I am consulting at a new school, and I’m talking to the head of the math department to find out what he thinks may be the most useful direction for me to work with his teachers.  They have been focussing on the range of readiness they find in their classes, and they want to incorporate more options for students; they understand the need for differentiation in student work.  When I ask what approach they are using now, he tells me it’s the AFL system, which stands for “Assessment For Learning”.  What this means is that the teachers are being trained to check the progress of every student on a regular basis and then tell the student what work they need to do as a result.  Not surprisingly, the teachers are feeling somewhat overwhelmed with the addition of this new regime and the associated bookkeeping that is necessary.  

“Daniel,” I say, “there is one very straightforward solution, but it’s going to take some adjusting for your teachers.  They are doing what their students should be doing;  if students are given the right training, they can do a much better job of deciding for themselves what work they need to do.”

“I know what some teachers are going to say to that,” he says.  “Students can’t be trusted to make those decisions.  What about when students choose to do easier work than they should?  Or they say they already understand something when they don’t?”

“Well, if they make bad decisions, they won’t learn very well, they’ll do badly on tests and will get poor grades.  It’s in their best interest to make good decisions, but the teachers are going to have to teach them how to make those decisions - their students have probably never had the chance to actually decide whether they need to practice problem-solving, for instance.  I can help with defining the structure of letting students choose work appropriately.

“The other issue is that your teachers are going to have to find a way to trust their students a little more.  In my experience, students rise to the challenge when they are given more responsibility.  But there needs to be a shift in the classroom culture, and that’s another are where I might be able to help them.”

What Daniel and his department have been practicing is called differentiated instruction.  The very name shows the focus on teaching - “instruction” is what teachers do, after all.  And this has several down-sides.

First, it leaves the existing top-down decision making structure intact, with all the attendant negative consequences.  Second, it leads to more bookkeeping and intrusive checking up on the progress each student is making - how else will a teacher know how to assign work for each student?  And third, in a fundamental way, it does not give the responsibility and ownership of the process to the student.

In contrast, self-directed learning is predicated on the necessity of a student steering his own learning process and becoming a self-aware and active agent in that process.  It puts decision-making in the hands of the student, where it belongs and gives students the opportunity to practice steering their own learning process.