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Uncategorized   |   Jul 11, 2014

5 ways to support kids who struggle with student-directed learning

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

5 ways to support kids who struggle with student-directed learning

By Angela Watson

I mentioned in my ten takeaways from #ISTE2014 post that I wanted to write a bit more about some of the problems teachers are encountering with project-based and student-directed learning. Even though we believe deeply in helping kids uncover their passions, ask and pursue answering their own questions, and take ownership over their learning, the actual implementation of these principles has been a bumpy ride for many of us.

It can be tough to get the KIDS on board with student-directed learning, and I don’t think this is an issue that we’ve thought out nearly enough in the education community. There’s always been an undercurrent attitude that when kids are truly in charge of their own learning, they will become motivated and engaged. Teachers who dared to question this assumption were told that they were doubting their students and just needed to believe in them a little more and should try entrusting them with more freedom.

And that’s just not always true. In fact, it’s often the worst thing you can do.

Can we get real about the fact that project-based and student-directed learning requires a lot of work not only for teachers, but for KIDS? Kids don’t always want to do that work. And they don’t always have the skills needed to be successful with that work. If you see that kids are resistant to or unsuccessful at directing their own learning, the last thing you should do is throw even more projects at them.

We need to back up and consider that it takes an incredible amount of drive, focus, and higher level thinking skills for a child to design and carry out a project or participate in Genius Hour or 20% time. Many of our students are used to being spoon fed the answers, or only asked to do simpler rote memory tasks. Transitioning from fill-in-the-blank worksheets completed as a class to project-based learning is very daunting for many kids. Other children are working well below grade level and simple multiple choice questions feel difficult to them: imagine how impossible and frustrating a project must be!

So what are the solutions here? We can’t return to our old teacher-centric ways of doing school. We have to support students in being independent and self-motivated. How do we get kids to go from saying “Just tell me what to do!” to truly taking ownership over their learning? Here are 5 strategies to consider:

5 ways to support kids who struggle with student-directed learning

1) Explicitly teach and practice the skills needed for student-directed learning.

Kids need to be taught how to manage their time, persevere when things get hard, problem solve when their plan isn’t working, and organize their thoughts and materials. Pay attention to where kids are hitting the proverbial brick wall and then develop mini-lessons to reinforce those skills. Don’t waste your energy bemoaning that students “should” already have these life skills: be prepared to teach to the students you actually have and support them in developing higher-level thinking abilities. (I know this is a really tough thing to do for many teachers because they either don’t know how or don’t have the time—I’m working on developing a series of these lessons and activities for TPT.)

2 Give additional structure to the kids who need it.

Some children thrive under open-ended directions: others are terrified of making a mistake or have no idea what to do next. Give the kids in that latter group a little more support: help them create a checklist of steps, and provide them a partner they can check in with if they feel like they’re losing their way. It’s okay to provide more guidance than you’d like for certain kids who need it: scaffold their learning and slowly increase their capacity so that with each successive project, they’re able to be more independent.

3) Explore topics you’re not the expert in and questions that you don’t know the answer to.

Kids get frustrated and beg us to tell them the answers because they know we already know. They see that there’s a clear right answer that we are dangling over their heads and saying, “Just a little higher! You can do it! Come on!” How frustrating that is for kids, and no wonder they want us to make that answer a little easier for them to reach. But what if we sometimes explored questions together? What if we said to our kids, “I don’t know the answer; how do you think can we find out?” Show kids that we are ALL learners and model for them how to pursue answers.

4) Pose essential questions which have no right or wrong answer.

In addition to the basic recall questions, there must be some greater, overarching question that compels kids to dig more deeply. “What is the capital of our state?” is important to know (come on, you shouldn’t always be Googling basic facts!) but there are bigger questions that are truly worth answering, too. “How does geography affect destiny? How would your life be different if you were born in the state capital instead of in our small town?” These are questions that students can’t beg you to reveal the answer to because each person has to uncover the answer for him or herself. The responses will be be unique to each individual, which takes some of the pressure off of kids and makes the question more compelling.

5) Let kids help design the learning outcome.

Often students resist creating their own projects or directing their own learning because they know that the teacher already has a set goal in mind, whether we state it outright or try to pretend that kids are in control. They know that we have already envisioned what an A+ project will look like and it’s overwhelming for them to play the guessing game of not only trying to meet that expectation but to also design the learning process to get them there. So, try creating the outcome together. Ask, “How will we know whether you have achieved your goal? What would it look like to show mastery of this topic? How should we assess your learning? What criteria should go into the rubric?” Then if students try to get you to take over their project or ask “Is this right?” you can say, “This is something you designed. You determined what the outcome would be, so you are capable of determining if you are on the right path. Let’s look at the rubric you created and see how we can get you to the top level.”

Have you found that students often want you to tell them the answers and complete projects for them? What strategies have you tried for building their capacity and helping them persevere through the hard work of directing their own learning?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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Discussion


  1. Great post, Angela! I completely agree with your comment about student-directed learning. On paper, this seems like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t kids want to be in control of their own learning? Well, the truth is, a number of them are not quite ready for that step. They do not know how to handle that environment. This takes time to create within a classroom. Students need practice on how to handle this adjustment. We have first year college students making dumb decisions faced with the realization that they are now “in control” of their own lives without their parents around. How do we expect younger students to react?
    Thank you for presenting great tips on how to get students ready for the change to a more student-centered classroom. I will definitely be using them.
    Jim Cordery

  2. Great advice!!! I especially like #3 as I’ve always believed students identify well with teachers learning along with them. Just like colleagues at the college level feeling students should have these “control” skills, I’ve always believed it was time well spent raising these skills consciously in class. Even had an online self-paced study unit for those interested. What would really be super would be starting at the elementary level where students are really open to control.

    One suggested addition. I always suggest they develop their own effective problem solving procedure. It needs to be utilized routinely, getting more effective through self-assessment – AND thus habitual!! It will then provide confidence in all situations faced, including effective, deeper learning of course!

  3. I love this post. I teach science in an alternative program within an high school. I came from a charter school that was focused on project based learning. So many of these observations I have seen in my classroom trying to do a genius hour like class or in student directed work within science class. I will need to reread this one a lot during the year.

  4. I have adapted the Student-Directed method of instruction. I believe in it, but it is only effective when the all members of the educational community are on board. The educational commu consists of Teachers, Students, Parents, and Administrators. When parents and administrators are not on board, this can be more stressful than it has to be, and will not effective. Students are so used to being spoon fed that it has become expectation. They think that is effective teaching, or good teaching. Parents support their kids, and Administrators support parents. A teacher can find his/her self on the receiving end of a non-renewal letter trying to implement student-directed learning, especially if the parents and Administrators are not on board and educated about the process. Just my thoughts

  5. 1-5 resonated greatly with me. All great ideas/explanations. My biggest issue is just not having enough time in the day; my students can not take any school work out of the classroom and hence, can not work on projects out of school (they are incarcerated). This is not everyone’s problem, I know. I am looking forward to the future lessons and activities you are developing so I can use them in my classroom.

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