June 4, 2021

Supporting the Self-Determined Learner

Supporting the Self-Determined Learner

Imagine spending time on what you care about using your observation of others as not only motivation but as an actual learning resource. Today is part four of four on making learning personal. Mike Wehmeyer, co-author of the 2020 book titled, Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners, shares with us strategies for student ownership and self-determined learning, as well as why now more than ever, the development of those skills are crucial.

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Element Challenge of the Week: Role Model for Self-Determined Learning Activity

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Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners


Terri Novacek  0:07  
If humans are naturally drawn to learning, why doesn't everyone enjoy school? If everyone has unique gifts and talents, why do some people feel dumb, depressed and insignificant. If you want something different, you need to do something different. Welcome to the Element Is Everything podcast where we discuss real world experiences, research and strategies around finding your element, what it is, how to do it, and how to support others in developing it. Please welcome your host with over 30 years experience in public education and independent learning, Terri Novacek.

Terri Novacek  0:49  
Imagine spending time on what you care about using your observation of others as not only motivation, but as an actual learning resource. Today is part four of four on making learning personal. Mike Wehmeyer, co author of the 2020 book titled, Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners, shares with us strategies for student ownership and self determined learning, as well as why now more than ever, development of those skills are crucial. Thank you very much for allowing me to steal some of your time to talk about all the years of expertise and experience that you have gleaned. How many years have you been in education?

Michael Wehmeyer  1:42  
Been in education, 40 plus years, the work that I've done around self determination is in the last 30 years.

Terri Novacek  1:53  
And so that's a lot of years. But yet, it seems to only be something people are just now talking about, it's getting a little bit more mainstream. But even though we talk about it, you can still today go into more classrooms that not that are not practicing that what are your thoughts on why that is?

Michael Wehmeyer  2:20  
You know, change takes time in education. Clearly, many of the themes and ideas that emerged out of the broader self determination theory in the work and motivation really didn't get applied directly to education until the early 2000s. The work that we did, and my background is in special education. So a lot of our work is with students with disabilities, although we purposely kept the theoretical and practical work we've done applicable for all students that work had, you know, a decade 15 years of sort of gestation before, it really became something that you could go out and say, well, we know this works, here's how you do this. So you know, our work reflects the full 30 years of thinking and designing intervention and working with students. But I would say the other thing is really the confluence of factors around positive psychology, positive education, the growth and rapid change in technology, and greater adoption of ideas around personalized learning. Things are just coming together now to I think, create a context in which people are more willing to explore to try things to adopt a mindset. So you know, there's there probably lots of reasons and I, I think the past year with a pandemic will speed some of that along because a lot of students had to work remotely, online, a lot of schools that hadn't really done that had to go to that. And so there were certainly a lot of bumps in the road. And I'm sure that most teachers that, at this point in time are exhausted and don't want to talk about how this has changed. But I think that once once we're down the line further enough, a number of things became evident, I think one is that we can use technology more broadly than had been sort of adopted in the past. And secondly, I think it was an illustration a lot of students found themselves working from home and needing to self regulate and self determine their learning, and had not been taught that those skills and so you know, I think I'll A lot of students struggled in that context and really nothing to do with a student's capacity or even really the mode of instruction. But the fact that education hasn't focused on these issues of self determined learning enough. And I do you think that's changing and that we'll see more of that, as time moves forward, and certainly examplar and sites in schools like yours, provide model so that people can see how how these things can play out?

Terri Novacek  5:37  
Right. So you mentioned self regulation. And I know, that used to be something we only discussed in the special education sector, but now it's become a mainstream word. What is self regulation look like? And how can one support its development?

Michael Wehmeyer  5:57  
Well, self regulation is one of those ideas that has a sort of means a lot of things to different people, you know, in our notion, these ideas of self regulation, involve regulating their own learning. So self regulated learning, taking ownership, I think student ownership over learning is in a good way to think about these things. I think in in the past, we talked about this as in some way identical to self directed learning, but I'm, I've come to believe that self regulated and self determined learning goes deeper than that. So there's a lot of elements about students having a voice in what they are learning how they're learning it being supported to to learn, you know, not only on their own, but to be we use the term a lot causal agent in their learning. And that you know, that, by that we just mean that it's students making or causing things to happen in their lives and in their own learning. And I think it's important to, to distinguish it from independent learning, and independent action, because self regulated learning and self determined learning doesn't mean that every student does everything all by themselves. I mean, there's lots of times as adult learners where we recognize that we're going to learn better or more effectively, if somebody else teaches us something rather than us teaching ourselves that somebody else has expertise that we will benefit from. And so in some ways, we relinquish some of the autonomy over learning for that expertise. But it's always situated in our choice and our volition where we're choosing to do this, to learn this way. And we could choose to learn other ways. So self regulated and self determined learning or are not equivalent to, you know, high levels of independent learning and performance. They're about students making things happen in their own learning, self regulating goals, working toward goals that are goals, that they've had a role in setting, you know, learning in ways that they've had a role and a voice in in determining how to learn and then being part of deciding how, you know, are making adequate progress do I need to do I need to reset my goal? Do I need to create an action plan? So it's all about responding, I mean, self regulation at one levels, is how you respond to things in your environment, in your context, you self regulate your behavior, according to certain contexts. In self regulated learning, it's, you know, if you're not making progress on something you can get, you can keep trying it and keep trying it and, and eventually become frustrated and lose motivation and quit doing it. Or you can go back and say, okay, perhaps I'm approaching this wrong way, I need a different action plan, a different way of learning this, maybe there would be something better. And oftentimes, you know, particularly for younger folks who haven't had a whole lot of experience with goal setting, the goal is been set as is not been attainable. So they need to break the goal down. So it's a matter of adjustment. So self regulation, implies i think that that students adjust what they're doing as a function of you know, their own tracking and monitoring their learning strategy. So let's just a bit part of it. 

Terri Novacek  9:51  
Right? Well in so you know, self regulation, self advocacy, in a lot of ways. It's the blind leading the blind here, because adults have not experienced self advocacy, or really built those skills very well, either they're very passive, or they're very aggressive. So how does that teacher or parent or colleague work with others? Same thing with the self regulation? Do you have any suggestions for the adult that doesn't have those foundational skills in their k 12 experience. How they can get those now and then others?

Michael Wehmeyer  10:38  
Well, that's a good insight. And I think that in education, at least in the US, we go in the pendulum swings from soft skills, social emotional skills, whatever you want to call these things to sort of the three R's kinds of and we go back and forth. And I think that there have been periods of time and education, where we've done a better job of actually being explicit about ensuring that yeah, that students learn skills like self regulating problem solving, goal setting, decision making, and self advocacy, that lead you to be able to self determine learning and to, to be more successful on that. But we've also sort of often left that to non instructional activities. I mean, I think, just looking back at my younger son's high school career, one of the ways he figured out that it's helpful to set and achieve goals is he played tennis at the high school level, and he wasn't great. And he saw but he saw that the other tennis players on the team who were successful, did so because they worked hard, and they had goals. And they worked. It taught him in a way that his mom and I would not have been helpful in telling him how to do something, right. He it mattered to him, he was motivated, intrinsically motivated, because he cared about tennis, cared about doing well. So there are lots of things that in which, I think you learn some of these things, but we, we just too often leave it to chance. And is your observation there. A lot of us as adults don't have those skills? So what do you do? You know, if you feel like? Well, you know, I think the key is none of these things rely on something to magically transform me. You know, these are learned skills, that's, you know, one of the things that we think are really important, we can teach young people, and I think adults can get better at these self determined learning related skills. And so, you know, I think, what's what's really more important is that, that as a teacher, or as a parent, or family member, you understand the importance of this and, and that there's a commitment to being explicit in terms of arranging environments, and providing instruction and parenting in ways that enable young people to develop these kinds of knowledge and skills, and so doesn't necessarily require that you be good at those things. But I think, you know, you tend to improve as you as you think about these things. And, you know, one of the things in the self determined learning book is the one of the things I think we tried to make, the point is that we can do these things, we do know how to teach decision making, and goal setting and problem solving. And they're not really complicated. There's lots of ways to getting students motivated to do this, making sure that you know, things that are meaningful to them, they, they are more likely to engage in these things. And you can set up, you know, product and project oriented learning where there's problem solving to happen. And, and so, you know, I think that the key for us as adults is that we just decide this is something that the young people we teach, or our children are going to need to learn. And I, you know, I think that's one of the things that young Zell is really good about talking about is there's really and others are as well, education and society is changing dramatically and rapidly. I don't think anyone would argue that in the coming years, you're going to need to be able to continue to learn because information will be available, jobs will change. You will change careers, you're gonna have to be good at these these self determined learning kinds of skills so that you can continue to be successful that over time. I mean, I think that's been true to some degree the last 40 years probably but boy, the rate of all of that is accelerating and, and if we don't prepare young people to be able to self determine and self regulate learning, they're not going to be able to be successful. So, again, I think the key is, it's just a commitment on the part of the adult, and willingness to figure out find some resources that guide you in teaching and supporting these things.

Terri Novacek  15:24  
Right. We're not doing them any favors by micromanaging their education, and then sending them off and saying, Be free.

Michael Wehmeyer  15:32  
Well, and you're exactly right. And perhaps that plays out that, you know, we saw that in the education of students with disabilities, because there's so many more factors, I think that people are concerned about protection, and you know, those kinds of things. So, but a colleague of mine once said, if for 12 years, through the course of a child's education career, they float in a life jacket. And then when they leave school, you you remove the lifejacket and throw them into the water, they're not going to know how to swim. You know, they're going to sink we you know, and and it is easy to create more dependency, creating contexts, and I don't mean to be critical of teachers or IT administrators or parents, I think all of us have have seen this. It's just there lots of factors that result in it. But we we haven't had schools that that as adequately at least, a lot of schools don't adequately prepare young people with these set of skills, and they're just not going to do well, they're going to see once the lifejacket is removed. So,

Terri Novacek  16:44  
right, you're mentioned in somewhere in the book that creativity can be taught, which I thought was really interesting, because I know there are people that will say, well, you're either creative, or you're not. And then I go to the what people considered like, the other end of the spectrum is either you're a really organized person or you're not, which we know, to a certain point, you can learn those skills as well. And what I thought was really interesting was you tied the problem solving into the creativity. And usually when we think creativity, we think the arts and and maybe some writing, can you speak a little bit more to that?

Michael Wehmeyer  17:27  
I can, you know, I think we do think of creativity as being some sort of innate magic ability that you possess or don't possess, right, you're but and certainly there's, there's no doubt that some people seem to have gifts that, you know, in, particularly the creative arts, but really creativity is as much about problem solving and goal setting as it is about some high level of performance in a particular area. You know, and I think that creativity, at least in education, particularly is about solving problems that help you get to where you want to go. And, you know, in some cases, you're going to have to solve problems, that for which the solution is not really readily available to you, you're going to have to come up with unique ideas. And so, you know, I think that that it there, there are a number of these factors that are involved in becoming a self determined learner that I think we used to think about them as sort of innate, or, you know, you had them or you didn't have them. But, you know, I'll say resilience is, as an example, although we don't, we don't talk about resilience a lot. And people used to talk about resilience as if it was something that you just had or didn't have. And yet, it's clear, you can teach the skills that enable you to be more resilient, it's clear, you can teach skills and provide opportunities that enable young people or young people to be more creative. And I just think it's so much of it is about the expectations that we have, as adults had for children, you know, if we expect them not to be crushed, if we expect them not to be good at something, you know, the The fact is, they're not going to be good at it. Because, you know, we're we're not going to provide the opportunities were not to provide those things. So, you know, I think that there's lots of things and I'm not an expert in creativity, but the people I read who are all seem to be saying these kinds of things that these are things that give it's about opportunity, and that very closely aligned with these issues of goal setting and problem solving. 

Terri Novacek  19:52  
Right? Well,I'm Carol Dweck work has really helped in that regard. Absolutely. So when A child is in a five day a week site based program, they're in a hybrid program, they're in a homeschool program. Today, the home really is an extension of their learning environment. Everybody's saying it now not just a small group, you know, learning happens 24, seven, anywhere all the time. So what do you see as some key strategies and ways to set up a home environment to support self determined learning?

Michael Wehmeyer  20:32  
Well, and I, you know, I mean, I believe and have for a long time that the home is the most important teaching and learning context for young people to become self determined. And so, you know, I think there's lots of things that families and parents and caregivers can do to, you know, it's about some of the same things that we might talk about in an educational context, you know, the environment, how much, you know, when children are very young. You know, by providing choice opportunities, you begin to teach children that, that they have a voice in what happens to them, and they can, they can, it's, uh, you know, these kinds of experiences can be precursors, if you will, to later self regulated learning, right. So, you know, self regulation, and self regulated learning and self determine learning, they don't just pop up one day, because student has, you know, acquired some brain mass, it's about having these experiences, involvement in decisions in a family. You know, it's, it's, and this is true for teachers, as well, as parents of family members, it's just so many times, it's so much easier to just do things, or to do things for particularly younger children, right. And so, and again, no blame here, I'm a parent, you know, there's mornings where you're going to put that kid's coat on every time you go get out the door, but but, you know, solving problems, I think, among the best way to learn is is in, you know, what we talk about is, you know, you learn to solve problems by watching somebody else articulate the steps they're using, to solve a problem, most of us as adults just do that in our head, we don't really, we don't really articulate it or make it explicit. And so whether you're in the classroom, whether at home, if you're, you know, we run into problems large and small all the time, and by making these things more apparent, to children, and youth for that matter, and by involving them in solving problems, or making decisions, or, you know, and again, I go back to that point, it doesn't really matter whether mean, a five year old, is not going to be really good about you know, one of the first steps in learning to solve a problem is that you identify that there is a problem and children before the age of five, they just kind of bounce off and go to something else often, right. So, you know, there are developmental progressions, but you can still involve a five year old, if you're a family member, and you see what you know, to be a problem that that child can't solve, stepping in providing some ideas, suggestions for solutions, and just going through that. So, you know, children and and adolescence and even into young adulthood, they just need to have the scaffolding if you will, that enable them to participate as fully as they can. And everything from goal setting to problem solving to decision making kinds of things and and so being conscious about the the house and creating ways and and environments in which kids can explore and of course Montessori is all about that so that they can express their own preferences. And of course, you know, I mean, one of the things one of the sad realities is one of the things that you learn as a young child is that not every option is available to you just because you want it doesn't mean you're going to get it right. Right. That's all part of the process. And so, you know, helping children understand that and, and, and as they get older, figuring out ways to get what they want, if it's not readily available, or if there's a reason that they can't get explicitly that how can they How can things you know, what can they do to at least satisfy some of that?

Terri Novacek  24:56  
In other words, exposing them to the real world? It's exactly right. So one of the things I really like about your book is that it explains the science as well as the practical application seems like too often you get one without the other. And I understand that you have an ebook that is about to come out and be available for free to everyone. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Michael Wehmeyer  25:25  
Yeah, so we, I've been involved with the the positive education movement. And as an outgrowth of the positive psychology movement, as I'm sure I know, you all have been. And I had the opportunity with a colleague to edit a handbook of positive education. It's being published by Palgrave. So it's the Palgrave Handbook of Positive Education, we arranged for it to be open access. So once it's available online, it's free for anyone and we have chapters from really people who are incredibly talented, who have been engaged in these this kind of work on everything from character strengths to well being and, and flourishing and self determination, and creative, creative learning, creativity and positive spirituality, a life design approach, to education and career development, the idea that we need to equip young people to design their own lives to some degree more so than, you know, 50 years ago, you might have entered a career and there was a lockstep path to progress, you stayed in the same company, you are now in a project oriented economy, you know, you're going to have to create and design your own career as well as your own life in a lot of things. So those are a lot of those issues we were talking about, there's a good chapter on that. So lots of things around that. And it will be I think it will be available at no later than probably July, and you'll be able to just Google it and get access to so I think it's probably the most comprehensive look at positive education that's available at this point.

Terri Novacek  27:19  
That's great. I look forward to it. Well, I you know, as an educator, I just want to say thank you, for all your years of the research, the science, putting it in a book that is nice and easy for educators to read through. It's not daunting, it's not super thick, it's right to the point and, and really get us a lot of practical ideas that somebody can read and, and walk away and say, Okay, I've got some new strategies to try so

Michael Wehmeyer  27:56  
well, I appreciate the compliment. And you know, it was a great opportunity to talk to a larger audience than a lot of our work, I think there's a certain amount of skepticism of anything coming out of academia, people need to see it happening. And even if I, if I create something that's rare, a relatively user friendly, it takes somebody to take it. And usually those somebodies are people who have already invested time, it's reinforcing the things that they're already doing and believing it provides a few more new strategies. So I think the work you do is really, really important, we just need those models of this is how this looks when it rolls out.

Terri Novacek  28:41  
Right? Hopefully, you know, kind of going back to what you're saying about the pandemic, and really pushing us all forward. Now more than ever is time for people to put egos aside. And I come from both worlds, the public, site-based school as well as the homeschool world. And so I know the parents would say no, anything that no, like you're saying academia puts out is bad. And then you get the teachers that are saying parents don't know what they're doing. And the truth is that they all do and what you're taught, this is why I feel so passionate about this is because I've seen it work, right. It's not theory for me anymore. And where I've seen it work the best has been in the homeschool community. And there's no reason that some of the things that have been done in that homeschool community can't be supported in a site based school. And it really just comes down to the relationship. It's the whole team with the student at the center.

Michael Wehmeyer  29:44  
Yeah. You know, I mean, one of the things that, you know, we probably haven't learned as often as we are as well as we should have is that it really education is all about relationships. There's some really interesting research and some of it we touched on in the about students motivation as a function of whether they believe that the adult, the teacher, the parent, or family member believes provides choice and opportunities for them to self determine learning. Teachers have to have greater autonomy. I think that's one of the been the failings of schooling, is that everything sort of flows downhill at the bottom are teachers and students and they have very limited choice and how to teach on what to teach and, you know, direction, because I don't think even really be it, I don't think you can operate schools that really promote student self determined learning, unless you've adopted more of these kinds of ideas that, you know, empower teachers and empower parents that empower students. So

Terri Novacek  30:51  
well said here, here, and we will just end with that. That's perfect. 

Michael Wehmeyer  30:57  
All right, Terry, great talking with you. 

Terri Novacek  31:00  
Mike makes reference to the education pendulum, how we go from the three R's to soft skills. Now for those younger folks who have not likely heard of the term, the three R's, it represents reading riting, and rithmetic. But you say, writing begins with a W and rithmetic is slang? Yes, you are correct. academia, irony at its best. So back to Mike's point about the pendulum. And I think this is very good timing to discuss, especially given the eye opening we've had in the past 15 months about education. But we tend to go all in on core academics, making learning all about the content standards. And then the next thing you know, we're all in on what's referred to as soft skills like communication, collaboration and creativity. The way to stop a pendulum is to apply force or friction, the force that will stop the academia pendulum is you taking control of your own learning, focusing on content as well as character. It's not just about what you know, but how you relate and what you do. So here's your challenge for the week. Find a role model, appear a parent, a colleague, a friend, even a stranger, but identify someone who has skills or characteristics that you want to build. Analyze the specific skill or characteristic and visualize yourself with that skill or characteristic. Why do you want that skill or characteristic? How will you have to change in order to achieve it? What results do you expect to get? And how would that skill or characteristic bring you closer to your element?