1983). The Good High School; Portraits of Character and Culture. NY: Basic Books.

Photo By Becks – Windvane, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25740347

Photo Romanesco broccoli fractals By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

An Inquiry into Time, Thought and Identity

Metacognition within perceptions of time and self mediates attention. As an approach to learning skill, metacognition involves knowledge of cognition, which allows a person to actively control thinking during the thinking process. Hence it is often defined as “thinking about thinking.” Approaches to learning such as ways to monitor understanding, evaluating process and progress of learning, and making decisions about use of time are metacognitive approaches (Livingston, 1997). When a learner is able to control thinking using different strategies or approaches, he or she is able to adjust, evaluate and readjust a myriad of factors surrounding the environment and process of learning he or she uses to improve learning. Metacognition supports self-regulation by allowing the learner to practice targeted attention (Goleman, 2013) to factors such as the learning environment, process, time, and personal investments in these.

Strategies allow for the abstraction of metacognition to become concrete, practical approaches. An example would be while reading actively, the reader uses questions as self-tests for comprehension and monitors the effectiveness of the strategy in terms of the learning objective (comprehension). The strategy of using questions is a cognitive move, while the strategy of monitoring its effectiveness is metacognitive (Livingston, 1997). Learners practicing metacognition while learning develop and use feedback systems to self-direct learning.

Cognitive Strategy Instruction (CSI) is a tool that is worth mentioning in instruction about thinking. A simple way of expressing this tool is to ask students to think of “How do I do this and why am I doing it this way?” The how is the cognitive move, while the why involves finding approaches to monitoring the thinking. CSI is based on the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model used in teaching writing. In the SRSD model, students who are producing text are asked to perform the following explicit cognitive and metacognitive moves (Council for Exceptional Children, 2009):

  • Self-monitoring as a goal is set and a process designed for students to make the process visible
  • Self-instruction as the students discuss the process and decisions made, use a checklist, use a visible guide for the writing process
  • Self-reinforcement can involve self-talk, use of additional reading or research to keep the flow of the process going
  • Metacognition through modeling think- or read-alouds
  • Self-assessment through a checklist or cue cards, or ways to use questions to evaluate own performance, such as developing a rationale for writer’s choices

An interesting idea in the inquiry towards nurturing agile thinkers is the effects on perceptions of time on how learners learn. Time to think is a requirement for effective self-directed learning.

Being busy without time for reflection creates a mental environment of ceaseless action without deep thought. With this condition, how might we allow for insight, solution design, and making connections?

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

We know that engagement in immediate tasks at hand allow for the possibility of flow: concentration which stretches thinking and capacity. Time for self-reflection is crucial for tasks that ask students to find personal relevance through metacognition. When we think about our thinking, the expansion of our awareness involves knowing how much time to invest in a task and why. Because we become more aware of time constraints, we might also become more aware of changing craftsmanship –whether it is allowing more time or less time—as a function of what we know, understand and can do.

Time is a perception that can change the ways we know, understand and can do. It is a moment of optimistic intersections between all the things we are and the significance of our aspirations for what we must inquire into and rehearse. As time becomes less an external construct and more of an internal one for the learner, he or she allows for time to engage the self, binding identity to the task at hand.

Because the perception of time makes it relative to self, time can protract or extend as necessary within the perceptions of the learner. Challenges like open-ended tasks then allow us to perceive how we have significantly crafted use of time, and how we learn through strategies including metacognition.

Using Reflection

In lesson design involving approaches to learning like metacognitive strategies and use of time during tasks, it might be useful to use reflection as opportunities to develop both. When we stop to record a moment of learning, we step out of engagement in cognition to think about it and how it affects the time available.

This is the ‘trick’ of metacognition—to be able to step out of engagement to reflect on it, to integrate the moment itself and its experience with the reflective thinking as we take action and document its significance.

References
Council for Exceptional Children (2009). A focus on self-regulated strategy development for writing. Retrieved from http://s3.amazonaws.com/cmi-teaching-ld/alerts/3/uploaded_files/original_alert17writingSSRD.pdf?1301000388 on May 7, 2016.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The hidden driver of excellence. NY: Harper Collins.

Livingston, J. A. (1997). “Metacognition; An overview.” Retrieved from http://gse.buffalo.edu/fas/shuell/cep564/metacog.htm on May 6, 2016.


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