Directing Self-Directed Learning

A few weeks ago, I asked on this blog if our schools can or should be more like Google. As I hoped, this posting generated much fruitful discussion in the comments to the posting and in a discussion initiated by the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education when they shared my blog and asked for comments here.

I have been thinking a lot of my own approach to this question. I sympathize with the desire to promote self-directed learning. I hope that this blog is one such example. I blog about things I am passionate about, when I want to, without any directive from a teacher or supervisor. My children often ask why I blog. I respond that while I hope people read my posts, as my colleague Dan Rosen notes, blogging can often be a practice in narcissism, I really blog for myself. Blogging helps me develop my own ideas. It is my form of self-directed learning.

However, at the same time, when I think back to my most successful experiences as both a student and teacher, they were usually areas where, while the student was given a great deal of autonomy, he was also given a great deal of direction from the teacher as well.

I fondly remember my 11th grade English teacher, Miss Mayefsky A"H, who ran a VERY structured class. I really appreciated how she kept us rowdy MTA boys in line. She had us write in class every single week on a trigger of her choosing, 15 minutes, no questions asked. We walked into the room to find a paper on a desk, the topic written on the board, and Miss Mayefsky sitting quietly directing us. I credit that experience with helping me to develop my life-long love of writing.

Later when I was in rabbinical school, I recall my rebbe at the Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem, Rabbi Daniel Mann, who drove us very hard when we were studying the laws of Kashrut in Yoreh Deah, expecting us to learn every Gemara, Tur, Beit Yosef, Mechaber, Rema, Shach, and Taz on all of Hilchot Taaruvos and Basar Vechalav, the laws of forbidden mixtures and milk and meat. We were given regular comprehensive exams, chaburas, and even were required to write two papers, one of which I later published in Beis Yitzchak. At the time, I am not sure how much I enjoyed this highly-structured very teacher-directed approach, but looking back, I really appreciate it, especially the papers that he made us write. Later, I taught Hilchot Kashrut in high school for three years and also served as a pulpit rabbi for a time. The strong foundation that I was given in these essential areas of Jewish law was critical to my future success.

As a teacher in my own classroom, I find that while I want to allow my students to express themselves utilizing their talents and creativity, I also have a very strong idea of a curriculum that I wish to cover. I am especially proud of projects where I can maximize the two.

For example, when learning the book of Amos, we spend the first six weeks learning the first three chapters together as a class with an emphasis on the historical background to this tumultuous time period and the various literary styles utilized by Amos. We then have a six week project, in which the students choose a later chapter to study with a partner based on their own research supplemented by a list of suggested resources which I provide, write a paper summarizing their study, and then create a product to illustrate how they have synthesized the methodology learned in class with this new chapter. I make sure that every chapter is chosen so that after three months, we can have a class siyum on the entire book of Amos. This project gives students a great deal of autonomy in choosing which chapter to study, who to study with, and what style, technological or artistic, to use in presenting their findings. However, it is still teacher-directed. Students cannot choose to study a different book of Tanach and they have a very clear rubric of expectations for their finished product. When I have tried to be more open-ended in allowing students to choose their area to study, I have been less successful.

I believe that my experiences are similar to those of other teachers that I admire. For example, when reading about Rabbi Aaron Ross' highly successful project based learning experiences, his projects, while very student-centered, are still meticulously coordinated and planned out by the teacher. If anything, good project based learning requires more planning and teacher direction, just of a different kind. Instead of planning lessons to teach in front of a class, one must craft differentiated learning experiences where students can learn "on their own" as much as possible with the help of resources like Flipped Classroom videos, websites, worksheets, and reading material that you have chosen and often even created for them.

I think that the most important opportunities for pure self-directed learning come in the area of extra-curricular activities. If students have an idea for a new club or publication, we must support them in every way possible. But in the classroom, kids crave clear direction from the teacher. This can come in many forms. Frontal teaching does not have to take up the bulk of this learning. But almost everything should be teacher-directed even those times when we allow our students to take control and teach the lesson.

As a teacher, I realize that my most important job is to spark curiosity and facilitate my student's path to becoming a life-long learner. But I also understand that my students need a clear sense of direction in order to reach their full potential. I will end with a quote from one of my favorite movies about teaching, Mr Holland's Opus. (You can watch the video clip here.) “A teacher has two jobs: fill young minds with knowledge, yes, but more important, give those minds a compass so that knowledge doesn't go to waste.”