Self-directed Learning Opportunities in the Elementary School

Following the introduction of our Day 9 initiative in the Middle and High Schools, we received many questions about how we implement self-direction and allow students to own their learning in the Beijing Elementary School.

Research tells us students benefit from increased opportunities to make decisions, manage their own time, evaluate their needs, and reflect upon their progress1. We know that emotion and interest drive higher quality learning2. These are the reasons why we are looking for ways to strategically hand over the reins to our students with guidance and support.

But, of course, it happens at age-appropriate levels and paces. The Beijing IB Primary Year Program places high value on student agency3. At WAB, we begin in the Early Years program, where teachers often ask students questions why they are doing things or what they might want to do differently to achieve their desired outcomes. As we advance through the Elementary-age students, we introduce more options and opportunities for student agency or ownership.

That may come in many forms. For example, a Grade 3 teacher may hold a meeting each Monday morning presenting to his students the required accomplishments, achievements, and tasks they must complete before the end of the week: four math activities, a published blog post about their recent field trip, inquiry into artistic techniques for a project, and a certain amount of reading time. They may even be given time specifically to plan their weekly schedule, because there is value in teaching and learning how to make a schedule and manage time. In this model, the teacher may act more as a mentor and facilitator than as a content expert, delivering a 30-minute lesson at the front of a room full of 20 students. With their teacher’s guidance and age-appropriate structures in place, students understand themselves as learners, track their own progress, reflect on their challenges and successes, and adapt to their learning needs for continued success.

There is no mandated or standardized self-directed learning time in the Elementary School. Some teachers use 20 percent of their time for personal inquiry, and we know there is value to unstructured time – for play, for socializing, and for learning. But it can’t stop there. It is important to offer different amounts of structure and guidance for different students.

We offer opportunities across a range of different levels of independence. Teachers who engage in differentiated learning decide on the content, student groupings, and methods of learning for different students’ varying needs. In individualization, students don’t own the content they are going to learn, but they own the time they have been given to learn it. They are responsible for pacing their learning and becoming masters of their own learning. In self-directed or self-organized learning, we add the element of content choice for students. Some subjects inherently offer different degrees of these styles: For example, literacy can inherently offer more self-direction as students choose books they want to and are capable of reading. In contrast, mathematical principals such as long division demand a certain content, which can be taught in different ways or at different paces.

The overall goal in our Elementary School is to introduce purposeful opportunities for students to take increasing ownership over their learning within the curriculum and with age-appropriate support structures and guidance.

1. Hanover Research, Time Management and Organization

2. How Emotions Affect Learning, The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory

3. IBO/PYP Learner Agency


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