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In a recent article published in the Guardian,i education journalist and speaker Laura McInerney pointed out that for some children – particularly those who are in the middle of the attainment range – learning at home during the pandemic seems to have been beneficial. Learning in ways over which they have some control, such as watching an instructional video repeatedly, has given them the confidence to learn at their own pace and has resulted in improved understanding and test scores. McInerney suggests that
By accident, we may have hit upon a solution to one of the achievement gap’s biggest causes: children need different amounts of learning time. Some students grasp the content of a lesson in a snap. Others take the best part of an hour. Some need things repeated 60 times to have any chance of recall.
McInerney concludes that the message for the UK government from this is that every school should have wi-fi and every school student should be provided with a laptop, so that school lessons can be augmented by “more personalised online learning, either at home or in after-school clubs.”i This is indeed an important goal that all countries should be aiming for, and some, such as Estonia,ii are already close to achieving it. However, McInerney’s conclusion is based on the assumption that “Teachers … [cannot] realistically tailor every lesson to each child.”i
Can’t they? In a previous blog,iii I mentioned the idea of students choosing how they would be taught and promised to provide details of that in the future. The time for this discussion is now ripe: as students return to classrooms do they have to return to the same as before with just some added digital content for their homework? Or can their experiences of learning at home, and the insights they might have gained from them, help to inform how they are taught in school?
Student-directed teaching was pioneered by the University of Calgary Centre for Gifted Education’s Don Green in the 1990s. Based on his 40 years of teaching, school supervision and educational research, and described in detail in his book Teaching in Style,iv it provides a way for each student in a class to choose how they are taught and for the teacher of that class to implement each student’s choice. Five teaching styles are offered for each student to choose from for each subject module taught:
Motivation to choose one of the more independent styles comes from the fact that students making these choices invariably complete their assignments before the end of the allotted class time; they are then able to use the spare time to work on a project of their own choosing. As Don Green explains: “the choice is not not to work, but rather to take part in a passion area directly related to a student’s ability and interest. The passion area need not be related to the subject in which the student earned the time” (p. 18).iv
What must immediately spring to mind is the objection of how this can be managed in today’s challenging classrooms. Yet the school in Canada in which I saw this successfully put into practice, while drawing some of its students from middle-class city suburbs and from the local rural village, drew the majority of its students from the nearby Siksika First Nation. Each class was multi-grade as well as multi-ethnic and multicultural, with one teacher and (sometimes) a volunteer teaching assistant. There was a full mix of abilities and health and learning challenges throughout the school, and it was all housed in a building which had been empty for many years, with limited resources that had mainly been donated by the parents or local community. The sketch below is of a former student’s memories of their class at this school – they have coloured the Command and Task students in blue, the Peer-partner students in red and orange and those who are working independently, either Self-directed on the current module or using earned time for their own project, in green and yellow.
Memories of Student-directed Teaching by Rachel Gadsby. Used with permission of the artist.
But does student-directed teaching work? Comments from students who have experienced it include:
With peer partner it is just right because I sometimes help my partner and he sometimes helps me. We work good together and we are usually done our math objective sheets before most people and that means we get earned time (grade 6 student, p. 70).iv
I like Self-Directed because you get to learn the math on your own … You can take it home for homework and then you do a few days of math, so you can be ahead of the class, then you might be on a special project if you finish early (grade 3 student, p. 73).iv
If I know I can’t do something for myself I can switch to command. If I think something is really easy I can go in self-directed or peer partner and work ahead. Teaching styles work very well for me (grade 8 student, p. 74).iv
Don Green suggests that ideally teachers should spend 60% of class time with the Command and Task students and the other 40% with the other students “checking objectives and making sure they are on the right track” (p. 53).iv But how do teachers feel about it? One expressed the difficulty they found in changing from the role of instructor to that of facilitator when moving from Command and Task students to those who were more independent in their 6th grade (ages 11–12 years) maths class: “This can be frustrating in itself because I quickly realize my redundancy. On the other hand, it can be exhilarating when I realize just how capable they can be on their own” (p. 61).iv They go on to say
I feel strongly that even though the planning can drive you crazy, the marking never seems to end, and your classroom may be slightly louder and a bit messier, if you take the time to listen carefully, you will realise that the noise is not just noise, but higher level discussion of the math objectives, the mess is not just a mess but the manipulatives and tools used to facilitate learning, and the learning is introspective, with amazing results. Yes, it is worth it. (p. 62)iv
Another teacher noted that following the introduction of teaching styles “Positive work habits and study skills become more inherent” while “student marks usually increase an average of 10% over the year” (p. 66).
There is obviously far more to student-directed teaching than I can discuss in a short blog. But this has at least shown that there are ways for students to learn within a classroom setting which can build on the more independent learning skills that some will have developed while learning at home, and which can encourage those same skills in all learners. As we move forward into whatever will be the “new normal” of a post-pandemic future, isn’t it time for “normal” ways of classroom learning to become “new” as well?
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