What are the major principles on which we can build an SDL program and what will the main features of such programs be? Here are the 5 main principles:
1 The first principle is that programs should be congruent with a life of learning, the natural ways we learn and the unique methods by which each of us learns best. The basic assumption of SDL is that from birth to death we live lives of learning - - learning to function then to live well and finally to make a difference. Learning is a natural process outlined both by the history of our species and our history as individuals. Our success depends upon the range, depth and quality of the learning we achieve. Each of us exhibits and develops these natural capacities in an individual way according to the talents we are endowed with, the experiences we encounter, the strengths we discover, the interests that begin to direct and motivate us and the patterns of learning that we develop. An SDL program should be congruent with these lifelong, natural and individual learning drives.
2 The second principle is that programs should be adapted to the maturation, transformations and transitions experienced by students, in this case, adolescent students. Adolescents experience rapid physical, cerebral and hormonal change that is often destabilizing. Among the transformations or passages that they must address, the most important is establishing and confirming a personal, stable identity. Key features of this formation are the development of reflection, character and competence. The major transition they face is from dependent childhood to independent early adulthood in which they must secure new freedoms and meet the responsibilities that go with them. SDL programs are designed to cultivate the successful accomplishment of these changes in the pursuit of excellence as a person.
3 The third principle is that programs should be concerned with all aspects of a full life. Academic studies are important and included, but so also are the personal, social and technical domains of human experience. The personal domain is focused on the cultivation of the individual’s talents, values and interests. The social domain is concerned with the individual’s ability to relate to others, to learn from them and to work with them. In the technical domain emphasis is placed upon competence, performance and productivity. In SDL focus on these domains is as important as focus on academics, in part for their contribution to academic success, in the main because they are for a successful life of learning.
4 The fourth principle is that learning in SDL programs should employ a full range of human capacities, including our senses, emotions and actions as well as our intellects. SDL is grounded in direct experience. Experience is absorbed by finely honed senses. The mind reflects, investigates and plans. Feelings stir, drive and direct our thoughts and efforts. But our senses, feelings and thoughts all focus on action, the application to productivity and the production of palpable outcomes. SDL is designed to hone awareness, cultivate drive, encourage thoughtful conclusions and shape plans that all lead to the successful achievement of challenging outcomes.
5 The fifth principle is that SDL activities should be conducted in settings suited to their development. The classroom is a useful setting if it is converted to serve SDL, but even converted it is a limited environment. Many experiences can be brought into the classroom directly or indirectly through simulation and the media. But SDL thrives best when the setting is expanded to include a broader range of people to learn from and places in which to learn. This begins with the local community and spreads outward to include the widest possible experience of challenge in the world. Many studies are learned best on site. We learn about others and their lives by knowing them directly and working with them. We develop character by service and other caring acts. We learn by challenging ourselves in real world situations. These are the five basic principles that guide the development of SDL programs and the substance of this book.
The Essential Elements of SDL
The next question is “What are the actual elements of SDL based on these general principles?”
1 The first element is student control over as much of the learning experience as possible. The major shift from TDL to SDL is a shift in the locus of control from the teacher to the student. For the student, this represents a shift from outer control to inner control. Such a shift reflects the major change underway in the lives of adolescents as they begin to establish themselves as individuals separate from their childhood dependencies. During these years they begin to shape their own opinions and ideas, to make their own decisions, choose their own activities, take more responsibility for themselves and begin to work. Charging students with the task of developing their own learning, turns them to their own resources, which develops their emerging individuality and helps them to rehearse more adult roles. As they become more self-directing, they not only learn effectively but become more themselves.
2The second element of SDL is skill development. Inner control is aimless unless students learn to focus and apply their talents and energies intensely. For this reason the emphasis in SDL is on the development of skills and processes that lead to productive activity. Students learn to achieve course outcomes, to think independently and to plan and execute their own activities. These processes, and the skills involved in them, come together in student proposals for study and action. They prepare and then negotiate them with their teachers, often in the form of written agreements, which become records of the contracts that they negotiate. The intent is to provide a framework that enables students to identify their interests and equips them to realize them successfully.
3The third element is students learning to challenge themselves to their best possible performance. Self-direction is dormant without challenge. First teachers challenge students and then they challenge them to challenge themselves. Challenge involves reaching for a new level of performance in a familiar field or launching an adventure into a new field of interest. It means setting the standard of achievement a step higher than one can readily achieve. Challenging oneself means taking the risk to go beyond the easy and familiar. For those willing, it means reaching regularly for performances that demand from them the very best they have to offer. The challenge is to go out far and in deep: it is the challenge of the hero’s journey.
4The fourth element is student self-management, management of themselves and of their learning enterprises. In SDL choices and freedoms are matched by self-control and responsibilities. Students learn to express self-control by searching for, and making a commitment to, core personal interests and aspirations. In this process they determine not only what they will do but the kind of performer they will become. SDL requires confidence, courage and determination to energize the effort involved. Students develop these attributes as they become skilled in managing their own time, effort and the resources they need to conduct their work. Even well organized efforts run aground. In the face of obstacles, students learn to face their difficulties, find alternatives and solve their problems in order to maintain effective productivity. The combination of inner resources and performative skill required for self-management in SDL is the same process students will require for the successful management of growth and productivity throughout their lives.
5The fifth element is that students motivate and assess their own efforts. Many principles of motivation are built into the design of SDL, such as the pursuit of one’s own high-interest goals. When students adopt these principles they become the major elements of self-motivation. By setting important goals for themselves, arranging for feedback on their work and achieving success, for example, they learn to inspire their own efforts. Similarly, students learn to evaluate their own progress. They plan the method by which their work will be assessed and usually negotiate the terms with the teachers. These terms are often stated in the learning proposals that students present. Since the responsibility for proving that they have achieved their goals lies with students, they gather their proofs and/or products in a portfolio, which becomes the focus of evaluation. Just as self-motivation energizes students to produce the achievements that are evaluated, self-assessment motivates students to seek the best possible achievement.
The five elements outline the underlying structure of SDL activities and programs. They also describe the challenge of SDL for the teacher as well as for the student. Many programs permit self-direction, too few teach students how to be self-directed. The focus in what follows is on teaching SDL.