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Teaching Students to Teach Themselves

At some point in every student’s academic career, self-reliance becomes a necessity rather than a virtue. Whether it’s the subject matter or the teaching style, inevitably, students need to figure things out on their own. Even with the best subject and the best teacher, students still need to master independent learning. An absence from school can create a knowledge gap that needs to be filled. Or, more commonly, as a student matriculates through the grade levels, teachers may intentionally create situations where independent learning is necessary. After all, learning how to learn is a bedrock skill students need to succeed after graduation. Thus, students should learn how to teach themselves. But that’s easier said than done.

Whether due to the complexity of the subject matter, a change in teaching styles, or the natural progression through academic grades, independent learning becomes essential. It’s not just about the content; it’s about mastering the art of learning itself. Understanding how to self-educate is fundamental. Central to this self-educative process is the concept of self-directed learning, an integral part of Executive Function.

Self-Directed Learning and Executive Function

Self-directed learning, known by various names, including metacognition, is fundamentally about empowering students to take an active role in their education. This learning style is deeply intertwined with the four pillars of Executive Function: organization, time management, learning skills, and impression management. These elements are crucial in helping students enhance their capacity for self-learning. When students learn to organize their time and materials, manage their learning effectively, and present their knowledge confidently, they become more adept at directing their educational journey. This self-directed approach requires not just the absorption of facts but also the development of skills to process, understand, and apply information independently.

Historically, education has often focused on dictating what students should learn, while the equally important aspect of how to learn is sometimes overlooked. This can leave learners feeling lost, anxious, or disengaged. Metacognition, or the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes, is a key component in addressing this gap. It enables students to self-regulate and guide their behaviors and actions toward achieving their educational goals. Developing metacognitive skills involves learning to plan, monitor, and evaluate one’s learning process. Teachers can begin introducing these concepts as early as kindergarten, helping young learners to start understanding how they think and learn. As children grow, particularly by the third grade, they can increasingly apply these strategies with greater autonomy and discernment, tailoring their learning methods to suit their individual needs and preferences.

The real power of self-directed learning lies in its adaptability and personalization. When students understand how they learn best, they can adjust their strategies to various contexts and content, leading to more effective and meaningful learning experiences. This approach not only prepares them for academic success but also for lifelong learning—a critical skill in today’s ever-changing world. As students progress through different educational stages, their ability to self-direct their learning becomes increasingly important. By high school and college, where the complexity of material and the demand for independent study are higher, these skills become indispensable. This early foundation in self-directed learning is crucial for developing the resilience and flexibility required in higher education and beyond, where the ability to independently navigate complex information and tasks plays a pivotal role in success.

The Building Blocks

The foundation of self-directed learning lies in effective planning, an integral part of Executive Function. When students embark on learning tasks without a plan, they often find themselves overwhelmed or easily distracted. Effective planning entails more than just an overview of the task; it requires a comprehensive strategy. This includes previewing the task, setting achievable goals, determining the approach, and linking it to prior knowledge. Such an approach does not just guide students through their learning process but also instills a sense of direction and purpose, essential for maintaining focus and motivation. There are a few other key concepts to help students become self-directed learners.

First, building upon existing knowledge is a key element in the journey of self-directed learning. This is where the role of educators becomes crucial, as they assist students in connecting new information with what they already know. Such connections could be facilitated through various activities like group brainstorming, watching relevant videos, or discussing related materials. This process of building a strong foundation of background knowledge helps students make accurate predictions and prioritize information effectively during their learning journey.

Second, setting goals and tracking progress is a proven strategy that significantly enhances student achievement, particularly when self-directed learning is involved. Educators can assist students in setting both short-term goals, which are directly related to the skill being learned, and long-term personal goals aligned with the student’s values. This practice not only fosters a goal-oriented mindset but also encourages students to take ownership of their learning journey, thereby enhancing their commitment and engagement.

Lastly, the journey of self-directed learning involves not just setting goals but also developing the motivation and habits necessary to achieve them. Educators can guide students in contemplating the behavioral changes required to transition from their current state to their desired goals. Creating a plan or checklist for daily progress helps students in monitoring their incremental steps toward their goals. This approach not only aids in achieving academic objectives but also inculcates life skills of self-discipline and perseverance.

Encouraging Self-Directed Learning at School and at Home

Encouraging self-directed learning in educational settings and at home is a multifaceted endeavor. It begins with a fundamental shift in our approach as educators and parents, embracing a philosophy that values thinking, self-regulation, and the capacity of students to be their own teachers. This approach is influenced by the likes of John Hattie’s 10 Mindframes, which dictate a teacher’s pedagogical actions, including the language teachers use with students, how teachers group them, and the structures teachers put in place that can either enable or restrict a student’s ability to learn independently. These concepts challenge teachers and parents to reflect on who we are and how they relate to students. Should they view their role as merely imparting knowledge or as facilitators of a learning journey where each student’s trajectory can be positively influenced? This introspection is crucial in creating an environment where students are not just passive recipients of information but active participants in their learning process.

At the heart of this approach is the practice of asking students reflective questions about their learning, thereby instilling a sense of ownership and responsibility. When students are engaged in dialogue about how they could be their own teachers, it fosters a deep level of trust and respect. This method, endorsed by educational experts like Peter Johnston, emphasizes the importance of noticing and naming learning experiences in the classroom. Such a practice allows for the identification of learning interactions, misconceptions, and student achievements that would otherwise go unnoticed. This approach can be applied in various ways, such as using visual aids like photographs of students working independently or collaboratively and then encouraging them to analyze these images. By asking them to observe and reflect on their learning process, their interactions with peers, and the resources they use, students develop a heightened awareness of their learning environment and strategies, thus becoming more attuned to their needs and preferences as learners.

To further reinforce the concept of students as their own teachers, explicit time and structures should be provided for them to practice this role. One effective method is implementing a program like ‘Children As Teachers’ (C.A.T.), where students are not only taught new strategies but are also given clear criteria for success to guide their practice. Such an approach encourages them to not only master these strategies for themselves but also to assist their peers in the learning process. This collaborative effort not only builds independence but also fosters a sense of community and mutual support within the learning environment.

Final Thoughts

SAOTG empowers students through the awesome power of Executive Function. Teaching students to teach themselves is just one part of our comprehensive EF curriculum. To learn more about other EF topics, please visit our blog page. To connect your child with a one-on-one academic coach, reach out today!

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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