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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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  1. Thank you for sharing these excellent tips. At our school we’re moving more and more into project based learning and have struggled with some of these issues. Lately we’ve realized the importance of #5 – allowing students to design their own product definitely increases their motivation. The hard part for many of us is giving up control….we have to work at it constantly!

  2. Hi Angela,

    I caught myself reading this post and nodding in agreement! Self-directed learning is something that not only needs to be taught but also modeled. That transition from rote tasks to a project based environment can be difficult for both instructors and learners. But I think you hit the nail in the head when you mentioned that not all students have that desire to steer their own learning. This has been my greatest challenge as an educator to show them and model how taking control of your own learning can be empowering. At the same time, I want to challenge my students to step outside their comfort zones and try other modes of learning (i.e. visual vs. written for my writers). I think that while this approach shows them that not everything will come easy or natural, it will hopefully highlight their strengths and talents. Thanks for sharing!


  3. This is the style of learning that is being taught at my childrens’ school. It is a homeschool school, if you can open your mind to that. We have full school days three days a week, with the other two being learn at home days, in which students take topics that are being learned and run with it in whatever creative directions that are inspired to. My middle school son, who had come from traditional public school, had very little experience with such freedoms. Reading over the list above, I can honestly say his teacher was an excellent support for this learning style with open ended questions, learning along with the students, providing more structure when needed, etc. On top of that, all subjects were integrated as much as possible. Meaningful connections were being made instead of simply learning rote blocks of information. My son in traditional school was an excellent rote learner and was an A student. But he was an A student fairly effortlessly. He has excellent retention. So rote works well for him, but does not provide the above mentioned skills that are so necessary in higher learning and life in general! This past year was our first year at this new school, and he did not embrace this type of learning very well at all. He seemed to really enjoy being given the freedom, but was not motivated to run with it. He did what he absolutely had to do, and sometimes not always. We made some progress toward the end of the school year, but not a whole lot. He wants to go back to that school this year, but I am torn. I love the vision of kids directing their own education, becoming critical thinkers, problem solvers, exploring their own interests, and becoming lifelong learners. But my kiddo seemed to thrive with more structure and less freedom. I think maybe one school year was not quite enough time to successfully transition to such a different learning environment with different expectations. On the other hand, I’m reserved about repeating what didn’t seem to work out too well. Any thoughts/suggestions? Thank you!!

    1. There are so many kids like your son out there! There is a fallacy in education that “if you build it [student-directed learning], they will come” and it simply isn’t true. I would have done terribly under this system myself as a teenager because I would have wanted to do only the bare minimum. Many kids lack the drive, grit, and motivation to persevere through student-directed learning. We can teach those skills to a certain extent, but I believe many kids are still going to need constant pushing and direction. And that’s fine–that’s our job as teachers. It does not mean you (or they) are failing if the kids don’t take the freedom and run with it.

      If I were you, I’d stick with the homeschool school one more year, assuming that’s what you son wants to do (and that’s a key factor.) It sounds like an ideal schooling arrangement to me and he may just need more time to adjust and also to uncover his interests a little more. Part of the problem with public education is that we don’t give good ideas enough time to create change. We try initiatives for a year and then discard them for something else. Transformation is a long process. I wouldn’t abandon it just yet.

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