This post first appeared on Corwin Connect.

Every time we poll teachers about their highest priority, student engagement tops the list. How can we move beyond “party tricks” and toward self-directed learning? We’ve found five shifts that can dramatically increase student investment in learning.  

Picture a classroom where students are busily editing proposals. There’s a buzz in the air as students swap ideas and offer insight. Most of the walls are used as visual thinking spaces, covered in sticky notes, connecting lines, and sketches of their early ideas.   

They began with the question: How can we make the school campus a more inclusive community for all? They applied disciplinary concepts to this question, pausing to think like a historian, scientist, mathematician, and artist, with the help of mentors from the local community. Then, each student pursued an aspect of the project that appealed to their interests. Now, each group is synthesizing their findings into a proposal. 

This is one example of what learning looks like when students are invested. To reach this vision, many areas of schooling need reframing to unleash the power of self-directed learning.  

Shift #1 and #2: The Role of the Teacher and Student  

In today’s changing world, students must learn how to learn, as they will have to continue learning far into their adult lives. We use the table below to think about our roles. Picture what this might look like in your classroom. 

Student Role Teacher Role 
DIRECTOR of their own learning DETECTIVE of their own thinking COLLABORATOR with peers and teachers PATTERN SEEKER through diverse ideas and experiences DESIGNER of empowering lesson plans DETECTIVE of student thinking EVALUATOR of their own impact on learning CURATOR of diverse resources and experiences 
Might look like… ·  Co-constructing success criteria ·  Setting goals ·  Monitoring their thinking ·  Self-questioning ·  Self-regulating ·  Selecting among strategies ·  Providing self- and peer-feedback ·  Applying feedback ·  Deciding what to investigate next ·  Adjusting learning behavior Might look like… ·  Establishing a collaborative, safe culture ·  Establishing credibility ·  Making thinking routine ·  Modeling thinking ·  Modeling risk-taking ·  Modeling learning from errors ·  Cognitive coaching students ·  Providing and soliciting feedback ·  Adjusting instruction 

A common theme across the examples above is the importance of centering intellectual growth in the classroom. We can empower students by demonstrating our own thinking, how we learn from our mistakes, and ways our thinking evolves as a result of monitoring, questioning, and even changing or revising our understanding. The two next-day strategies below can help to shift classroom culture.  

Next-Day Strategy: Facilitate a short discussion with your students about what “learning” means 

Ask students to think of a time when they have figured something out or had a light-bulb moment, when something suddenly became clear, and have them share their experience in small groups. Perhaps share an example of your own learning journey with a particular topic — such as learning how to bake, paint a room, or learn a language. Share the habits of mind you had — such as goal-setting, reflection, collaboration — and how each influenced your learning. Then, ask your students which habits of mind they would like to apply to learning in the classroom. 

Next Day Strategy: Peer Coaching 

Partner A Partner B 
   Explain what you understand about the concept or skill    Ask for specific feedback so that your partner knows where to give the most attention.    Listen to your partner’s feedback without interruption and write it down.    Reflect and tell your partner what your next step is. – Listen to your partner without interrupting. – Write down the feedback they would like to receive to ensure your feedback is helpful and wanted. – Analyze your partner’s work and provide thoughtful feedback based on their request. – Acknowledge your partner’s reflection and direct them to any resources that will assist in their next step. 

Shift #3 and #4: The Role of Curriculum and Instruction  

The main shift here is to move from disconnected standards to disciplinary literacy with a structure of connected knowledge and skills. A simple yet powerful shift is to view standards of learning as the metaphorical floor, an important foundation but not the ultimate goal of learning. We can anchor our units in the most powerful, transferable concepts within our standards documents that give students the tools to unlock new situations, even those we have not explored in class. Less is truly more if we plan well. 

A shift to disciplinary literacy is a powerful way to figure out what is most important and how to help students see how the world is organized. Disciplinary literacy involves the specialized ways of knowing and doing that characterizes a particular field of study (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012). Try the strategy below to help shift to disciplinary literacy.  

Next Day Strategy: Disciplinary Lenses, Anchoring Concepts, Sub Concepts  

We can think about the “lenses” we want students to use in every new situation, as well as the anchoring concepts that ground a unit of study. Click here for more examples and use this template to make your own disciplinary literacy chart like the one above. Then model how you use these lenses and concepts when you encounter a new situation.  

Shift #5: The Role of Assessments 

Perhaps the most tremendous shift is moving from assessment as an accountability event to assessment as a system of feedback. When we make assessment synonymous with “test,” we cultivate an environment in which students think the sole purpose of learning is to perform on a test, and then quickly forget what they’ve learned.  

Conversely, when teachers and students perceive assessment as a system of feedback about learning, we create an environment where we constantly measure where we are against where we’re going using a wide variety of tools—tests and quizzes, sure, but also journal entries and discussions, even personal reflection. Students stop asking, Will this be on the test? And teachers stop using the test as a “gotcha” for kids whose effort is lacking. The fundamental purpose of assessment is to allow us all to gain an accurate picture of the quality of learning taking place—largely to inform our next steps on the learning journey, rather than a means to judge teachers and students. 

Strategies that ask students to monitor their thinking and reflect on their growth over time help to shift the culture of assessments. Try one of our favorites below. 

Next Day Strategy: Have Students Reflect on their Thinking Over Time 

At first I thought . . .  But then . . .  So now I think . . .  
Students identify the knowledge and understandings they had at the beginning of the lesson, week, or unit. This could be knowledge of individual concepts or skills, understanding of the relationships between concepts, or facts and examples students knew that relate to the concepts of study.  Students write down what strategies or contexts they explored that shifted or deepened their thinking.  Students articulate their new understanding after going through each concept attainment lesson or transfer context  

(Source: Adapted from Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011). 

The table below reflects the five key shifts in simple terms. As you read, reflect on where you fall on the continuum. The results we’ve witnessed in our own classrooms have been tremendous. In today’s changing world, our abilities to foster self-directed learning, their abilities to reflect on what they know and how well they can apply their learning to new situations, might matter more than anything at all.  

For more next-day strategies that will help you teach for transfer, check out this short and powerful course The Future of Learning and the book Learning That Transfers by Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo. 

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