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Shifting to self-directed learning: Setting a "default" mode

Head shot of Beth Rabbitt

Beth Rabbitt

The Learning Accelerator


A major goal of many blended and personalized approaches is the development of self-directed learners - students who are able, with the support and guidance of teachers and peers, to take responsibility for identifying their needs, setting goals, preparing a plan, finding resources, and evaluating their progress. In short, we want to create learning experiences that develop students' capacity to lead their own learning in the longer term, far beyond the walls of their K-12 schools and into their adult lives as learners, professionals, and citizens.

But making this move in the classroom can be tricky. In early transition stages, students might need greater direction to stay on track. In addition, having every student working at their own pace and on different tasks means that they might hit a roadblock at a moment when a teacher isn't available. To keep students actively learning, educators set clear, explicit "default" modes for what to do.

Defaulting to independent learning plans

In a number of cases, and across nearly all grade-levels, we saw teachers set the explicit expectation that when a student wasn't assigned to a particular task or group they should work through their independent learning plans. This was true at nearly every school we visited.

Leaders cited three benefits:

  • Less time awaiting instructions, more time actively on-task. Students know what to do on their own. Rather than awaiting instructions and then moving into a task, students assume they were "on-task" unless asked to do otherwise.
  • Lighter planning load for teachers. Rather than creating a customized schedule for every student at all times, teachers are able to focus on creating a coherent, longer-term learning plan, monitoring that plan, and provide targeted intervention and acceleration.
  • Not being "stuck" when awaiting help. Students don't need to sit in limbo while a teacher works with someone else. They can indicate a need for help and then move on to another activity or learning objective.

This idea of defaulting to independent work isn't a completely new one - great teachers almost always set the expectation that students should stay engaged in a task while waiting for peers or another set of instructions. But a big difference for these schools is that in a blended environment students can access learning plans that are a great deal more personalized to needs and interests. Further, unlike time spent on an independent worksheet, they can also usually work with their peers.

Defaulting to tiered supports

Another strategy we observed across schools was the setting of defaults for what supports to look for, and in what order, when a student was stuck.

At Pleasant View, students are responsible for requesting an assessment when they feel ready to demonstrate mastery. But as students move at their own paces and teachers are usually engaged in small group or one-on-one support, assessment requests were getting disruptive. Students now know to simply write their name on the board, which alerts teachers to their needs.

At ReNEW, students who need additional support after reviewing online content know first to review the class roster to find a peer who has already mastered a skill. This is also true at LPS Richmond, where students work in heterogeneous teams and know to ask their peers for help on a task before the teacher.


Explicit instruction for defaults

Finally, default norms and routines can be incredible helpful for supporting the shift to self-directed learning. But these default practices need to be made explicit as well as introduced and reinforced.

Introduction and guided practice: At LPS Richmond, teachers guide students directly through the first two units of the course so that students can understand and model expected behaviors. A similar approach is taken at Roots, where staff and students spend the first six weeks of school practicing and guiding students into independent learning.

Clearly stated norms and routines: Defaults can often be wrapped directly into stated classroom norms. Summit Public Schools, a personalized learning school system and partner to Basecamp schools nationally, has developed a few open resources teachers can use to develop their own norms and routines.


Head shot of Beth Rabbitt

Beth Rabbitt

The Learning Accelerator