The First Step In Teaching Students To Think For Themselves
by Terry Heick
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The first step in helping students think for themselves just might be to help them see who they are and where they are.
If we truly want students to adapt their thinking, design their thinking, and diverge their thinking, it (the thinking) has to start and stop somewhere.
Generally, this means beginning with the learning target a teacher establishes and ending with an evaluation of how the student “did.” But thinking has nothing to do with content. Thinking is a strategy to learn content, but they are otherwise distinct. This process, then, is about thought and learning rather than content and mastery.
Examining A Self-Directed Learning Framework
In 2013, we created a framework to guide students in self-directed learning. The idea was/is for each student to truly think for themselves. There are two theories that underpin this concept of students being able to create and navigate their own learning pathways:
1. Wisdom (e.g., knowing what’s worth understanding) is more important than content (e.g., mastery of academic standards).
2. Advances in technology have created an ecology that can support the pursuit of wisdom and content mastery (in that order)
These theories don’t sound outrageous, but compared to existing educational forms they really are different. How we plan, how we determine success, how we offer feedback, and even how our schools are physically arranged all reflect a way of thinking that places priority on the student’s ability to constantly prove mastery of content delivered to them.
By now this is a tired argument, but one theory is that modern education can be characterized by its industrial form and its managerial tone. Its primary movers are standards, policies, and teachers rather than content, relationships, and creativity. Its outcomes are universal and impersonal, which is fine for skills but fails to resonate much further.
One response is to support students in designing their own learning pathways, in terms of content (what’s studied), form (how it’s studied), and most critically, purpose (why it’s studied). The end result is, ideally, students who can “think for themselves.”
Teaching Students To Think For Themselves: Examining A Self-Directed Learning Framework
Big Idea: Promote self-directed & critical learning
There are 6 areas in the self-directed learning framework:
1. Self: (e.g., What citizenships am I a member of, and what does that suggest that I understand?)
2. Context: (e.g., What are the contexts of this topic or idea?)
3. Activate: (e.g., What do I or others know about this topic or idea?)
4. Pathway: (e.g., What resources or thinking strategy make sense for me to use?)
5. Clarify: (e.g., Based on what I’ve learned so far, how should I revise my intended pathway?)
6. Apply: (e.g., What changes in myself should I see as a result of new understanding?)
Self-Knowledge As A Starting Point
1. What’s worth understanding?
Out of all of the ideas and circumstances you encounter on a daily basis, what’s worth understanding? What knowledge or skills or in-depth understandings would support you on a moment-by-moment basis? What’s the difference between recreation, interest, curiosity, and passion?
This even can be overtly academic. For example:
In math, what’s valuable? What can math do for you?
What can rich literature enable you to see?
What perspective can a study of history provide?
What mistakes can a scientific approach to things prevent?
2. What problems or opportunities are within my reach?
It sounds noble to want to solve world hunger or play a violin at Carnegie Hall, but that may or may not be in your immediate reach. Right here, right now, what can you do to get there?
3. What important problems & solutions have others before me created?
Interdependence–realizing where we, as a family, neighborhood, state, nation, species, etc. have been, and what trends and patterns emerge under study that we can use to make sense of where we’re going?
What are our collective achievements–poetry, space travel, human rights, etc.?
What are our collective failures–poverty, racism, ecological damage, etc.?
And with this in mind, how should I respond?
4. What citizenships and legacies am I a part of & what do those memberships suggest that I understand?
This is kind of the ultimate question for the first step of the SDL model, and the final step: To “what” do I belong, and how can I care-take that membership through my understanding and behavior?
Below are some hypothetical examples of student responses.
I belong to the “Miller” family, a family long-involved in photography and art. So how should I respond?
I live in an area that used to be “nice,” but has recently devolved through a lack of civic voice and action. So how should I respond?
I love hip-hop but am concerned with recent trends that are blending it together with pop music until the two are indistinguishable. So how should I respond?
I’m an American, a Nigerian, a Canadian. So how should I respond?
I love books, I love fashion, I love clean water. So how should I respond?
My parents were divorced, and their parents were divorced. So how should I respond?
I am poor. I am rich. I am anxious. I am curious. How should I respond?