IT is Report Day for Grade 9 students. A group of friends is huddled together reading their teacher’s comments. One has a series of positive remarks while another has “can do better” and “needs improvement” screaming out of the paper. What if those words were to be directed towards their teachers instead? When students fail, how many teachers look within themselves and ask what they ‘can do better’ to help those students who have not met their targets? When students are instructed to do better, perhaps it should be accompanied by constructive advice on identifying ways to change their learning strategies and a structured plan to apply them, rather than generic comments.
Self-directed learning has its underpinnings in constructivist learning theory which distinguishes between surface and deep learning. When learners recognise the value and relevance of what is being taught, they are more receptive to engaging in classroom discussions, activities and take greater responsibility for their work. Some students do better than others at self-directed learning.
They ‘own’ their learning journey, participate in lessons actively, follow a study schedule and steadily acquire the tools for success in achieving the set learning outcomes. Others who have not developed intrinsic motivation, struggle with superficial learning, get quickly accustomed to ‘helicopter’ parents prodding them to work, resign themselves to mediocrity and set the ball rolling in a direction that is almost destined to fail them.
Fast forward to their adult life and the distinction between these different sets of learners is clear as crystal. One group relies on external factors such as approvals and rewards and cannot find much motivation within themselves. The other group relies on their unique resources to find value within themselves — they do not require leadership going forward.
When students fail, how many teachers look within themselves?
As adult learners in higher education, they do not need hand-holding through their journey. They are able to show resilience when faced with challenges, and chart out a path through life. They seem to have internalised the value of learning earlier on, and along with that comes a feeling of empowerment that will continue to help them through a maze of choices and challenges.
Children are not born with the tools for self-direction; intrinsic motivation is not deep-seated within their personalities. The tools for learning, engagement and empowerment are carefully constructed through years of encouragement, guidance and inspiration. Often, it is the result of watching and learning.
Most children do not develop a love of reading by being told to read — they get inspired by watching the adults around them. Intrinsic motivation may also be the natural consequence of exposure and experience. Those who grow up playing a sport develop an affinity with it, which may translate into a competitive drive through exposure to others who are excelling at it. As they grow up with that inspiration, guidance and experience, they tend to make a personal choice to work harder.
The secondary classroom is the fertile soil where teachers can grow these seeds. It is in the secondary school phase that students become self-aware and can rationalise, appraise and vocalise what they wish to work hard at, and this is a crucial stage for strategies that can hone their skills. It is at this stage that interactive classrooms can be used for the benefit of high-achievers as well as the previously disengaged ‘back-benchers’.
Engaging activities in the classroom can spark enthusiasm through a variety of techniques to help the ‘invisible’ back-benchers gain influence, and the high-achievers shine brighter. The student-centred classroom gives students a chance to play an active role in their own learning — analyse, criticise, debate and evolve through the experience.
Engagement activities such as groupwork, peer feedback, an ongoing dialogue with the teacher, self-reflection at the end of lessons and ‘flipping the classroom’ where students sometimes get to teach the class are some of the ways of increasing engagement and building motivation.
Children in this digital age cannot be passive learners — they want an immersive experience in the classroom, much like the kind that they get online. Whilst it may be tricky for many schools to introduce digital learning in their classrooms, there are hundreds of different ways of replicating the digital experience. Interactive games such as ‘hangman’, ‘scatter-gories’, and ‘bingo’ for maths are fun and engaging. Often, students who do not speak up in class might get involved in games. Ultimately, it is the focus on developing and rewarding effort rather than chasing results that enables students to direct their own learning through intrinsic motivation.
The writer is a lecturer of communication skills at Amity University, Dubai.
Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2019