Supporting Self-Directed Learning

Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else.
~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

We were talking about ILPs the other night, and for a few minutes I experienced the sudden vertigo of a man without a plan.

Then I realized I was being silly. True, I don't often create conventional Individualized Learning Plans in chart form with focused objectives and time-lines. But I and my learners have a plans. Really.

It works like this: based on what I know about my learners (ever changing because I'm learning more all the time, and, anyway, we do continuous intake), I stock my room with various materials pitched to different learning styles and reading levels. Some materials I "promote" by displaying them more prominently, while others I hold back a bit (e.g. present spine-on on a bookshelf).

Then, I ask each learner, each session, what they'd like to learn or learn about.

I can't say enough about the power of that simple question. There are variants, of course: "What would you like to learn or learn about today?" "What's something in math you can't do that you want to learn to do?" "What's one thing you'd like to improve about your writing?" But the point is that it's the learner who, in answering, is taking responsibility for creating their own (immediate) learning plan.

Of course it only works out well if I've already prepared a wealth of effective resources and materials. This can be challenging. I'm learning that, not only do different learners need different kinds of help, but sometimes the same learner needs different kinds of help on different days.

I also fret - which is silly - and make assumptions - which is unhelpful - when learners can't articulate clear learning objectives or interests. This shouldn't surprise me. Being self-directed is not something we encourage in public schools or in entry-level jobs. It's understandable that some people come into class thinking they're going to "get an education" or "finish school". Then, it's my job to, gently, ask more questions.

Sometimes a learner really can't say what they want to learn because they're in a state of protection, fearful of what's about to happen to them. That's a more serious challenge, and here I do fall back on a sort of mental checklist for building a positive relationship and helping them make an effective choice about coming:
  • Give information in a variety of (effective) ways.
  • Teach stress reduction techniques, choices, etc.
  • Provide optional healthy snacks and drinks.
  • Base plans on skills, not tasks.
  • Give time, and then more time.
  • Reinforce success: build on strength.
  • Decline to take part in ineffective strategies.
  • Ask and tell - share concerns and perceptions.
  • Provide materials at their reading level.
  • Provide a safe, friendly, positive environment.
  • Model effective reading, writing, learning behaviors.
  • Keep notes and reflect on / review my practice.
  • When in doubt, try something else.
Along with this, there are questions I (try to remember to) ask myself during difficult times:

  • What’s the goal - remediation or compensation?
  • Is the learner willing/able to participate?
  • Did the immediate plan work?
  • Or did everyone stick to the plan?
  • Is there progress and is more progress likely?
  • Am I working harder than the learner at their plan?
  • Are other learners being hindered?
  • Is there a crucial problem outside my control?

Depending on how I answer these questions, I may need to throw everything out the window and improvise something radically different.

Or, I may have to help the learner realize this isn't the place for him or her.

Something that takes its own kind of planning.


OzGrace said...

i laughed at this:

"Am I working harder than the learner at their plan?"

good article.

i act similarly, in my work (i DO have a new job now, doing the same thing as i was before, but it hasn't settled into any sort of manageable routine yet, so i am still a bit stressed about it all.)

i DO find that the lowest level learners have great difficulty articulating what they 'want' to learn or need to learn. we are required to get the students to 'make' learning plans, even at the lowest levels, and this is a big ask.

Wendell said...

I have an old post -which I could probably update - with a bit of a skills list I've used with lower-level readers. It asks things like, "Would you like to learn to use a calendar?", "Would you like to learn to spell your mailing address?" and so on.

because it is "the List" asking these things, it always feels a bit more self-directed than if I just think up things for them to learn about at that moment.

See - Functional Literacy Part 1 - A Skills List

Just FYI.