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Four tips for great self-directed learning... with PLC Armidale

By Lauren Condon on 5 August 2017PedagogyInnovationStrategyNSWstaffroom

Self-directed learning (SDL) is becoming an integral component of more and more innovative schools.

It’s fairly self-explanatory but to break it down, SDL is basically the process of giving the learner (the student) the control to take initiative and manage their own learning. With a lot of the [theory]( of anrdagogy.pdf) about SDL emerging in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it is by no means a new pedagogy but one that is flexible and rigorous enough to still be pushing schools to new levels of innovative education.

Considering that SDL really has many different incarnations and, to be reach its full potential, must be implemented with the right strategy, it’s worth understanding what successful SDL looks like in a school today.

Self-directed learning at PLC Armidale

“Without a doubt, it’s a better model for the girls in later life”

To see SDL in practice, we spoke with Trent Donaldson, the Head of Faculties at one of our partner schools, PLC Armidale, about their approach and experience.

With an increase in the length of their average period, PLC Armidale saw an opportunity to incorporate self directed modules into each subject in year 11. The teachers identify elements of each topic that are best suited to independent learning and allocate them to the girls to work through in their study periods.

“Each subject provides the girls with a task to be completed each fortnight. This task is marked and feedback provided.”

On a fundamental level, formalising a self-directed period into the timetable allows PLC Armidale to offer their students a broader range of subject options and still meet the course requirements set by NESA. It also gives teachers the chance to dedicate more face-to-face time to tackle complex topics and critical ideas.

For the students, the skills developed through SDL mean that PLC Armidale is shaping each one to become a lifelong ‘independent, self-directed learner’.

Four tips for successful Self-Directed Learning

Although it’s unlikely we will ever find a pedagogy that is entirely perfect in theory and practice, there’s immeasurable value in learning from strategies that have been largely successful. And so, from the experience of PLC Armidale, here are four key tips for successfully implementing and developing SDL in a school.

1. Work within the existing structures and systems of your school

SDL will always function best as an element of a broader learning environment.

The reality is that most schools already have some form of reduced face-to-face hours and setting about formalising this is basically the creation of self-directed learning.

The thought of letting students teach themselves everything isn’t the most realistic or necessarily effective implementation of SDL and instead, schools can start with their established reduced face-to-face hours system. It may be designating SDL in a student's naturally occurring free periods, replacing the need for classes outside the normal school hours with the flexibility of SDL or simply assigning some of a subject’s allotted periods to SDL, as in the case of PLC Armidale.

2. Give students resources that you trust

One of the big challenges in adopting SDL is that it asks teachers to give up some control over their students’ education. And that really is a big ask. As much as the theory may promise driven and successful independent learners, teachers won’t shake their responsibility to prepare students for an external exam, such as the HSC.

So teachers are faced with two options. They can either create their own resources to give to students for their SDL or choose an external resource that they, as an experienced educator, can entirely trust and that can be definitively linked to the expectations held by NESA (which are essentially outlined in the syllabuses).

3. Set up a system for feedback

Another strategy to deal with the concerns about having less control over the learning is to set up a really solid system for monitoring and providing feedback on the self-directed work.

This is pretty important in the implementation of SDL when students might not be used to self-directing and self-motivating. Teachers should be setting clear expectations for what should be completed during the SDL time and have a blog, forum or virtual classroom system set up for students to submit their work or a reflection.

Several NSW schools are managing this through their LMS and it gives their teachers a chance to consistently provide feedback.

4. Be strategic in when you employ SDL

Like any approach to education, the implementation of SDL should start with a conversation about the learning needs of the students first. There are some areas of learning where SDL really adds value and other areas where it would probably be counter-productive.

For example, Trent has set Atomi videos for SDL on the sports medicine topic in PDHPE because the content was fundamental and logical enough for the girls to work through. However, when it comes to ethical considerations in PDHPE, he holds in-class discussions to capture the complexity of the argument and to skilfully guide the girls to a deep understanding.

Other than being strategic about what content was assigned to SDL, the advice for correctly employing SDL from PLC Armidale was to not set unrealistic amounts of work and perhaps to set questions along with the delivery of the content.

All in all

Self-Directed Learning really is a challenge to the traditional, regulated classroom that is probably being implemented to some degree in nearly every Australian school. As flexibility is one of the strengths of the approach, there may never be a clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of going about it but there will always be value in seeing SDL in action. With a broader offering of subjects, more independent, skilled students and the ability to cover complex topics in more depth, PLC Armidale’s model is a shining example - a big thanks to PLC Armidale for sharing their experience!

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