Looking to improve hybrid and remote instruction? Consider student-directed learning.

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Oct 13, 2020

Among its many trials, the year 2020 has brought a swift and massive shift to remote and hybrid instruction. These models are not entirely new, but adopting them in such short order to address the necessity of social distancing has not been easy.

In some versions of hybrid instruction, teachers meet in a classroom with some of their students while the rest join virtually via video conference. Yet as anyone can easily imagine, it’s hard to teach a lesson that keeps all students engaged and actively learning when operating through two different mediums at the same time. 

Another common hybrid variant involves working with students in shifts: some come to class for the first part of the week while the rest study independently from home, then the two groups switch places for the second half of the week. Live instruction with this arrangement may be less complicated to manage. Yet when half of a class meets with the teacher before doing independent work and the other half does their independent work first, I’ve heard from educators that it’s hard to plan lessons and units that fit the needs of their classes.

Meanwhile, with many school buildings still closed, a huge proportion of students and teachers are still doing all learning remotely. Having learned from the pitfalls of asynchronous remote learning last spring, many now try to replicate the school day online to the full extent possible. Teachers are on back-to-back video calls with their students for roughly the equivalent of a school day, with short breaks for recess, lunch, or transition between classes. 

All in all, it seems that 2020 has taught schools that asynchronous learning doesn’t work—or that at best it only works for a certain type of student. But what if the real problem is that schools that were forced online have been approaching asynchronous instruction the wrong way? And what if the current reality of hybrid and distance learning could actually improve with better asynchronous instruction? 

Here are two ideas worth considering.

Make class materials student-directed

Part of the problem with distance learning last spring was a resource mismatch. When schools closed, many teachers accustomed to in-class instruction started posting their class materials and assignments online for their students to complete at home. The problem is that most classroom-based curriculum and activities were never designed for independent learning. They are built on an assumption that a teacher has covered the relevant content before students do independent work, and that the teacher is on-hand to guide students through learning activities. Given this underlying assumption, it’s no wonder that students struggled and parents felt desperate

For asynchronous learning to work well, students and teachers need materials designed for self-directed learning. As one option, schools and districts should consider purchasing course materials used by online course providers and virtual schools instead of materials from conventional curriculum companies. These materials utilize engaging online videos or activities to cover content. Additionally, the platforms through which students access these course materials make it easy for students to monitor their own progress and see what they need to work on next. 

Alternatively, teachers can design their own online materials for student-directed learning. For example, instead of covering content through live lessons, teachers might create online lessons using tools such as EdPuzzle or Pear Deck, and then design corresponding independent practice activities to be as truly independent as possible. For illustrations of how this approach can work, consider the instances I’ve written about in the past from teachers like Scott Nolt and Chris Walter or examples from the Modern Classrooms Project.

Shift the role of the teacher

Student-directed materials do not mean that students just learn on autopilot, teacher optional. In fact, in a model where students do more of their learning independently, teachers are more essential than ever—just for different reasons. 

Students’ motivation for independent learning grows when their teachers exemplify both expertise and passion for the content and then show how mastery of that content connects to students’ goals and interests. Students need teachers to organize activities such as projects and group discussions in order to build on and deepen what they learn independently. And as students apply their learning through activities such as essays, science experiments, design projects, and presentations, they need expert feedback from their teachers.

Most importantly, when more of the onus of learning falls on students, they need teachers to coach them on developing the metacognitive skills that lay the groundwork for independent learning. All students are naturally curious and do a lot of self-directed learning on topics that interest them—such as video games, sports, and hobbies. One reason why student-directed learning often seems not to work in formal schooling is that conventional schooling institutionalizes students into the opposite of student-directed learning: sitting quietly and waiting for adults to give them instructions. Year after year, they internalize that learning is about conformity and is disconnected from curiosity and passion. Thus, when their education suddenly becomes more self-directed, students need teachers to help them learn how to take learning back into their own hands. 

At first, students may need a high degree of support and scaffolding. For some students, teachers may need to check in with every five, ten, or 15 minutes during learning time to help them develop mindfulness, motivation, and focus. Some students will need this support more than others, and with time, teachers can pare these check-ins back to just a few per day for most students. Importantly, students will also need on-demand help when they get stuck—either from a teacher, a tutor, or a peer—until they figure out how to seek that help on their own. Throughout this self-directed model, teachers will need to spend a good amount of time patiently letting students make mistakes as they master how to learn independently.

In sum, independent learning does not mean disconnected, impersonal learning. It just means that in a student-directed context, teacher directions and direct instruction are not the linchpins to learning. In conventional instruction, the teacher is a bottleneck: little learning happens unless the teacher is teaching. In contrast, when learning materials are more student-directed and teachers shift their roles, teachers become the managers of the learning process.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on identifying strategies to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education through Disruptive Innovation. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.