Hack your classroom: Week Eight - Going free-range and developing robust self-direction


I believe self-direction and developing student agency and efficacy is the fundamental shift all educators need to make to become more futur-focused in their practice. In a sense we want step away from our 'caged' classrooms to develop increasingly 'free range learners'.


Free range learners who are:

  • Free to choose how they learn
  • Free to choose where they learn
  • Free to choose how they process their learning
  • Free to choose how they evidence their learning
  • Free to experience learning that is relevant and responsive to their needs not our limitations

This does not mean the teacher becomes redundant, quite the opposite as they are challenged to provide authentic relevant contexts for learners, with just enough 'enabling constraints' to ensure that our little chickens don't accidentally cross the road...in heavy traffic. Our roles need to change from teacher, to facilitator and ultimately to learning activator. Providing triggers and opportunities to learners to develop the relevant skills needed for their world (whilst somehow pleasing those pesky bloody UE requirements....universities of NZ...you have a lot to answer for in relation to slowing progress).

The experience that really opened my eyes to the power of 'free-range learning' and students being truly self-directed was our (HPSS SLT) trip to the Self-Directed Schools in Canada last year.

Here is an outline how one of those schools operated.

Bishop Carroll has been self-directed for 40 years in a building created for purpose in 1971 - just in case you thought this was a new idea, it is not, nor is it untested. Bishop Carroll are now in the third year of a one to one laptop programme, running a lease to own programme and like the other Canadian schools we have visited they used D2L (Desire to Learn) as the LMS (Learning Management System). Bishop Carroll is considered a "magnet" school, taking students from all over Calgary. Approximately 20% students are high level sportspeople (the flexibility well suited to students travelling throughout the year), there are a lot of music students, approximately 20% of students with identified learning needs and 25% students who had English as a second language. Flexibility makes it appealing to students involved outside of school. One of the central philosophies of the school was that it was "a school for everyone" guided by the text of the same name by by J Lloyd Trump.

As this is a senior school, taking only Grade 10-12 (our Year 11-13) and the only self-directed school in the province, it is important that all students complete 2-3 weeks orientation at beginning of year, during this time students are introduced to the self-directed timetable structure and given strategies to cope with it. Being the school with the longest history of self-directed learning that we have visited so far meant that it also seemed to be the school where it felt the most innate. Where Westmount and Mary Ward provided students with A4 sized diaries to manage their time, the students of Mary Ward seemed to find their own way, with many relying on the schedule on D2L or using their smart phone or laptop calendar to keep a schedule. In many ways the school operated and felt like a mini university with students being free to work where they pleased (I imagine the inclement weather also helped keep students in the building!).

Students arrived each morning, checking in with their Teacher Advisor and collecting their student ID lanyard which they wore thought the day day before returning at the end of day to their advisor to check out and return their ID. Students for the most part, worked independently through Learning Guides (a unit long learning guide that represented one topic for one subject) that they either collected from Learning Area resource centres or accessed online (once again these were pretty inflexible and sequential, with little differentiation across units but some within). They tested their learning at the end of each unit and moved on to the next. When they need to be assessed they booked in for tests or examination at the Examination Centre. A variety of tests for each unit were available to minimise the chance of sharing and cheating. Unlike Westmount and Mary Ward, Bishop Carroll students had to compete a number of end of year exams - Science, Maths, English and History exams (I think) in Grades 3, 9, 12. These are province wide, assessment is made up of 50% exam and 50% internal assessment. One frustration for these learners was that they did have to wait to sit the end of school year exam.

So what were the pros?

The sheer fact that this has been operating for 40+ years certainly proves the long term success of the self-directed movement - this ain't no pedagogical fad! I have to admit, the atmosphere of the school was pretty magic, the students somehow coming across as both more laid back, yet more switched on to learning than any school we have visited so far. Daniel, the Principal mentioned that engagement and ownership of school was better than any other school he has been in, I couldn't help but agree with him.

These students owned their learning, they could take advantage of the flexibility to engage in what we would regard as extra-curricular activities during the day, they called the shots as to where and when they learned. 

The more physical, practical subjects such as physical education, technology and performing arts could be focused on for hours at a time if needed. We sat in on a 10 minute student written and directed play that was testament to the benefits of this - it was stunning. The drama teacher, Pat Doyle (who had been there so long he had a theatre named after him) was equally stunning - energetic, passionate and with a twinkle in his eye. You did wonder if this flexibility enabled the educators to flourish as much as the students.

And the cons?

The Principal would have been the first to acknowledge that of course there was areas of weakness and as always, much they could improve. In fact, at this point I want to acknowledge how much we appreciated and enjoyed the fact that Daniel was so eager to learn from us, this visit more than any other felt like a genuinely two way discussion, with the acknowledgment that New Zealand is actually leading the way in many areas, for one, our curriculum never fails to be a source of national pride.

In terms of areas of improvement, he suggested that students could have benefitted from some more concrete deadlines, particularly as they did encounter these at tertiary level. He also hoped that next year all teachers would have to have two learning guides - one that is a structured and detailed full teaching and learning guide and another that is more like a frame that allows the student to co-construct the content with the teacher (I LOVE this idea). There was also a need for more cross-curricular links - more of learning areas getting together and create a course that is interdisciplinary. Also like the schools before there was still an element of correspondence school learning, albeit with more opportunity for face to face seminars and learning when needed. The Principal also suggested that he would suggest having more structured classes for Science and Maths, this was the first school to really discuss concept of different pedagogy needed for different disciplines - Science and Maths seemed to struggle a little with such flexibility. I thought this was great to hear, I think one issue we all need to reflect on when considering new models is that any one model does not fit all - neither students nor disciplines.

It will be interesting to develop a model that is actually flexible enough to allow for inflexibility where it is needed.

Some other interesting points.

Student notices come around each morning to show students what is on.
Some seminars are compulsory some are not.
English has choices of texts throughout.
They have a "prime time" 12.45-3.10 where students aren't supposed to move around.
English has physical sign up for English and others are online.
This is a true high trust model - some grade 12 students did take off during the day (they are teenagers after all) but they do fall behind and seem get back on track (this according to our lovely student guide).
Each teacher has a personal office.
There is an interesting flexibility project happening in Alberta - http://ideas.education.alberta.ca/hsc/current-projects/flexibility-enhancement-pilot/ (I plan to investigate this more!).

It was here that I learned that massive amounts of self-directed time lead to massive development of student agency and self-efficacy. I also learned that self-directed is by no means a pedagogical cop out. It actually takes a huge amount of planning and deep and powerful student-teacher learning relationships to make it work. Below are three key lessons I took away about self-directed learning from that trip:

1) Teacher Advisors (and strong teacher-student relationships) are the key
In each of the schools  we visited Teacher Advisors or TA, to a greater or lesser extent, played a central role in the lives of students, providing a single person that the student connected with throughout their high school career. In the schools where the TA worked best they had regular contact time with students - in Mary Ward students checked in with their TA three times a day and sat down for a formal learning progress interview once every two weeks. This meeting was recorded on a school SMS and sent home to parents as a pre-formatted email. At Bishop Carroll the relationship was similarly formal, but with students determining how regularly they met one to one with their TA, enabling students who were falling behind with more regular contact and support. The TA/student relationship was warm, close but definitely a learning relationship. A powerful way to ensure students received support, encouragement and guidance - particularly important when students are self-directing and may not connect with subject teachers on such a regular basis.

2) The more flexi-time the student has, the better
Whilst it was tempting to default to (and feel more comfortable with) a more hybrid structured/self-directed model, I still believe the more flexi or self-directed time students had, the more rewards there were for the learner in the long run. There is no denying that many students struggled to adapt to having the freedom to manage their own learning, but you could see that by Grade 12 (Year 13) the students that worked their way through several years of self-directed learning were seriously switched on, and as John Wright would say, they demonstrated a real sense of agency - they could manage their learning, and time and time again we heard how these students flourished beyond high school. The schools that ran on, pretty much, all flexi-time (Mary Ward and Bishop Carroll) were also the schools that had students making the most of this flexibility, particularly those that sporting or creative commitments. So often we see students fall behind for these very reasons, which is actually what their education should be about, not something they have to pursue on top of their regular timetables. Students could prioritise their passions and have more or less time and more or less focus on topics as needed.

3) Flexibility and freedom requires rigor, structure and systems to work well
There is every chance that giving massive amounts of freedom to teenagers could result in chaos. It was clear that if you want to ensure academic rigor you need to ensure that there are clear boundaries, clear expectations and a whole lot of check points and support to help keep students on track. At Mary Ward this was achieved by a combination of morning TA time where students received TA mail (personalised messages notifying students of upcoming assessments, grades etc), TA check in before lunch and end of day. Students had large diary planners to plan their time which were regularly checked by TAs and they also had regular sit down TA interviews. This system ensured no students fell behind (or if they did they were identified and supported) and that students were encouraged to create their own structure within the flexi-time.

What I loved about this was actually seeing that students being self-directed can work and it can lead to much greater engagement, self-efficacy and high achievement. I believe if you could take learning from the Canadians,  add to it the NZC, a kick-arse LMS and a more co-constructed approach to the teaching and learning guides you could achieve something magic!!

I realise very few of us are in a position to make free-range learning happen on this macro school-wide scale, however I do believe there is much we can do to achieve this on a micro classroom scale. How do you or could you achieve this in your classroom? Please share your ideas via Twitter with the hashtags #hackyrclass and #selfdirected

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