An Argument for Self-Directed Learning in K–12

By Michele Collett, Director of Finance and Clonlara School Parent

Over the last couple of years, I have witnessed very successful students from traditional high schools flounder in their first semester at college. They attended the lectures, took notes, and read the assignments but still flunked the tests. What could cause the class valedictorian, drum major, and homecoming queen of a large public high school to fail her first semester of college? And if it could happen to such an exceptional student, could my daughter meet the same fate? After learning that one-third of college freshmen do not return for their sophomore year, I started looking for what might be missing from the high school educational experience.

Consider the difference between typical high school learning and college learning. In high school, students read, memorize, and regurgitate information in a structured environment. College-level work demands more than memorizing facts. It requires conceptual thinking and understanding the big picture behind the facts. In addition, high school learning is usually led by a teacher. Students who pay attention in class, take notes, and learn the textbook can be successful on the test. Whereas in college, the information the professor provides in class is often only a portion of the content on the exams—it is important but is not everything. The rest of the learning is done outside of class. The professor’s role is to guide students as they learn the content, rather than simply lead them through it. Unfortunately, too many young people enter college believing that the same study habits that earned them As in high school will also work in college.

So how do we help K–12 students be better prepared for college? Teach them to be self-directed learners before they get there. It has always amazed me that K–12 students are typically told what to learn but are not taught how to learn. For good students to develop into great learners, they must move from acquiring knowledge to developing knowledge on their own. This conversion requires them to use a complex set of thinking skills and integrate external content to amplify the information that was dispensed during class.

At Clonlara School, we believe students and families should have a say both in what and how they learn. Our Full Circle Learning Model provides a framework to guide K–12 students through the learning process by encouraging them to discover their own resources and think more deeply about, reflect on, and extend the topics that capture their attention. Approaching learning in this way helps foster students’ ability to adjust their thinking when necessary in order to overcome any obstacles and experience understanding.

Becoming a self-directed learner early in the education process gives students the opportunity to develop, practice, and model these invaluable skills throughout their high school experience, ensuring they will be ready to tackle and persevere through the challenges that college will bring. It is a powerful and enduring skill that will drive their success not only in college, but also in their career and life.

How do you encourage your children to develop knowledge on their own? What strategies to do you use to help them become self-directed learners?

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