Creating Self-Driven Super Learners

Should the road to conquering student behavior end in compliance? Can we teach the super learners that we want to be self-driven? Elena Díaz reflects on the practical steps we can take to achieve this with our classes.

Compliance is a first stop

For many teachers, achieving a well-behaved class is a great achievement, and so it should be. Students come with background and baggage, with daily struggles and unmet needs. Teachers all over the globe fight a daily battle to tame their classes. At times, the sense of satisfaction a teacher gets when they finally get to a place where their students are happy to comply with requests and instructions, is unbeatable.

But as with everything in education, once you get to the top of a mountain, you need to start looking for the next one. And climb we do, because we give everything for our students. And so, not being happy with our students being compliant, we start searching for that new summit: our students being self-driven.

The Self-Driven Super Learner

My vision was always of a classroom that ran itself effortlessly. I come into the room and students organize themselves, seek knowledge, and come to it, without me having to lift a finger. I can’t quite claim I have reached those dizzy heights, but I have come a long way towards being able to say that I can train students to be self-driven and, when the conditions are right, to self-direct.

Just to fill you in with my background, I am a Head of Languages and consultant working in a rural and extremely beautiful but very deprived area in the North of England. Turning students into self-motivated, eager to learn young people doesn’t come easy, but it definitely is possible. I’d go as far as to say, that if it’s possible for me, it will probably be possible for you.

The Answer

The answer lays in achieving high levels of motivation combined with the development of skills.

Motivation

I am aware that in the current climate and in the part of the world where I live, learning languages is not a top priority. I’ve never banked on languages being top of anyone’s agenda. I get my motivation elsewhere. Here is what I think makes highly motivated learners:

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  • Success: There is no spark like the spark created by getting something right. Create opportunities early on and repeatedly in your lesson for all students (the word ‘all’ being key here) to experience success.
  • Social interaction: completing a task with your partner doesn’t mean you make less of an effort, it just means that you have to think hard to agree with them. Train your students to work effectively with their partner and manage their interaction well, and you will see motivation soar.
  • Constraints: We are naturally wired to problem solve. I often find that students engage much more willingly with an activity if there is a constraint that they need to negotiate. A very simple example of this would be to carry out a meaningful debate only using 4-word sentences. Limit their time, resources, type of answer and you will add that extra dimension to a more conventional task.
  • Ticking boxes: Who doesn’t love to tick a box? Sense of achievement is a powerful motivator. Break tasks down and give students a chance to tick off progress boxes. Simple but so effective.
  • A pathway and a goal: Nobody likes the feeling of being lost. I literally draw the pathway that we are going to follow in every module that I teach. I then show them, by just moving an arrow along, how much ground we have covered and how far we are from completion. The ground to cover suddenly seems much more manageable.  
  • Being treated like you are above average: Knowing that we are special can really ignite something inside us that can make us achieve things we didn’t think we were capable of. Treat all your students as if they are gifted, talk to them as you would your very best students and you’ll see that some of them will step up and grow into their new above average selves.
self-driven super learner girl

Skill Development

I would suggest that you list what makes up most of your teaching workload in and outside the classroom. I would invite you to label this list into ‘only I can do it’ and ‘students could be trained to do it’. The latter should be much longer and tackling it, would inevitably result in your workload diminishing.

I bet I initially come across to my students as someone who’s not hugely helpful. When they ask me a question, I often stare at them as if I didn’t quite understand why they were talking to me. I do this to get a little laugh out of them, but mainly, to use humor to start making a lasting impression on them. The impression that learning is theirs, their grade belongs to them and that it’s their job to get it. They don’t always get it straight away, but somewhere along the line, there is a shift of responsibility and I see students starting to carry more and more of my burden.

I would say I achieve this by:

  • Having high expectations: I have reflected on how much the students in each class can feasibly do by themselves and I won’t accept anything less. I keep no secrets, I talk to them about these expectations constantly, and tell them they’re far too clever to make me do ‘insert task here’ for them. For example, 90% of the time, when a student asks what a word means, I just tell them to find out for themselves.
  • Skill training: As with expectations, I have sat down and reflected on what skills a good linguist needs. I have then taught them explicitly, practiced them with students and then I have demanded that they are used regularly. Training is key. Explicit teaching will create these skills in your students’ consciousness. Repetition will keep these skills alive. Both are essential. Just to give an example, I teach my students the skill of paraphrasing when they don’t know a word. Or the skill of structuring an essay answer. We have practiced those together in the lesson until they could show me they were proficient, and then I have made sure that I give them the opportunity to practice the skill independently. The combination of these two comes beautifully encapsulated in the ancient C3B4ME, see three before me, which some genius teacher had turned into a poster that resembled a registration plate, and that featured on each one of my walls and my resources. Basically, it means, when you have a question, use 3 of your skills or resources to answer it before you turn to me. A time saver, definitely, but an excellent tool to get students to exercise their discipline and flex their independence muscles.
  • Routine: Unlike the previous two, which came from a brainstorming session, the routines that you need in order to create a self-driven learner grow over time. In order for them to grow, however, we need some fertile ground. Go back to that list I mentioned earlier. What is it that I do or lead now, that students could take charge of themselves? One of my favorite routines is my start of the lesson routine. Students are into the habit (routine) to come into the lesson, grab their exercise books, look at the board and answer the question on the board. The question is always the same, the books are in the same place, the routine works seamlessly. So far, so normal. Whey they finish this, they have been trained to routinely, find their most recent vocabulary list and either test themselves or test their partner. No time is wasted, nobody feels rushed. This was a routine that took some growing, a lot of repetition and encouragement, but that now takes very little maintenance. With some classes, this routine evolves into student picking not using a vocabulary list but choosing themselves what will be most useful to their own learning. Being in charge is, when this happens, a powerful motivator, fueled by pride in one’s achievement.

As the conscientious professionals that we are, autonomy can feel hard to grant, but it is the greatest gift. At the end of the day, I’ll remember the many students who left my classroom feeling like they’d made themselves proud, that they are capable, that they made it happen. Their drive, their discipline, their independence will serve them well in their adulthood and I will know I’ve made a difference.

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Elena Diaz
Elena Díaz is an experienced Head of MFL, Research Lead, Consultant and a Specialist Leader in Education who has held a variety of pastoral and academic positions in schools across the Northeast. She is an author and presenter and has worked with Pixl Education, The Times Educational Supplement, Edutopia, Seneca Learning, Quizlet and the Association of Language Learning. She currently works full time at the NELT Bedlington Academy in Northumberland and acts as an Associate Consultant for Durham Education.

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