Pardon Me, Didn't I Just Hear A Paradigm Shift By Maurice Gibbons
[From The Phi Delta Kappan, February, 2004]
Carmen hurried out of her classroom and grabbed my arm. " I thought you'd like to know that I've decided to make my classroom completely brain compatible," she told me emphatically. I was surprised. Carmen is a long-time straight-ahead middle school science teacher with a computer full of lesson plans, a rack of videos, a file drawer packed with worksheets and plenty of attitude about "trendy changes." When I asked her what she would be doing, she was quick to answer: "Students learn the lesson best when it's connected to their personal experiences and when we start from what they already know, so that's where I'm starting our next unit on the solar system." I was going to ask what methods she might use to help everyone connect but she was already moving on. "Kids comprehend new material quickest when they can use their unique abilities, so I'm including activities in my lessons for as many of the nine intelligences as I can.
I've even written a planet rotation rap for us to sing." I was curious about her other applications but Carmen was into her list and not to be stopped. " We know the brain is pattern-seeking and since days, seasons and eclipses all arise from patterned relationships, I'm adapting my lessons to emphasize them." She was demonstrating the positions of imaginary suns, earths and moons as she talked and hurried to the next feature. "Because the brain needs to be challenged to get sharp and stay sharp, I'm setting tasks at different levels of difficulty and challenging my students to take on the most ambitious ones they think they can handle.” She looked up at me, smiling, and I was nodding. Her ideas all seemed workable and worthwhile, but something was nagging at the back of my mind.
Something wasn't quite right; the applications didn't fit snugly to the principles; the connections were possible but not necessary. I started looking for an alternative perspective, and then I saw it, another equally appropriate way to apply the principles of multiple intelligences, connection to the familiar, pattern-seeking and challenge. The message of the nine intelligences, for example, can be interpreted as a directive to provide students with lessons and course alternatives that enable them to apply and develop their greatest talents.
But if I step out of my classroom box and back away from familiar practice, I see a different imperative. Howard Gardner’s description of multiple intelligences, the many descriptions of learning styles and the studies of strengths from the Gallop Polls by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton all imply the same message that arises from psychological studies: students, like the rest of us, are unique in their experience, perception, drives and capacities. This means that students should approach learning in an equally unique way that enables each of them to make the best use of their nature, their strengths, and their accumulating competence. The message of uniqueness in the person is uniqueness in the program, but what whirling dirvish teacher even in fast forward could possibly deliver a separate lesson for each individual learning style? Accommodating such diversity only seems possible if students play a much more active part in selecting and designing their own learning activities.
When research shows that students learn better when new concepts are connected to their personal experiences, teachers can try to establish those connections in their lessons, but surely the appropriate experiences will be as diverse as the students' preferred approaches to learning. With a shift in perspective, we can also see that students connect new content to their personal knowledge and experience naturally when each of them decides what to learn next for themselves. When students decide or are involved, learning is rooted in their experience not just connected to it.
If our brains are pattern seeking, we can emphasize the patterns in what we teach, but then the teacher is the pattern-seeker. Shouldn't we be teaching our students to seek out pattern themselves? Science is the search for replicable patterns that lead to concepts; art is the search for, or invention of, unique patterns that lead to original visions and works. The energy that propels our species is curiosity: the brain not only organizes, it wants to organize, to find the pattern that reveals the answers to our questions. Shouldn't our courses and lessons be designed to lead our students into the pattern-seeking process and guide them through it? And that is where challenge comes in. We can invite students to select the most challenging task among those we assign, but the trick of the alert though aging nuns of Minnikota , Minnesota, is that they challenge themselves to pursue their own stimulating activities througout their lives.
And isn't that the secret of learning, pushing ourselves to take on risky new tasks that are achievable, conducting excursions into our fields of ignorance or passion in order to extend our knowledge and ability?
If I think of these ideas together—individual approaches to learning, relating learning to personal experience, seeking patterns and pursuing challenges, I see a model quite different from Carmen's thoughtful applications. I see the possibility of teaching students to challenge themselves to pursue activities that arise from their own experiences, employing their own emerging styles to find patterns of meaning and processes of productivity that lead them to a high level of achievement and fulfillment. The prime imperative, at least in these few applications, is not to enhance teacher-directed learning, but to develop a more student-directed model. I did not say anything about this to Carmen, but I wondered if other recent research and argument confirmed this conclusion, that self-directed learning is brain, mind, body and life compatible, and that it would be reasonable to say, "Pardon me, didn't I just hear a paradigm shift?
Has the Paradigm Shifted?
I confess that researching this conclusion and asking this question are not accidents. My interest in self-direction is long standing: early in my career I published The Walkabout article in the Kappan (May, 1974); my latest book is the Handbook of Self-Directed Learning (Wiley, 2002). Nevertheless, anyone interested in the development of new school programs has to find the question compelling. Is there evidence in recent studies in neurology, cognition, developmental psychology and other related fields that the paradigm of learning we apply to schooling should be shifting to self-direction?
In The Theory of Scientific Revolutions , Thomas Kuhn observes that the accumulation of anomalies to an existing paradigm presages a shift that occurs when the exceptions are synthesized into a new paradigm. I believe that the anomalies to the teacher-directed model are gathering, and that they are consistent with a model of self-directed learning, even though it is difficult to see when you are, like Carmen, standing in a conventional classroom. I do not presume to present a comprehensive review of the literature, but I do propose that there is an interesting accumulation of support for self-directed learning.
Many conclusions drawn from research on the brain have been itemized and translated into recommendations for enhancing the teacher-directed classroom. Here are ten typical items: the human brain.....
1. is unique in each individual
2. seeks meaning
3. seeks and generates patterns
4. responds to stimulating environments
5. responds to active involvement
6. involves both conscious and unconscious activity
7. interacts with emotions and psychological functioning in general
8. connects new experiences to familiar experiences and structures
9. receives through both focused and peripheral perception
10. responds to challenge; is inhibited by threat and anxiety
Each of these can be translated into teaching guidelines. Uniqueness for example, is adapted through such practices as designing instruction to suit several different learning styles or intelligences. To apply the search for meaning, teachers may be advised to turn course concepts into questions and a collaborative search for answers. Teachers are urged to turn their classrooms into rich environments for learning; to accommodate peripheral perception with posters, concept maps, and other adjuncts to their lessons placed around the room, and to involve students by organizing group work and other participatory activities.
Teachers are also advised to promote positive attitudes, to encourage students to be aware of their feelings, and to guide students through a process of self-observation to review what they have learned and to study the procedures they are employing.
In addition to helping students find connections between the lesson and previous learning and experience, teachers are encouraged to challenge students while maintaining a relaxed non-threatening environment.
All of these recommendations promise benefits for the teacher-directed classroom. If we look at them as guides not to improving teacher-directed learning, but to what education should be like, we see a strong recommendation for personal self-directed learning. If by unique we mean that each brain operates differently, learns best in its own way, for its own purposes and toward its own ends; if by the search for meaning we are suggesting that the brain is driven to find meaning in experience and render it into concepts in our developing knowledge base; if by stimulating environments, we mean those that provide the real experience, complexity, and opportunity that enhance learning; if by pattern-seeking, we mean the organizing capacity that enables individuals to sort, sequence, and explain the complexities in their experiences; if by active involvement we mean participation in consequential activities with others; if by the involvement of the unconscious and feelings we mean learning to reflect for self-understanding, self-guidance and self-motivation; and if by challenge we mean taking the initiative and the risk to reach as close to the limits of our capacity as we dare; if that is a reasonable application of these characteristics of the human brain, then we are describing the practice of self-directed learning.
One theme of cognitive science is metacognition—thinking about thinking, becoming aware of and gaining control over our thoughts. Studies in metacognition have led to a number of applications in teacher-directed learning. Some of these focus on teaching students to relate success in their classroom studies to personal effort rather than chance. Other applications emphasize teaching self-regulation in which students learn to manage their own participation, studies, and assignments efficiently.
Still other applications emphasize teaching students learning strategies, processes and systems they can apply to a range of tasks and situations, that is, they emphasize teaching students how to learn., and teaching students how to learn is the first step in equipping them to be self-directed. Metacognition is the engine that drives self-directed learning: students learning to think for themselves, set goals, make plans, take action, assess results and reflect on the significance of their experiences. Agency in their thoughts and actions is inseparable from agency in their lives, relating what they are learning to themselves and to their futures. Teaching students to direct their thinking, to manage their learning and to relate it to their lives is peripheral to teacher-directed studies but central in self-directed learning.
The psychology of development outlines a second curriculum that is of central interest to students, especially adolescents, but is not a shaping factor in programs based on the teacher-directed model. The main theme of the developmental curriculum is change, change in students, change in their relationships with those around them, and change in their place in the world. They must address the task of determining who they are and who they will be, that is, the crisis of identity formation, the shaping of their personalities and the consolidation of their values expressed as character. Both research and observation tell us that they experience this struggle while their brains are convulsing into working order, hormonal storms are blowing them into a new world, and their bodies are lurching into adult form. They are in the throes of leaving childhood behind and becoming adults. Relationships with adults and peers change, and looming ahead is the great chasm they must cross between the comfort of school and home and the wild, inhospitable world in which they must make their way. This is a powerful, experiential curriculum.
Self-directed learning , by combining freedom with responsibility, reflection with action, and challenge with opportunity, is very compatible with these demands of development.
The third curriculum is social. Students have a number of interpersonal tasks to accomplish. They need to interact with others to learn about themselves, to learn adult social skills, to accomplish what individuals can’t, and to learn from each other . David and Roger Johnson summarize these values in Learning Together and Alone (1991, p.17):
There is a great deal of research indicating that, if student-student interdependence is structured carefully and appropriately, students will achieve at a higher level, use higher level reasoning strategies more frequently, have higher levels of achievement motivation, be more intrinsically motivated, develop more positive interpersonal relationships with each other, value the subject area being studied more, have higher self-esteem, and be more skilled interpersonally. In self-direction students often learn with other students in partnerships, groups, teams, seminars, and advisories; they often learn with adults in the community as well as in the school; and they learn from extended travel and work together in the field. Learning to accomplish tasks with others is excellent preparation for doing them independently, just as working together prepares students for the social nature of family life, work and recreation ahead. Self-directed learning is very compatible with this social curriculum.
Self-direction is immobile without self-motivation, and blind without self-assessment. Self-motivation provides the drive that propels students through their pursuits; self-assessment provides the feedback that keeps them on course and sustains their intensity. We need a body of literature on self-motivation, but Martin Ford’s excellent book Motivating Humans ( 1992 ) gives us a good start. As he says, “research shows that little else matters if there is no goal in place”, especially if the goal is challenging, if it has multiple valuable possible outcomes, and if it is influenced by potent “Personal Agency Beliefs”. These include capability beliefs (can I do it?), context beliefs (will this activity be supported by a responsive environment?), and the strength of the emotions related to the goal. People sustain their efforts best in a flexible environment that permits adjustment, problem solving and improvements. Fortunately, the basic approach to self-directed learning has many aspects of self-motivation built into it: teaching students to draw on their strengths; to pursue passionate, personal goals; learning in receptive, responsive environments; using a system of constructive feedback, support and assistance from others; training in skills, processes and systems that empower them to be productive; and experiencing success under their own direction in real-world situations.
We could examine other fields: studies of successful people all suggest the characteristics of self-direction. Adult education is often self-directed. Inescapably successful learning throughout life—and life itself-- is self-directed. But I think we have raised enough anomalies and alternative possible hypotheses to challenge the existing paradigm. If we ask, “What form of education does this research and argument suggest?” rather than, “How can this research be applied to teacher-directed learning?” we will often conclude that the evidence points clearly toward a self-directed model of education. The question is, what does that self-directed paradigm look like?
The Self-Directed Learning Paradigm
Self-directed learning is any increase in knowledge, skill, accomplishment or personal development chosen by an individual and brought about by his or her own efforts using any method in any circumstances at any time. As we have seen, it contrasts sharply with teacher-directed learning. In practice, many teachers already employ features of self-directed learning; I draw these stark distinctions to emphasize the underlying assumptions implicit in both models. Here are the basic shifts involved in moving from one to the other; shifts we have seen indicated in the research-based recommendations viewed above:
Many teachers ask, “Do you expect me to leap all the way over there from here?”Fortunately, there are steps that bridge the space between teacher direction and self-direction both for students and for teachers. Here are five of them:
1. Incidental Self-Direction: introducing self-direction in assignments, stations, special projects or brief use of any of the other approaches to self-direction listed below.
2. Independent Thinking: teaching students to form their own judgements, ideas and solutions to problems by transforming the curriculum into questions to be answered as a class, in groups and individually; or by using such participatory approaches as case studies, trials, debates and dramatizations.
3. Self-Managed Learning: creating guides that tell students how to achieve course outcomes, then teaching them how to regulate their work on the guides, and providing support systems to assist them.
4. Self-Planned Learning: teaching students how to design their own plans for achieving course outcomes, negotiating their proposals with them , and coaching them to success.
5. Self-Directed Learning: teaching students to analyze the situation, formulate their own goals, plan how to achieve them, take action, solve problems that arise , and demonstrate their achievement.
These forms of self-directed learning can be viewed as a bridge both for students and teachers, a bridge of five stages each involving a new set of tasks, and together providing steps in a gradual transition to self-direction. Teachers may use the five stages as a menu to sample, they may find one stage that suits them perfectly, or they may use the stages as steps to self-direction in their courses. In a high school it can provide a sequence for moving toward self-direction grade by grade, and leading to a final year that is self-directed, perhaps featuring challenging passages that students must complete.
“Teachers often ask, “Where are these practices being used?” Here are three examples.
Independent Thinking is the central theme of Ted Sizer’s Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devers, Massachusetts . A question such as “What matters?” or “What is community?” is pursued school wide each year. Classes are integrated and inquiry-based, addressing sub-sets of related questions. Students are required to develop eleven essential skills. Three times during their high school years students appear before a committee to demonstrate their achievements and readiness to advance to the next level of performance. Graduation requirements include inquiry into essential questions that students set for themselves. These pursuits are supported by a number of excellent instruments, practices and services.
At Thomas Haney High School in Maple Ridge , British Columbia , Canada , students master the curriculum through self-managed learning. Every course is presented in twenty learning guides which tell students the outcomes to achieve, the resources at their disposal for achieving them, and the means by which they will demonstrate that they have achieved the outcomes. Students make their own timetables; they work alone, work with others, consult with teachers and their aides; attend seminars, workshops and labs; watch videos, work on computers, and utilize other resources to help them in their self-regulated efforts.
Over 80% of graduates go on to higher education.
Jefferson County Open School near Denver , Colorado , is a self-directed learning school that features independent work at every level, a day each week is set aside for independent activities, regular educational trips and six challenging passages—based on the Walkabout program—that students complete in their senior years. These include ambitious challenges in the fields of logical inquiry, creativity, practical applications, global awareness and service, adventure and careers—a Walkabout. Students complete their work—often in the community, at universities or in the field—and present their accomplishments to their own groups of peers, teachers, parents, and other adults at graduation. Students meet thirty other expectations, often with the help of regular classes. Their individual work is supported by an advisor, an advisory group, and a small peer support group. A high percentage of graduates go on to higher education, experience success and report satisfaction in life.
A number of challenges face the teacher who considers crossing the bridge between teacher-directed and self-directed learning for the first time. The first is making a commitment to self-directed learning, which is followed by the difficult step of defining the course in twenty or thirty outcomes that students are required to achieve. The next step is to choose the approach and framework that will be most effective, using the five forms of self-direction in the bridge as a guide. Next the teacher decides what skills and processes students will need and how they can be taught effectively. The classroom is organized into a rich, stimulating, and hospitable environment for learning;, the instruments for self-assessment are set in place—potfolios, rubrics, demonstrations, and transcripts-- and the teacher is ready to teach students to be self-directed.
The media-- especially access to computers and the Internet—are transforming education and provide an enormous resource for self-directed work. The computer provides students with instruction, research resources, connections with others and tools for productivity. The working journal--the student’s own book of information, ideas, plans, records and reflections—is an essential text book of self-direction, and the student is the author. As in Leonardo da Vinci’s journal, information and ideas lead to visions, goals and plans which lead to action and progress records that lead to reflection and renewal. The small group becomes the essential training ground for individual work and the basic element in a network of assistance and guidance for students of self-direction. Advisory groups, for example, help students to prepare their proposals for individual work, and support groups of two or three peers help individuals to develop ideas, solve problems and complete the work itself.
A great deal of evidence from researchers and argument from theorists is applied to enhancing teacher-directed learning. Examination of those findings and applications to determine what form of education best fulfills the conditions they define shows that a self-directed model is far more appropriate than a teacher-directed model of education. Examples from a wide range of themes—the way the brain functions, metacognition, human development, group work, motivation and the literature on success—challenge the teacher-directed approach to instruction. The self-directed model can be defined, a pathway to it can be described, examples of the model in action can be found, and a process can be outlined for implementing that model of self-direction in any classroom. Try on the new paradigm. As Stephen Covey says, “A paradigm is like a new pair of glasses; it affects the way you see everything in life.” (p. 125).
Wearing self-directed-learning glasses, you may see that paradigm shift, too. If we believe that practice should follow evidence, perhaps we all should all be shifting to brain and person compatible self-directed education. What do you think? Let us know.