Why self-directed learning matters

From 2000 to 2005 I served as principal of a large high school in Houston, Texas.  Each May I would stand on a stage and deliver diplomas to graduating seniors, approximately 600 of them.  After I read “By the power vested in me by the State of Texas and the Board of Education of the school district and upon recommendation of the faculty of our high school, I confer onto you the high school diploma with all rights and privileges on this day,” I would present what amounted to a promise on parchment to each of those young people they were ready to succeed in the real world.  What a lie that was – probably to at least 100 to 150 of those so-called graduates.

You see how schools and school districts measure graduation status is still mired in such inequities as seat time, assignment completion, unfair grading practices, and pass/fail decisions made on the basis of whether a student would bring a six-pack of toilet paper for bonus points during final’s week.  By my count, around 20 to 25 percent of those I gave diplomas to did not possess the skills whereby the rights and privileges of graduation should be conferred.  I should have pulled those diplomas back, because the system I worked in at the time was delivering false promises to those young people.  The most important false promise was that we rewarded time in a school seat over whether the young person was able to demonstrate important, to themselves and society, learning.

Recently I have become a student of self-directed learning.  Self-directed learning is the process by which an individual is able to define, plan, execute, and evaluate the learning standard they want to achieve.  Self-directed learning does not depend on seat time, assignment completion, unfair grading practices, or toilet paper.  Instead it presents the learner with a set of competencies (what I can do because of this particular learning) attached to a standard that the learner (and sometimes the people around them) consider important to learn.

Lessons from a Personalized Learning Lab

In 2014, the non-profit I led launched a personalized learning lab where we invited 50 families of middle school-aged children to participate in a three year learning program.  Although we promised and measured 4 ½ years of standardized test growth in reading and problem solving (math) over the three years those 50 were with us, what we were really after was seeing how many of these young people could develop into self-directed learners.  At the end of the three years, 46 of the 50 showed 4 ½ years of growth in reading and problem solving, while we thought 48 of the 50 presented themselves as self-directed learners, being able to define, plan, execute, and evaluate their own learning.

Why does this 50 student lab story matter?  Why does creating self-directed learners matter?  It matters because owning your own learning is the civil rights issue of our time.  Traditional school space is rife with inequity, unfairness, and judgement.  Although some traditional students turn themselves into self-directed learners, most just follow the lead of a teacher, school board, state board of education, and a state legislature regarding what and how they learn.  Life inside these places of inequity, unfairness, and judgement cannot and does not produce the type of young learner this country so desperately needs at this time in our history.  And the story is bleaker for brown and black youth.  Creating self-directed learners, especially in under-represented populations, gives those young people, and their families, a right no one can take away from them – the right to define, plan, execute, and evaluate the learning that is important to the individual, their family, their community, and their society.  Self-directed learning matters.  It matters a lot.

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