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Let’s Not All Make the Same Thing

How to support self-directed projects in the classroom
Illustration by Willamina Peregrine

Kids are full of ideas, yet in the classroom, teachers can struggle to support an entire class with individual projects and creative undertakings. However, the job of helping kids pursue self-selected and personalized projects becomes significantly easier when learners are self-directed and are motivated, organized, and can take initiative independently. 

To understand how educators can help build a child’s capacity to take what’s in their imagination and bring it to life, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, computer scientist, and learning designer Karen Brennan conducted a study of young people working on programming projects at home using Scratch — a free, online coding community for kids. After analyzing a series of interviews with 30 kids about their project development process, she found that the learners had a repertoire of strategies that they used to persevere and keep working on their projects, including studying other projects, taking a break, and asking for help. 

“My interest in self-directed learning has come from an acknowledgement in the field of computer science that although there are many beautiful opportunities to learn how to program, they’re often highly scaffolded,” says Brennan. “So how do you go from these highly scaffolded, ‘let’s-all-make-the-same-thing’ experiences to making anything you can dream or imagine? I’m fascinated by how kids manage that transition.”

Some Support Is Still Needed

For some, self-directed learning opportunities can appear to lack structure, and this can be overwhelming for newer learners or learners who simply get stuck. Yet drawing on the concept of structuration theory — the idea that actions are influenced by the structures inherent in our environment — Brennan suggests that self-directed learning isn’t about withdrawing all support. Instead, the job of the teacher is to help create a learning environment with the right kind of structure that can help a student move their project along. As Brennan puts it, “what we are able to do depends on how we are able to perceive, understand, and make use of what is around us.”

"The job of the teacher is to help create a learning environment with the right kind of structure that can help a student move their project along."

Structures for Self-Direction

Here, Brennan identifies three key elements teachers might consider when students start to work on projects independently:

1.    Personal interests

Learning opportunities can support students by drawing on their personal interests. This can help with motivation and helps learners feel invested in their project. 

  • Keep in mind, though, that interests will need to be balanced with ability. 
  • Help students identify the unique questions and interests that get them excited rather than centering projects around a common or popular “theme.” 

2.    Access to others

Students need to be able to connect, talk through, and share ideas with others. And this doesn’t always have to be an adult. Make sure kids have time to talk with one another.

  • Develop protocols for giving feedback.
  • Help students identify others — classmates or even other teachers — who are working on similar projects or have expertise in a certain area that they can turn to with a question.

3.    Time

In many cases, the school day is constrained by time. Putting away a project at the end of a period can be hard and picking up where you left off can be disorienting. At other times, a class period can feel overwhelming, and learners might not be sure what to tackle next.

  • Help students articulate their goals for the day and what they need to do in order to accomplish that.
  • Leave time for students to reflect and think about what they could do differently next time or what they need to accomplish next time.
  • Have students keep a portfolio of their work so they can see how they’ve grown and progressed over time. 

Overall, though, what learners in the Scratch community emphasized was the power and joy they found in being able to translate their creative vision into reality. “The kids in this study emphasized the value of freedom: the joy and satisfaction that accompanied making whatever they wanted, however they wanted to make it,” says Brennan. 

Illustration: Wilhelmina Peragine

Key Takeaways:

  • Successful completion of self-directed projects depends on providing supports and designing a learning environment that can help students reach their goals, rather than withdrawing all direction and guidance.
  • Personal interests, access to others, and time are three key elements of independent work that can help enable children to participate and engage in self-directed learning.
  • Learners emphasized the joy and satisfaction of being able to complete self-directed projects, suggesting these projects are a powerful and transformative learning experience.
  • Adapted from Brennan’s Twitter thread from July 9, 2021. 

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