Supporting Self-Directed Learners

In my work supporting the implementation of the Summit model of personalized learning in various public schools, I reflect on how we can empower students to find their own voice in learning and become self-directed learners. Personalized learning, student-centered learning, individualized learning, differentiated instruction…so many words are passed around in this dizzying transitional age. It is helpful when thought leaders (such as David Warlik) delve into teasing out the nuances of some of these abstract, jargon-rich educational concepts.

As a child of a bilingual household and a former public high school Spanish teacher, I am keenly interested in the role of vocabulary and the purpose and tone of new words as they are applied to our everyday lives. Vocabulary frames thought, and it is clear that our current educational vocabulary is inadequate to meet the direction that we must head in. The challenge and opportunity with all of these educational words is that they are abstract, aspirational and ill-defined.

The gap between educational theory and practice is a wide chasm. The students that enter classrooms every single day defy these abstract theories that deconstruct their school experience and challenge our philosophies. Real teaching and learning is a dynamic tapestry of experience with an endless variety of variables, as diverse as the complex social human beings that we all know we are. Emerging models of educational best practices, such as implementing the Summit model of personalized learning, are being built as we go. As such, I am drawn to the phenomenon of peer learning and the relationships and interactions in a classroom to reveal what makes learning personalized and how it impacts social-emotional development, student engagement, empowerment and outcomes.screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-12-08-37-pm

The Summit model of personalized learning is made up of four elements, three of which I will highlight: classroom project-based learning where students apply content knowledge, personalized learning time (PLT) where students choose online learning pathways to master content focus areas, and mentoring time where mentor-teachers meet with students one-on-one to help students develop habits of success and become self-directed learners.  


Part of the self-directed learning cycle is to set goals, develop action steps, provide evidence of learning, reflect on learning, and develop self-awareness and self-management daily routines. Elements of self-directed learning include the behaviors of challenge seeking, persistence, strategy-shifting, response to setbacks and appropriate help-seeking.


In his groundbreaking book, Drive, author Daniel Pink emphasizes that we all need to feel mastery, purpose and passion in our everyday lives to sustain our intrinsic motivation in being the best that we can be. Similarly, Carol Dweck has dedicated her researcher’s life to investigating the role of growth mindset, as the key to unlocking a student’s potential. In Ethic of Excellence, educator and author Ron Berger sensitively frames learning as a craft that is mastery-based.  Three years ago, dearly departed lifelong educator Rita Pierson most powerfully and emphatically declared that every child needs a champion. I must concede that the Summit model of personalized learning and its focus on guiding students to become self-directed learners is predicated on unpacking what “self” truly means and contingent upon a student fully knowing themselves as a path to becoming their own best advocate. In the Summit model, a teacher’s role shifts to that of mentor-teacher to help students unpack what “self” truly means.

As I shift my professional career to better align with my personal values, I find myself sensitive to my own ongoing journey of self-awareness and the impact of the formal and informal mentors who have guided, challenged and nurtured me along the way. For every pivot point in my own journey, I can identify a person who made a crucial difference. As such, the role of a mentor, who will challenge, support, and sometimes cajole you to reach greater levels of self-awareness greatly supports students in becoming self-directed learners. Through dialogue – true dialogue-  in which both parties listen to understand, question to probe and speak to influence, the boundaries of our thinking emerge. Our values, emotions and aspirations converge and diverge, most especially in the presence of another human being who is committed to caring and witnessing our everyday decisions. For this reason, I find that self-directed learning is accelerated and refined with mentorship, as well as embracing peer learning in a classroom- critical components to the Summit model of personalized learning. Here is a useful resource on how self-directed learning can look at different developmental milestones.

As a new educational lexicon emerges and we forge our way to the top of this educational Tower of Babel, I look for those moments where, in spite of the specific words we use, we reach out to connect with each other and find the pathways of learning that acknowledge and celebrate our unique passions, interests and skills. Due to the increasing complexity of modern life and a future career landscape that is as yet undefined, I am confident that there will be a day when self-directed learning is an essential part of our educational system and the everyday educational experience of all children. Today, all assumptions are challenged by the “new normal” of increasing social pressure for flexibility, adaptability and relevance. There are few big social roles or social institutions that are not in a state of some kind of collective reexamination. In education, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will push public schools to a deeper level of self-examination of what they do and how they do it.

Ultimately, transformational learning IS personal and we often have no idea how important something we might say to a child is to help guide, provoke, prompt, push and pull them through the trials of gaining self-awareness and self-management. Words and how we say them matter.  How humbling to contemplate that whatever you say to a child and how you say it, may be the pivot point on their journey to becoming a self-directed learner.