4 Simple Ways to Help Students Drive Their Own Learning

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Kids drive their learning
Learn how to help kids drive their own learning

How to Move Teachers to the Passenger Seat and Give Kids the Wheel

by Connie Hamilton

Education is about creating lifelong learners. Sure, we understand this goal but how to accomplish it is often easier said than done. Teachers and parents alike describe students who go through the motions of school without really learning.  

Implementing a few simple strategies into your everyday lessons and activities can help students recognize that learning is everywhere so they can make connections between the classroom and their real lives and learn to drive their own learning.

Try any or all of these four independent learning practices tomorrow.

1 – Change your pronouns

Instead of making statements like, “What I want to see in your work” or  “What I’m looking for in your assignment” which reinforce the idea that education is for the teacher–not the student–try replacing “I” with “you.”

Say things like, “What you may be looking for here is . . . ” or ask, “How do you know you’ve learned how to _______?”

Pause before you address a student or ask her a question, always considering how you can replace “I” with “you,” which shows students that they are the most important piece of the learning process.

student-centered learning - Brilliant or Insane
Check out Hacking Homework for more detail

2 – Generate a list of applications outside the classroom from which students can choose

If students are learning about fractions, consider options like these:

  • building something
  • following a recipe
  • sharing food
  • integrating a sport or hobby 

If students are learning about character analysis, connect it to first impressions: 

  • how characters change
  • what causes characters to change
  • how changes in one character may impact other characters

The key is giving students choice; this is much easier to do when your students help you generate the list of potential activities. Ask them what they might do to demonstrate that they understand fractions, characters, or whatever the lesson may be.

When students choose how to connect in-class lessons to real life, they are more enthusiastic about continuing to learn at home–especially, if they are not bogged down with boring, unengaging traditional homework.

3 – Prompt students to share what they learned

Resist repeating what students did in class at home; instead, encourage them to share what they’ve learned and engage others outside of school (peers, siblings, parents) in a meaningful conversation about the lesson. This is a wonderful way to help kids drive their own learning. 

Never assume that students understand how to begin a dialogue about learning outside of school. Give them some simple models. For example, a sentence stem and a follow-up question for someone outside the school is an appropriate way to scaffold this for students and will help them communicate what they’ve learned with others.


Model this dialogue for students in class and tell them to mimic it when they leave your classroom:

“Today we learned about how someone’s perspective influences their message and allows them to be persuasive. How do you think perspective impacts campaign ads?”

Another way to encourage this ongoing discussion of learning outside of school is to invite students to bring those conversations back to the classroom the next day.

Avoid making it look like an assignment. Just encourage the dialogue when they leave one day and begin the next by asking them to share any conversations they had with friends or family about what they learned.

Do this regularly, and students will make it a habit, and this is what real independent learning looks like.

4 – Ask the question “Why is it important for us to learn ___?”

Spend a couple minutes in class collecting student responses. Focus on what could happen if they didn’t understand the concept.

  • What if we didn’t know how to use estimation and wanted to know if we had enough money to buy two weeks’ worth of groceries? How would this impact the shopping experience?
  • What if we didn’t learn about safety procedures in the chemistry lab and, therefore, didn’t know enough to wear rubber gloves when using bleach?
  • What if we couldn’t read cursive writing and discovered a note left behind by a loved one that said, “TO CONNIE – PRIVATE”?

The more students consider these questions, the more likely it is that they’ll want to extend their learning outside the classroom —  even when they don’t receive assignments from their teachers.

Let your students drive

Mission statements across the country are filled with phrases, like “foster lifelong learning” and “create independent learners and responsible citizens.” When teachers focus their in-class narratives on student-centered learning and relevance, these mission statements become more than just words on a poster. 

These four strategies help teachers move away from the traditional homework that is uninspiring and help students become the drivers of their own learning, not just passengers along for the ride.

Learn how to use the Boomerang Model

Featured image credit: Andrew Revelle, Flickr CC License

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series, The uNseries, and other books from some of education's most reputable teachers and leaders. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Connect with @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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