Best teacher is the one who makes herself unnecessary by
empowering students to become autonomous learners.
When learning is seen as a product, the emphasis of the learning-teaching interaction is in instruction – and the thinking behind comes from the idea of students only learning when the teacher is instructing them, and only what they have been taught. The reality is different, as any curriculum leader can tell you. At any given moment of time any given classroom has several ongoing curricula: intended, written, taught, actualized, learned, etc., so we cannot simply look at the learning product. This product may be a paper, worksheet, notes, homework, essay, grade, etc., that we use to measure the results of students’ learning.
Emphasizing learning products makes mistakes very undesirable phenomena in the classroom – after all a perfect product is the goal, right? And often the grade only reflects the finished learning product, without paying attention to how the student got there. Maybe s/he already knew the content or had the skill, and didn’t have to study or practice at all? If we pay too much attention to the product, we may miss the important part of the learning-teaching interaction: the individual students’ main gain, her/his increase in knowledge/understanding/skills that has happened as the result of instruction.
Now, very seriously: which one is more important to you? What your students know/can do — or how much they improve in what they know/can do?
There is a big difference.
Improving what students know/can do inevitably leads to different end results, because each student has her/his own starting point. And this improvement, the increase, of course, IS the result of the individual learning process of each student. This is also why helping students to become independent learners is so important.
Independent learners tend to automatically (or by learned habits) engage in their own learning process. While observing these students we can see them intentionally influencing their own learning behaviours, and Bandura (2006, p.164-165) described the four following components in their engagement: the intentionality of their learning, the forethought of their actions, their self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness. Of course, to be able to do all this, students must have certain amount of freedom in the classroom, which is why I am so fervently advocating for providing more choices in classrooms. Choosing is a skill that can (and should) be taught and learned, and it only grows when students have ample opportunities to try choosing in an emotionally safe learning environment, where mistakes are not only allowed but celebrated.
Just imagine how much more these students learn! They don’t need the teacher to motivate or engage them, because they are already “in the zone”. In the classroom these components apply straightforwardly to students’ engagement as intentional learning activity, and learning motivation and goal-setting as their forethought. Meta-cognitive knowledge is about knowing and understanding how I learn, knowing what is easy and what is hard for me, and where do I need to put in extra effort in learning. Independent learners, who engage in their own learning process already know these things. Wouldn’t it be important to help every student to possess this knowledge of themselves?
The third component in independent learning, self-reactiveness, relates to the way students control their own learning actions and regulate their own behaviour in classroom. As a teacher it is important for me to ask myself, how can I support my students’ self-regulation and provide more autonomy for them. When students get to regulate their own learning process (pace, depth, breaks, note-taking, collaboration, additional information, etc) also the learning results, the visible and tangible products of learning, do improve.
Maybe the easiest way to support students’ learning process is to provide accurate and timely feedback. This strengthens the fourth component of independent learning, student self-reflection, which is too often overlooked. Feedback has been statistically identified as one of the important teaching-learning factors (Hattie & Timperley, 2007), because it enhances both the learning process and the product we get as an end result of successful learning. Students self-evaluation is an important classroom practice, because it combines feedback and self-reflection.
To me it seems that too strong focus on the learning product leads to shallow learning (to just get by), and strategic learners (to just get a good grade) instead of deep learning. While independent students may have strategies to cope in product centered learning environment, the dependent students may not have a clue what they should do, or how they are supposed to do it – which further decreases their learning motivation.
Focusing on the learning process emphasizes the students’ responsibility in the learning-teaching interaction. It both enables and encourages students to engage in their own learning. This engagement helps both students and teachers to build learning up from standards and to achieve competencies needed in our modern world.
Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on psychological science, 1(2), 164-180.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 77(1), 81-112.