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.”