For children to be independent thinkers, we must teach autonomy
Thursday, July 14, 2016
When I asked junior high students to look back on their school career and describe the assignment that stood out most for them, most named activities where they were in the driver's seat. They claimed having the opportunity to take responsibility for their learning motivated them to achieve their best.
Improved student engagement is just one reason for teachers to consider incorporating lessons that allow students increased autonomy. Other benefits the students mentioned were finding the material more meaningful and feeling inspired to learn more.
If we aim to educate children to be independent thinkers and proactive decision-makers, giving them the opportunity to practice these skills in school makes sense. Yet according to these same students — enrolled in both private and public schools — most of their lessons are teacher-led.
So what keeps teachers from putting student-guided learning into practice? Concerns range from the pressure of meeting national-, state- or district-mandated requirements and classroom management issues to the students' ability to manage themselves and obtain quality results.
In addition, planning and assessment may be more complicated. Even when teachers are open to giving students more ownership of their learning, they may be unready, especially if they are used to an environment where lessons are mainly oriented toward following teacher instruction.
How can teachers overcome these challenges and include opportunities for students to have a say in what and how they study? The first step for science teacher Monserrat Alvarado is to assess the class and set realistic objectives.
Last year's group entered seventh-grade biology more capable of independent work than her current students, so she shifted her support-autonomy equation to suit them. Once Alvarado sufficiently prepared the group in a given topic area, students were ready for an assignment involving self-direction. They were given the parameters going into the project, what criteria is required and in what areas they had freedom.
The seventh-graders felt empowered. One reported being able to select and research the topic that interested him inspired him to put in 100 percent effort. Prioritizing the information for his report was a new critical thinking skill he claims he put into practice.
Teachers can also give students the "what" and allow them to resolve the "how." Such is the case with interviews that Spanish teacher Jorgelina Carranza assigned her fourth-graders.
Students were given the information they needed to obtain and assigned a teacher to interview, but each student decided on his/her preferred way of conducting the actual interview. Some chose to do theirs individually, others as a group in front of the class; still others recorded or videoed their interviews. Part of the idea was to encourage students to discover and exploit their strengths.
However, student-directed activities aren't always appropriate, so teachers need to be alert and flexible. English teacher Erica Turner admitted there have been occasions when she had planned a freer assignment but, detecting a lackadaisical attitude from her sixth-graders, tightened the structure to keep them on track.
Certain subjects lend themselves better to student initiative. Grammar is an area where Turner feels students need guided instruction, whereas it's easier to incorporate choice in vocabulary and reading activities.
In comparing biology and chemistry, Alvarado echoes similar sentiments. Biology, the study of the human body, plants and animals, is something students have daily experience with and can jump right into, while chemistry requires more equations and preparation before she can let her ninth-graders direct themselves.
While working on independent projects, it's also critical that students are clear on how they will be assessed so they work accordingly.
With her biology and chemistry group projects, Alvarado gives both a process grade based on how the individual contributes to the group and a final product grade. Turner employs the same grading methodology regardless of whether the assignment is led by the student or teacher so she feels no extra burden with student-guided work.
More traditional tasks such as exercises from text or workbooks can be assigned with student autonomy in mind. For example, some students reported feeling empowered by the opportunity to manage their own time when tasks required for the day were listed on the board and they could complete them at their own rhythm. A former Montessori student shared that she was used to working on an entire week's assignments according to her own schedule, and anything not finished went as homework.
On the other end of the spectrum, young students who need structured routines for their stage of brain development benefit from choice that's given within a set daily timetable. In one preschool class I visited, each day's teacher-guided lesson is followed by a time segment where students are free to choose from activities such as rice tray, dough, play house and building or playing with figures on the rug.
Whether working with young children or older students not accustomed to guiding themselves, beginning with small steps and gradually augmenting the amount of independence expected will support students in developing more autonomy. Discovering the right balance between student- and teacher-guided work is one way teachers can stimulate student enthusiasm and self-reliance.
As one seventh-grade student put it, "I feel like having freedom makes me more responsible."
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