Embrace Your Inner Architect: A Fresh Take on Self-Direction

by Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda, as featured in Teachers Matter Magazine.

In our contemporary world of learning modules, mastery-based experiences, and independent projects, many students generally focus on a narrow aspect of self-direction: task management. While it is important to grow their capacity in this area, the promise of self-direction is how it impacts the learner and the learning.

We see students doing a lot of learning on their own. They become interested in getting better at a sport so they hang out at a recreational centre or local park to see expertise in action and get some helpful hints. They want to make a nice meal for a loved one and they connect with folks on social media to come up with ideas on what to cook. They want to learn how to play the ukulele and find video tutorials for some songs that can be learned and informally shared with their family. Learning becomes both a personal and a community journey.

However, when they enter their classrooms, too often we tend to rescue them from this sort of self-directed learning. We structure the learning without inviting them to make significant choices in what they need to learn, how they will learn best, and what resources and feedback they will need in order to be successful along the way.

Instead, we might structure a partnership with our learners and co-create to personalize their experiences. We could invite them to become the architects of their own learning.

Planning for learning together powerfully stimulates deeper understanding. We turn to thought partners to ask questions, wonder and investigate our ideas, and seek feedback on whether what we are doing is making sense. When we are thinking interdependently, we are open to the influence of others’ ideas. We are able to make our thinking visible and we learn how to advocate for our perspectives. The push and pull of these interactions open our minds to greater meaning. It is the critical ingredient of the “we” in self-direction that leads to a richer and stronger “me.”

We propose that a well-rounded view of self-direction includes PROCESSING TIME (how it affects my world as a learner) and RECIPROCAL OPENNESS (how it affects the perspectives of those around me). As we initially sketched out these ideas, we drew from 3 of the 16 Habits of Mind — Metacognition, Thinking Interdependently, and Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations.

Developing agency through self-direction is equally crucial
for both adults and students.

Here are the following characteristics:

CHARACTERISTICS OF PROCESSING TIME (Metacognition, Applying Past Knowledge):

  • Students have time to wonder, to work around the edges of the subject matter, and to find a particular direction that interests them.
  • Students make connections based on what they were learning about and how it correlated with their previous knowledge, personal experience, and cultural frame of reference.
  • Students are motivated to stick with the work to meet the challenges it presents.

CHARACTERISTICS OF RECIPROCAL OPENNESS (Thinking Interdependently, Metacognition, Applying Past Knowledge):

  • Students benefit from withholding judgment as they listen, read and view the works of others to enlarge their own view of a given topic.
  • Students are encouraged to explain their thinking and show respect for others’ thinking.
  • Students sense that the results of their work were not predetermined or fully predictable. Moreover, they believed others learned something from them.
  • Students have an audience that pays attention to the details and gives thoughtful responses to their work.

We then crafted a self-direction checklist written in language accessible for learners to clarify the landscape of self-direction that can be applied to any topic or challenge — discipline-specific or multidisciplinary, curricular or co-curricular, within the school day or outside of school.

Self-Direction Checklist As I Interact With The Prompts (Processing)
And Share My Thinking With Others (Reciprocal Openness)

Processing — Making thinking visible to meOftenSometimesNot Yet
I identify how I am thinking and feeling as I am working
through a difficult topic, problem, or task.
I push myself to try things that I’m not sure I can do.
I document the important information that is already clear
or known about the topic I am investigating.
I recognize when more information is needed.
I make connections between what I already know/believe
and new information.
I discover ideas, or meanings based on my examination of
Reciprocal Openness – Making thinking visible to usOftenSometimesNot Yet
I pay attention to how I am reacting and responding to
others’ thinking before I say something.
I modify my thinking based on what I learn from others.
I ask questions when I am listening to something that is
challenging my own thinking. (e.g., Could you tell me more?
What prompted that response?)
When I share my ideas, I show that I care about other
people’s feelings and ideas.
When I find ideas that are different from mine, I decide if
they make sense — even when they are unusual.
I share my “thinking so far” by using details and examples.
I build on or contrast with another’s ideas to open up new
I share what I am wondering about and invite others to
interact with my questions or ideas.

This checklist helps learners assess their progress towards becoming architects of their own learning. In the section on ‘processing,’ we see the importance of the Habits of Mind of Metacognition and Applying Past Knowledge. However, as students become more fluent in recognizing the need for a Habit of Mind, they will begin to use more tools for constructing, processing, and acting.

For example, let’s take a look at one of the indicators of processing from the checklist above: I push myself to try things that I’m not sure I can do. In this instance, the learner becomes aware of this thinking (metacognition) and might be applying past knowledge from a time when they were not successful. However, as they become more fluent in the Habits of Mind, they may realize that this is a time to take a
responsible risk.

Let’s contextualize that example with our earlier discussion on how students learn in various environments, including both inside and outside of school.

  • Sport-related activity: how I can get better at a particular skateboarding technique by watching some locals in the park. I take a responsible risk by spending time observing. Perhaps I will strike up a conversation with one of them. Or practice near them. Or ask to see if they have any tips for me.
  • Art: how I can begin to sketch some ideas without taking myself too seriously. I take a responsible risk by becoming more playful and realize that this unlocks some more possibilities. Part of what I am learning about myself is that putting too much pressure to come up with one idea often results in being stuck with a blank page.
  • Math: how might I solve this complex problem by watching the expertise of a peer and then asking
    some questions about how they were thinking. I take a responsible risk by asking the question, and then trying to solve the problem on my own.

They are drawing upon the Habits as a part of their learning process. As architects, they own their learning as they build it step by step and they use the Habits of Mind as their tools for construction.

Developing agency through self-direction is equally crucial for both adults and students. Regardless of age or expertise, becoming the architect of our learning empowers our actions and serves to make the work personal and motivates our commitment. We observed this need when we started to offer online learning. Our initial assumption was that, given a good design, educators would be able to make choices and become self-directed in their learning.

However, we quickly learned that the “me” part of the equation was strong but the “we” part of the equation was weak. We realized that we need to create a small cohort of learners who could interact in meaningful ways. Our design now includes a regular choice for interaction among the people in the cohort community. As a result, they deepen their knowledge, practices and commitment by using the Habits of Mind. They found the power of both the individual effort (“me”) and the power of facilitated community reflections (“we”). The implications of this design translated to their own practices with students and faculties.

For more information regarding the online pathway for educators to deepen their knowledge of Habits of Mind, go to Individual Practitioner Pathway Certification on the Habits of Mind website.

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are international education consultants specializing in curriculum and
instruction as well as frequent authors of books, articles, and blogs, including Students at the Center:
Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind (ASCD, 2017). They are co-directors with Art Costa of the
Institute for Habits of Mind.

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