Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Does Education Kill Student Self-Management?

pic courtesy of @kerriattamatea 

This morning I participated in a breakfast chat (#BFC630NZ) on twitter where the topic was about self-directed learning and encouraging students to self-manage.  It is an interesting topic and one which has spun my educational wheels since I started out as a fledgling but enthusiastic teacher, back in the 'day'.  All these years later and I still see it as a cornerstone of effective teaching and authentic student agency.  

It is a huge topic, and narrowing it down to something as short, sharp and succinct as a 15 minute breakfast twitter 'chat' where being constrained by 140 characters is like driving around with a massive handbrake, makes it a big challenge.   As a teacher, it took me years of honing, reviewing, reflecting and modifying to get 'good' at running a programme that revolved around authentic student agency.  As a principal, I still continue to refine what this looks like, but now it is on a bigger, whole school scale, where the students I work alongside with take ownership of whole school directions.  

That is not what I want to write about today.   Instead, I want to write about something else.  
Something that happened during the twitter chat. 

This morning I had an epiphany.  

Perhaps not an earth shattering, the world will benefit from my magnificence kind of epiphany, but an awareness all the same.  

As I typed my 'succinct' comments, the element of choice kept coming up to the forefront.  The more I saw the word 'choice' the more I thought about my trip around all the preschools and early childhood centres last week (we visit them once a term to touch base with the little people coming to our school).    I thought of them all happily engaged in their own explorations of the world.   Some students within a more directed activity with their early childhood teachers and some exploring their own interests.  Without exception, in all of the places we visited (around 10), little people were engaged, active, and learning with abandon and joy.  All of them were making choices, self-directing their learning (some more scaffolded than others) and they were all self-managing (again, some had a little bit of scaffolding).  

It was as I reflected on the little people learning, that I had the sudden enlightenment. 

Do we, as teachers, starting in Primary (elementary), kill the ability for students to make choices and self-manage?  

I appreciate this is a little controversial for some.  Please suspend your outrage and disregard if you are a teacher who does not do this, if however you are the kind of teacher who controls all aspects of learning and teaching, and is unsure of how to encourage choice and ownership in your classroom (or finds that concerning), feel free to read on.    

Let me justify my wondering.  You see, I have been thinking about this quite a bit today.  It has been bugging me like a pesky mosquito.  

Do students, once they leave the freedom of the Te Whariki curriculum and start primary school, encounter so many rules, restrictions and educational control freaks, that they not only lose their ability to make choices about learning, but also the opportunity to self-direct and manage their learning?

If we analyse it, and we think about how different a preschool environment is in comparison to a  more formalised classroom, then it is not too much of a leap to think this.  Teachers are often well organised individuals who are used to being in control.  In some respects, they are Kings and Queens of their own domains (classrooms) and they are used to running the show.  There is not much 'free play' or 'choice' in the average classroom (yes there are exceptions - see above if you are one of those) and of course there are classrooms where there are shades of choice, self-determination and management. The real shame is that we seem to lose the innate and natural skill set of our little people as we force them to be 'big school' kids.  Add in the obsessive testing regimes in some countries and the need to control our students more and more with ill thought out policy, and you have to wonder, what will all this create in the end? 

Can you imagine how horrifying it must be for a little person to leave the creative space of Early Childhood and enter the constrictive bounds of primary?  I know at our place we run a reception programme that marries the Early Childhood Te Whariki curriculum with our National Curriculum for the compulsory sector (primary to secondary).  It gives little people an opportunity to transition at a pace that meets their social, emotional and academic needs.  I also know many junior teachers who work hard to scaffold the transition between the two sectors, whilst juggling the demands of policy expectations to be literate and numerate.  But, if you were to critically look at it, in general, the older the child gets, the less freedom of choice they have.  

It seems counter intuitive.  Surely, it is in our collective countries best interests to build upon the foundations of Early Childhood learning.  Imagine if we further strengthened and scaffolded self-directed learning and management, and grew students abilities to make choices about their learning that tapped into their curiosities, interests and creative wonderment?  I understand Inquiry learning (project based learning, research based learning - take your pick - just new names for thinking that has been around since I can remember) should be doing this but I am doubtful that true self-directed and self-managed learning that is based on authentic student agency is actually happening at a depth that could be considered building on what we see in Early Childhood.  There are those that dabble at the fringes and there are an even smaller group who are skilled at it, but it is not common place.  Imagine if it was.  

So, I wonder, does our system, once children leave Early Childhood, kill our children's abilities to self-manage and direct learning?  And if so, what will the consequences be when they are as old as we are?

I wonder. 

Further Reading:


  1. I have a self-directed classroom. The children refer frequently to their formative assessment folders, and they "order" lessons from the menu that I post each week. We call it Maths Cafe (and the same system runs into literacy and inquiry learning). The children order a dish of the day (learning objective) that they can see they need, they take a doggy bag of activities to do afterwards, they can order second helpings if they think they need them. If they are not having a dish of the day they choose activities from our smorgasbord. everything is tied around them knowing where they are, knowing what their next step is, and planning how to get there. If they can't learn to manage themselves before they leave me in Y8 (I have a mixed y5 - 8 class) then their success in the future is certainly limited. Successful people self-manage and self-direct. It is not necessarily natural for all children to do this, so we have to teach them how to, and scaffold their attempts.

    1. Jo that is fabulous - I did read about your 'cafe' and I flicked it onto my MST to send out to our team, thought it was great!! And yes, scaffolding is essential for quite a few students - what I referred to is that our ECE teachers are quite adept at this and if we built upon those skills each year, that would be an absolute bonus for our students. Well done and keep up the great work.

  2. I think you've hit the nail on the head! This definitely resonated with me... If only...

    1. If we are collective and collaborative with what we want our children to do then we will get there in the end!