Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning
By Val Margarit
Human beings have a fundamental need for autonomy, self-determination, and control over their environment (Deci & Ryan, 1995; Leotti, Iyengar & Ochsner (2010). As a teacher, school leader, and coach I am passionate about understanding what, why and how people learn. Heutagogy, a term first coined in 2000 by Hase and Kenyon describes self -determined learning as independent of formal teaching. In a heutagogical approach to teaching and learning, students have the autonomy, determination and motivation to explore their interests and develop the skills necessary for the real world. Unlike the outdated teacher-centered, or student-centered approaches, heutagogy encourages students to take agency in their learning and decide what, why, and how they want to learn. The teacher will no longer be in charge of telling them what to do. Instead, the teacher serves as a facilitator working together with the students, explaining how to learn, and making sure the learning environment is inclusive and safe for students to becoming highly autonomous and self-determined.
I have been using the self-determined learning approach principles in my teaching and coaching practice with extraordinary success. For several years now I have been immersed in understanding metacognition, mindfulness, and motivation and why some people are more successful than others. Below I will share how I use concepts from neuroscience, namely neuroplasticity, humanistic and positive psychology theories and heutagogy principles to help students transform their lives finding purpose and meaning, and becoming lifelong learners.
Welcome to the “The Mindful Professor”
Step 1 Awareness – Mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is the ability to pay attention in purpose, to the present moment, to train the mind in a deliberate way to focus on the breath or sound or a word (Eberth & Sedlmeier, 2012; Goyal Singh, Sibinga, Gould, Rowland-Seymour, Sharma, Berger, Sleicher, Maron, Shihab, Ranasinghe, Linn, Saha, Bass, Haythornthwaite, 2014). My interest in practicing meditation stems from my years of stress, frustration and anxiety, lack of focus and patience during my academic years, full-time work and the loss of my parents. I desperately needed a way to understand how to cope with these challenges and regain clarity and meaning in my life. Shortly into my meditation practice, I immediately noticed a real psychological and cognitive difference and began studying the topic more closely hoping to learn enough so that I can also help others. Seeing the benefits in my own life I decided to use mindfulness with my students who were also stressed, unfocused and anxious. After a brief introduction to mindfulness, students researched the benefits of practicing mindfulness and together we decided to give it a try and incorporate it into our learning time. Each class I teach I begin with a few minutes of meditation and finish with self-reflection journaling, both principles supported by heutagogy and humanistic theory. Moreover, fournaling about their learning experience is critical to their growth development, critical thinking, focus, and clarity.
Effective teaching is voluntary and intentional and requires that we are aware of ourselves and our environment. Teachers’ view of how learning should occur influences their teaching practices. For example, many teachers may not be aware of their own biases, which ultimately alter their perceptions and interactions with their students. Mindfulness and self-reflection are critical to becoming aware of how beliefs, attitudes, language, decisions, and ways of thinking and behaving affect ourselves and our students. It is therefore a critical first step toward a transformation journey to finding out who you are, what you want and how you’ll go about achieving it.
Teachers’ expectations about whether students can achieve success greatly influence students’ performance, also known as the Pygmalion Effect (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1965). The Pygmalion effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy, shows that how other people perceive us influence their behavior toward us and how we feel about ourselves. Likewise, how we feel about ourselves influence how we see others and how they respond to us. Equally powerful is self-efficacy, the individual belief in our capacity to perform certain behaviors required to complete a task ( Bandura, 1997, Margarit, 2014). Therefore, teachers’ beliefs and expectations in their students’ potential is one of the deciding factors that predict whether students succeed or not.
Step 2 – Mindful Choices
With awareness comes choices and with choices comes to power. Once we are aware of students’ needs and how they are aligned with their real-world, together we can agree on how to proceed. For example, during the exploration or awareness stage, I work with students to identify what we need to learn, why, how and the methods of assessment. Students are aware, engaged, motivated, responsible and accountable in this process because they realize “it is about them and their future, and their success is relative to the effort they put in. As a teacher, I am a “co-leader or facilitator” in this learning journey and ready to support, explain, guide, motivate, empower and inspire students to stay focused on their goals while working strategically on developing the skills necessary to achieve them. Because they have control over their learning process, they have “human agency” the work is meaningful and relevant to their lives and that’s why it works.
Step 3- Intention & Focus
As students enter the class we begin our mindful meditation practice and setting an intention. Students train the mind to focus on “an intention” that they want to accomplish during the class time. I often ask students “who will you be at the end of the class?” to remind them that they are there for a reason and that is not to waste time. Instead, to focus and concentrate on the goals we set up for that particular class. At this stage, students learn about the setting, planning, measuring and completing goals. During the semester we use formative and summative assessments, which we agreed upon while we worked on the curriculum together, and adjust as needed.
Step 4 – Repetition
The foundation of any success is repetition, repetition, repetition, which is highly supported by neuroplasticity. It is through repetition that we train the brain all of our habits: when we get up, how we study, how we drive, how to think, beliefs about health and workout, what makes us happy, and pretty much all the habits we each have. Habits are learned. Attitudes are learned. Beliefs are learned. Any skills could be learned and anyone could do it.
Step 5 -Emotions & Beliefs
Practicing new knowledge is critical but not enough. Students will commit to projects that are meaningful and related to their own lives. So teachers must help students find personal meaning to the new information for them to store it, to remember it and then later recall it. Creating positive emotion by design may seem difficult at first. However, with practice, it will become easier and you’ll control how you feel. For example, many students lack self-confidence, self-esteem, and time management skills, all of which they need to survive. Practicing mindfulness taught them about why they feel as they did and how to overcome negative habits of mind and replace it with positive thoughts. This exercise emphasizes the principle of self-determined learning having students take agency controlling their choices and decisions and feel a sense of autonomy and confidence. The goals students chose to focus on are meaningful so there is an emotional connection which increases their self-belief about their ability to perform a task that they perceive as difficult or impossible to do.
Step 6 – Reflection & Sharing
I practice journaling daily. The benefits are transformational and widely known (Isaacson & Fujita, 2006). Of course, I had to share the benefits of journaling with my students and they immediately signed up for it. For example, at the beginning of class, they write in their journals by redirecting the mind to focus intentionally on the class’s goals, and at the end of the class students journal about what they learned, new ideas, and whether they have any questions. According to Schon (1983), the reflective practice supports learners in becoming lifelong learners, as “when a practitioner becomes a researcher into his practice, he engages in a continuing process of self-education” (p. 299). Students have a choice whether to share their journaling experience and personal growth as part of their final project. It is an incredibly transformational experience for both myself and my students as I watch them transform right before my eyes into confident, self-determined, self-reliant, mindful, competent leaders.
Education should encourage students to explore, control and design their individual learning experience based on their own values, and interests. Educators can achieve this by creating heutagogical learning environments that support, motivate and empower students to trust their abilities, to take chances, and to learn from mistakes. The unpredictable world needs proactive, self-directed people with the skills to survive and thrive in diverse working environments.
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