Tag Archives: self-direction

Scaffolding success for self-directed learners

We talk a lot, as professional development coordinators and as educators, about self-direction. We think a lot about ways to support self-directed learners, offering them “choice and voice” while trying to make sure we support them in their learning. (And hey, educators, you’re learners too. I’m a learner. We are all, to some degree, self-directed learners).


A brief history of self-directed learning

I started to become familiar with the phrases “self-direction” and “self-directed learning” probably around 2014 or so. I started to hear it in mission statements in, from schools, when they talked about their aspirations. I started to hear it as an outcome for dispositions and skills that we wanted our K-12 learners to have.

And I was really curious about that.

When we in Vermont started to transition towards a personalized learning environment that included proficiency-based learning, the Vermont Agency of Education identified what many of us know as the five Transferable Skills:

  1. Clear and Effective Communication
  2. Creative and Practical Problem-Solving
  3. Informed and Integrative Thinking
  4. Responsible and Involved Citizenship
  5. Self-Direction

Most of those felt familiar to me as an educator, but self-direction? That was new. And I didn’t understand what was. What was that as an outcome for students?

Fast forward a few more years. And I start to see Self-Direction on report cards.

Self-direction as metrics of success on report cards: (l to r) State of Hawaii (general), State of Hawaii (kindergarten), and as part of a "Positive Dispositions" report card section.


I see it in report cards of schools that I’m working with as a professional development coordinator. And I see it on my kids’ report cards, who are adolescent learners themselves.

And basically, I’ve devoted a few years to studying this phenomenon because I feel like there’s some misconceptions about self-direction and self-directed learning.

Where did self-direction come from?

It turns out self-direction is originally an adult learning concept.

It came from theorists and researchers in the sixties and seventies who were interested in how adults pursued further education. That might be adults who never graduated from high school and then decided to pursue a GED. Or they might’ve been adults who are taking night classes.

We’ve taken most of that adult concept and applied it to a K-12 environment. And it’s not a neat and tidy fit.

So I want us to think about what we know about self-direction already. And I want to share some of the things that I learned, which I feel are really of primary importance.

Debunking self-directed learning myths

scaffolding self-directed learning


Self-direction needs to have an environment that is supportive of demonstrating skill and exercising that skill.

And that means that students have some degree of autonomy and independence. They are provided with choices and selections that are based on what they know about themselves. That are based on what they know about themselves as learners, and based on their interests and what they know about that.

Self-direction does not mean that a student in a K-12 environment is following directions created by the teacher. Self-direction is not turning in an assignment on time.

Now there’s a little bit of that that’s debatable, right? But self-direction really has this degree to which it’s about the student identifying what they have for goals and their ability to pursue those goals.

So when we see this talked about in schools, particularly in younger cases where students maybe don’t have a lot of opportunities for self-direction, sometimes it’s being defined in schools as the way a child follows teacher directions.

And that could not be more of a myth self-direction.

Self-direction doesn’t always look like compliance. In fact, sometimes our most self-directed kids are our least compliant kids!

So I just want to give you an opportunity to think about that and think about how that concept of self-direction as compliance might impact your previous knowledge about self-directed learning.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of information coming out of research sites that are supporting the schools and the teachers that are really trying to invest and move the self-direction skills of their students.

Dimensions of self-directed learning

Here’s an example of what has been pretty widely agreed upon as five dimensions of self-direction.

scaffolding self-directed learning


This mimics what I’ve seen in a couple of other toolkits, but this comes from a group called the Research-Practice Partnership (.pdf).

And this is the same as the essential skills and dispositions, which some of you might be familiar with, but these five things are what have been identified in the research as the effective dimensions of self-direction.

And so what I hope to do is engage you in an exploration of what do these things look like in your practice.

Most importantly:

  • Where are you giving your students opportunities to practice and demonstrate and engage in these skills?
  • And then how are you supporting them?

Scaffolding self-directed learners at different ages

Because what we know about self-direction is that to some degree, like a lot of skills, we have people who, for whatever reason, have a little bit more of it than others.

Let’s take like maybe a fourth or fifth grader.

There’s definitely differences at that stage about what students have for self-direction skills, but somewhere along the line, that student had experiences or guidance that helped shape them, right?

Maybe it was a parent at home, maybe it was an experience in summer camp, but they’ve got a little bit of self-direction. But when students don’t have self-direction, we need to coach them and provide them with the scaffolds to develop it.

One of the things I like to remind people about is that when you see a kindergartener enter into a building, and enter into our school system, they have a lot of these things. They have a lot of questions. And they can take initiative. They’re curious. They can identify things they want to learn about.

And then somewhere in our K to 12 spectrum, sometimes some of our learners don’t continue to have opportunities to exercise self-direction.

I think about it as like a muscle.

If you come into kindergarten with these muscles, but no one gives you an opportunity to exercise them and work out, they atrophy. They weaken. And that’s why we sometimes see self-direction failing when we attempt it too late in the process.

You ask eighth graders,“What do you want to learn about, kids? What do you know about yourself?”

And they look at you with blank stares. They say,

“I don’t know, why are you asking me this all of a sudden?”

So self-direction is a process we’re trying to help you develop in your learners. And help you develop the routines and the structures that we think help move this skill in students. When we talk about these things, it’s super complex. And that really fascinates me because it involves so many different parts of learning and education. There’s a lot of human behavior and psychology within this.

And in this course we’re offering, you might choose to just investigate one of these dimensions and how you can create structures and supports for your students to develop that one dimension.

Analyzing self-direction in the classroom

Watch this video.

And as you watch this video, ask yourself: what does self-direction look like for some of these students?

And more importantly, I want you to focus on the educators. What are the scaffolds or supports that you see being put in place for these learners in that video?

Personally, I saw a lot of things.

I saw teachers providing templates and project plans.

I noticed that students had a journal where they were reflecting on both their plan and how it worked.

And I heard that teacher asking a student what the student needed to do and what they thought.

I also saw a process or a system in place where students used each other as resources.

I think this video gives us a great example of self-direction in a classroom and what teachers can do to develop it.

“The Dark Side of Self-Direction”

I don’t think there really is a dark side, per se, but what I mean by that is that it’s clear to me that we do not — we as in American schools — do not provide students with equitable access to self-direction opportunities. And that was noticeable to me in that video.

In that video, the narrator mentions that The Thinkering Studio, that really cool class? Is an elective. And that makes me wonder who’s not in that class. What kind of choices do students have in school systems whereby some of them are in Thinkering Studio and some of them aren’t.

Based on my experience, working in schools, I actually shudder to remember that sometimes I saw my own students engaged in something like a Thinkering Studio while other students were receiving services because of their IEP or 504.

So not everyone was there. Not everyone had that opportunity. And that’s not fair.

What’s more, there’s research that actually says that that unknowingly, of course, teachers are more supportive of the self-direction of students who already have a lot of self-direction.

This particular study came from Europe, but basically it says that students who already had self-direction skills were actually given sort of more verbal prompting of their self-direction than students who did not possess self-direction. And that a student who did not possess a lot of self-direction was more likely to receive verbal information from a teacher in the form of the teacher telling them what to do instead of scaffolding and asking them to exhibit and demonstrate their own.

Super concerning in terms of this thing that we think is so important for all students to possess in order to be successful in this century.

Where’s The Sweet Spot?

So, I want to tell you a little bit about this course we’re offering in March: “The Sweet Spot: Scaffolding Self-Directed Learners”. I’m super excited to be partnering on this.

scaffolding self-directed learners

We’ve designed a five-week learning experience focusing on best practices in self-direction for each of us as educator-learners. The idea here is that you’re going to both be studying how to scaffold self-direction for your learners, as well as experiencing what that’s like as a learner!

Our first session kicks off March 3.

First, we’ll do some capacity-building, build some community, help you understand the logistics and flow of the course. You’ll figure out what your project might look like, and then you’ll design your prototype. You’ll figure out what your scaffolds are gonna look like.

Then we’ll come back together in person for a second session. We’ll continue to do some more capacity-building, but what’s great about the session too, is that you’re going to get feedback from the other participants in the course. You’ll get a chance to share your thinking and work, then get their feedback, and also offer your feedback on their work.

Then we’re going to send you back out into your classroom to implement your plan. Put your scaffolds in place and see how it goes: what works, what might you want to tweak. Collect some informal data around that. What does that look like for your learners and for your practice?

Finally, we’ll come back together for our last in-person session. You’ll get to share what you did, how it went and what your next steps are. And we’ll also think a little bit together about how we might scale changes like this across the systems that we work in.

We really hope you can join us! Check out the full syllabus, and register online here. And give me a shout down in the comments if you have any questions. Self-directed learning is complicated: it can be difficult to navigate between giving students too much freedom and choice (the kind that comes without support) and too little.

But getting that tension right? That’s the sweet spot.


Digging into self-direction

When states around the country shifted towards standards-based, competency-based and proficiency-based learning and reporting, that involved separating the content-specific skills and knowledge from the learner-specific habits and behaviors.

The particular set of learner habits and behaviors that districts and states chose to measure and report have varied. Similarly, some states adopted guiding structures such as the Essential Skills and Dispositions framework created in 2015. In Vermont, the AOE created a set of proficiencies called the Transferable Skills. These two frameworks differ in some ways, but both have in common a focus on self-direction for students.

(The 5 Components of Self-Direction from the Essential Skills and Dispositions framework)

Five components of Self-Direction: Self-Awareness, Initiative and Ownership, Goal-Setting and Planning, Engagement and Managing, Monitoring and Adapting, and Self-Direction and Self-Directed Learning
Lench, S., Fukuda, E., & Anderson, R. (2015). Essential skills and dispositions: Developmental frameworks for collaboration, creativity, communication, and self-direction. Lexington, KY: Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky

A little Vermont context

The first time that I saw the Vermont Transferable Skills was in 2015. Many of the skills, such as Clear and Effective Communication, seemed, well, clear. But over the years I have been increasingly puzzled by the definition and conceptual framework behind learner self-direction.

making with cardboard and Self-Direction and Self-Directed Learning

Nearly every mission and vision statement coming out of schools these days aspires to produce self-directed learners. This has me insatiably curious. What is self-direction? What does it mean to be a self-directed learner? From where? And why did this skill suddenly appear in our vocabulary? That is to say, I feel a burning desire to better understand the concept. For the sake of teaching and learning young people.

Turns out, self-direction and self-directed learning are terribly complex concepts

Self-direction is a human trait that combines psychological, educational, emotional, and social behavior. Behind self-direction is the messy interaction of those needs and behaviors. Self-direction manifests into outcomes of our human behavior and decision-making. Instinctually, educators want to frame self-direction as purely positive and compliance-oriented behaviors. But that is a myth.

Any action, human decision and behavior is an act of self-direction: “good” and “bad”. If I’m in my evening class and I’m bored and feel like I need to move my body, I might get up and leave class to go to the bathroom. That is an act of self-direction.

student looking at a map

Consequently, the instructor might think that I made a poor choice to leave class and miss the information and learning. But I examined myself and made the decision. I directed my “self” based on my needs, motivations, my context, and my previous experiences.

Similarly to self-direction, self-directed learning has become an umbrella term in education. It refers to a host of processes and outcomes. In short, it’s an educational experience (formal or informal) where the learner has some knowledge of their personal needs, sets goals, makes decisions, and finds the necessary resources. Then the learner conducts the actions necessary to meet their learning needs and goals. The concept of self-directed learning is being increasingly applied to K-12 educational settings. What’s interesting is that the roots of self-directed learning are in adult education.

Some salient self-directed literature

Certainly, one of the most influential texts is Malcolm S. Knowles’ 1975 book, Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. He was a leading authority in the field of adult education. He defines self-directed learning as,

A process in which individuals take initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” 

Another adult learning researcher, D. Randy Garrison, contributed to development of the self-directed learning concept. In 1991, he published Self-Directed Learning: Towards a Comprehensive Model and created this visual to show the interaction of four dimensions of self-directed Learning.

Dimensions of self-directed learning, and Self-Direction and Self-Directed Learning

Checking assumptions

In each of these adult learning models, there is an implicit assumption that the learner has some control and responsibility over their learning. These two models rely on opportunities for the learner to direct their own learning and determine learning goals. More current frameworks of self-directed learning, like the ES & D, also require that the learner has the opportunity and occasion to own and manage their learning.

Alas, I would argue that in many K-12 educational settings, learners do not regularly have these opportunities and this control. Which suggests an interesting problem. What are the behaviors that we are teaching and assessing when students do not have the opportunity to be self-directed learners?

Finally, we (as educators) need to ask ourselves:

If the origins of self-directed learning are rooted in adult education, how do we adjust frameworks and expectations when we apply it to children and adolescents?

  • What is a young person’s capacity and ability for self-direction and self-directed learning?
  • What does self-direction look like in a 6 year old? In a 12 year old? In a 16 year old?
  • How do our schools promote self-direction?
  • What structures in our schools impede self-directed learning?

These are questions that need answers. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Self-awareness and self-direction

I’m going to be honest with you, writing this blog post about self-direction has taken, well, a lot of self-direction. I’m a busy person with agendas to develop, meetings to attend, reading to do… and it’s been really easy to put other work ahead of this post.  What’s a Professional Development Coordinator to do?

I’m well versed in the language of the transferable skills and I know that self-direction requires taking initiative, managing learning goals, and persevering when the going gets tough.  But somehow, those concepts weren’t helping me.

So I’m going to take some lessons from the 6th graders at Ludlow Elementary School. They’ve been building self-awareness around self-direction under the guidance of their teacher, Heidi Baitz.

First, some context

Ludlow Elementary and the entire Two Rivers Supervisory Union have adopted the Essential Skills and Dispositions framework as their transferable skill model.

Essential Skills and Dispositions
Created by the Center for Innovation in Education and the Educational Policy Improvement Center.
Authors: Sarah Collins Lench, Erin Fukuda, and Ross Anderson.

This framework targets four skills: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Self-Direction, and goes into great depth into the components, development, and interpersonal and intrapersonal nature of the skill in action.

Here are the components of Self-Direction:

Five components of Self-Direction
Lench, S., Fukuda, E., & Anderson, R. (2015). Essential skills and dispositions: Developmental frameworks for collaboration, creativity, communication, and self-direction. Lexington, KY: Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky

It’s a complicated framework that takes some time to fully understand and actualize. And while these are not meant to be linear, self-awareness is a great entry point.

Starting with self-awareness (and then self-direction)

While self-direction seems like something students would have to do alone, Heidi began with the whole group in order to scaffold the learning: reflecting as a group on elements of self-direction before moving to individual reflections.  And she wanted to make this process visible, so she made a class game board to monitor their progress.

Self-directed learner game board

Students chose an image to represent themselves and they chose a collective image to represent the class. As they developed self-awareness they moved their pieces up the path.

Reflecting on strengths and limitations

The class began with a strengths-based approach, asking the group to reflect on their work and identify their strengths as a class. At the end of a learning activity she would ask them:

  • What are our class strengths?
  • When do we do our best work?

These students are great at hands-on learning. Opportunities to move their bodies help them do their best learning.  And they learn well when the expectations are clear.

Strengths go hand in hand with limitations, and she allowed the class opportunities to reflect on these as well:

  • What are our challenges?
  • When did we struggle or lose focus?

When students have side conversations or talk over each other, they lose focus and don’t learn as well. A little silliness is okay, but a lot of silliness makes it hard for the group to learn together. And if they aren’t interested in the work at hand, it is hard to stay engaged.

After many opportunities to debrief their learning in this way, the class had a pretty thoughtful list of strengths and limitations AND they were familiar with how to reflect in this way.  Their new skills in group-awareness could be applied to themselves – they were ready to reflect on their own personal strengths and challenges.

I’m ready to reflect on mine too! My limitations: I struggle with writing a first draft. Getting words on the page is the first step for me, but I agonize over choosing the right ones. My inner critic won’t let me be!  And my strengths: I compose best when I’m moving: walking, running, cross country skiing.  As I move my body my thoughts flow. And I benefit from a thought partner, someone to think aloud with.

When it comes to self-directed learning, what are your strengths and limitations?

Moving from self-awareness to evaluation

After Heidi’s students reflected on their personal strengths and challenges, Heidi asked them to evaluate themselves on specific skills self-directed learners practice:

Reflecting on self-direction

This focused their attention on the specific areas they can leverage in their learning and on those they might seek to improve.

Intrapersonal AND interpersonal

Remember how the Essential Skills and Dispositions framework focuses on the intrapersonal as well as the interpersonal?  Heidi asked her students to do this too by sharing their strengths and limitations within the learning community. They each hold a piece of the classroom puzzle, learning from each others’ strengths and offering support for growth.  Students shared their self-reflections in the form of puzzle pieces.

Self-direction self assessments

Another lesson for me from these 6th graders: when you face your own limitations, reach out to someone with strengths in those areas. I asked a friend with a strong blog writing voice (looking at you Emily Hoyler) to talk through my ideas for this post and get some feedback. And it worked!

Who do you look to for support when you face a limitation?

Identifying motivations

Now that her students were aware of their strengths and limitations, Heidi moved them to reflect on what drives them to learn.  Again, starting as a class before moving to individual work, they brainstormed the things that motivate them.  Curiosity, recess, grades, a sense of accomplishment, getting to go outside… they were motivated by a wide range of things.

As a class, they sorted these into different categories, and they did the same for their personal motivations. One student found that he could group his motivations into two categories: inside motivators and outside motivators.  Another student sorted hers by whether they are things she experiences alone or with others.

This sorting process was another step on the scaffold to deeper understanding.

After Heidi introduced the class to the concepts of intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation, they sorted their motivators into these categories as well.

What motivates me to write this blog post? Several things!  I’m excited to share the interesting work Heidi and the 6th graders at Ludlow Elementary School are doing.  And I find it satisfying to organize my thinking in a way that others can understand.  Perhaps someone will give me a prize, too?  Just kidding, I’m all about the intrinsic motivation of doing my best to show off the important work of Vermont teachers!

What motivates you?

Aspirations for the win!

Ludlow Elementary 6th graders had done a ton of reflecting.  Now they were ready to aspire!  (Don’t you just love to aspire? I do!) Again Heidi began with some group work: brainstorming aspirations and thinking out loud about whether or not these aspirations were achievable.

Personally, I aspire to be as awesome as Lizzo.  Winning a Grammy for a singing performance seems highly unachievable given my fear of singing in public.  On the other hand, being an outspoken LGBTQ+ ally is achievable if I educate myself and speak up in the face of homophobia and transphobia.  But, back to our 6th grade mentors…

Students used their self-awareness to dream big! They evaluated their aspirations and created a rationale to explain why they were or were not achievable. Here is an example:

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And what do I aspire to, besides being more like Lizzo?  I aspire to helping teachers develop educatoinal practices that help ALL students learn and grow.  And also to be better about meeting my deadlines…

What do you aspire to?

WOOP there it is!

All of this reflection on self-direction has led to some pretty self-aware students.  And self-aware students are primed for goal setting.  Heidi’s students are using WOOP goals to identify their Wishes, Outcomes, Obstacles, and Plans.

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They are creating goals and plans that are informed by their evaluations of their aspirations, strengths, challenges, and motivations.  Now that is self-direction!

A student reflects on how self-direction skills helped her to make a difference.
A celebration of self-direction

As for me, my wish was to write a coherent blog post about self-direction.  I’m grateful to Heidi’s students for providing these examples, but also for helping me to identify my obstacles and develop a plan to meet that goal.

What do you wish for?

Fostering self-direction is a process

Self-directed learners leverage so many skills: taking responsibility for learning, setting and managing goals, developing strategies that help them learn, taking initiative, channeling their motivation… Self-awareness is critical to their ability to do these things.  Developing awareness of strengths and limitations, interests and motivations, dreams and aspirations is an ongoing process, one that contributes to the ability to demonstrate self-direction in and out of the classroom.

How are you fostering self-awareness in your classroom?

As for Heidi Baitz’s 6th graders, their next area of focus is on Initiative and Ownership, and I’m certain they will continue to grow their self-awareness as they reflect on these aspects of self-direction.

Self-Direction Gameboard focused on Initiative and Ownership

#vted Reads: Dive Into Inquiry

Welcome to another episode of #vted Reads! We’re so glad you could make it. In this episode, we talk with librarian Margi Putney, from the Burr & Burton Academy, down in Manchester Vermont. She and I read Dive Into Inquiry: Amplify Learning & Empower Student Voice, by Trevor MacKenzie.

Don’t those two things sound amazing? Who *doesn’t* want to amplify learning and empower student voice, I ask you.

MacKenzie presents strategies for scaffolding inquiry with your students that you can put into practice tomorrow. Heck, why wait for tomorrow, why not put them into practice after you finish listening to this podcast?

For instance, when was the last time you polled your students, as to what they think makes a great teacher?

Aha, see? All kinds of nuggets of goodness in this one. Plus we talk moving the sage on the stage to a guide on the side and why most classrooms need — really need — some kind of librarian bat-signal. When in doubt…

I’m Jeanie Phillips, this is #vted Reads. Let’s chat!

Jeanie: Thanks for joining me, Margi. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Margi: Thanks Jeanie. I’m Margi and I’m the librarian at Burr & Burton Academy in Manchester, Vermont. This is my fifth year at Burr & Burton! I grew up in Philadelphia. And I’ve been in Vermont for about 20 plus years.

Jeanie: Excellent. You and I are librarian compatriots. We’ve been to conferences together and we’ve done some work together and it’s just such a pleasure to have you on the podcast.And for once having a librarian and talking about a non-fiction book, a teacher book and not fiction book, so I’m excited about that!

One thing I like to ask my guest right away is what are you reading?

Margi: I’m reading a good book. It’s called Know My Name by Chanel Miller. Are you familiar with it?

Jeanie: Is she the student at Stanford?

Margi: She is. She is the student who was sexually assaulted at Stanford while she was unconscious behind a dumpster; there were two graduate students that found her, and stopped her attacker. The book is beautifully written. It’s so powerful to hear her voice and to know her name, because she was “Emily Doe”. She also was the one who had that viral victim statement.

Jeanie: I’ve read that viral statement and it was such a powerful piece. So I’m looking forward to adding this to my To Be Read pile.

Margi: I highly recommend it.

Jeanie: Thank you. Let’s diiiive into inquiry! (Pardon me, folks.) Let’s jump in. Let’s start with a definition of inquiry if we could. Trevor MacKenzie, the author of this book starts with a couple of definitions at the beginning and then defines it himself. Do you want to go ahead and share one of those definitions?

Margi: I do. I love the very first definition, it’s before the introduction. And it’s from the book, Focus on Inquiry. And it says,

“Inquiry is the dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlements, and coming to know and understand the world.”

So, I had a very specific memory, I think especially as I read that quote.

When I was in eighth grade, I went to a small school. We had a very cozy classroom with multiple bulletin boards that were always decorated. And at one point, I noticed one of the bulletin boards was completely blank. I think maybe it had wrapping paper on it and a tiny little box in the centre of it, which made me curious.

And I went and I opened the tiny little box and there was a quote in the middle of the box, and I don’t remember the exact words. But what I got from it was something like “curiosity is the beginning of knowledge”. And it was a little quest. You had to go to a different place in the school, and you got a special pin that you got to put on.

So, the teacher knew by seeing you wear that pin, that you had been curious and you had followed through. And so for me, inquiry is curiosity. And my hope is that we get students super excited and curious about things.

Jeanie: Yeah. That is a great story. For me, inquiry is about curiosity. But it’s also about having the tools necessary to follow through on curiosity, which is where great school librarians and teachers come into play.

Margi: Yay yay, a plug for librarians!

Jeanie: I think we’re going to do a lot of librarian cheerleading. And so, there’s also a definition on page nine. ‘m going to turn there and read that one.

Trevor MacKenzie says,

“For me, inquiry goes beyond these terms. I see inquiry as the strongest method to create personalized learning pathways for all learners, a method that brings the curriculum of life into the curriculum of school.”

I love that definition of inquiry. As inquiry as this powerful sort of hook to engage students and to personalize learning for them, but I feel like it’s missing a little bit of a specifics. And I wondered if you could give us some more details about the process of inquiry and what’s involved.

Margi: To me, inquiry is comprised of multiple steps. And you and I have talked about this a little bit in the past. I think that a lot of times there’s a tendency to think, okay, kids need to do a research project or an inquiry project. And we try and do too much at once.

Whereas, you know, we have the step of defining our question. And then searching for information. Evaluating our sources. So, there are all of these really distinct steps.

And I think we do a potential disservice to our students if we try and cram too much into the process. It’s better if we focus on one thing at a time.

Jeanie: I completely agree with you that it’s a complicated process for adults, let alone for our students, right? There’s a lot of instruction and scaffolding and practice they need to do in the individual steps. Whether it’s:

  • finding information;
  • figuring out which information helps them answer their question;
  • then synthesizing it;
  • putting it into some new form or new understanding or new knowledge schema;
  • and then maybe presenting it to the rest of the world.

All of those are distinct steps that require a lot of instruction, effort, practice…

Margi: Right. And I think that a lot of times as adults, some of this has become second nature to us. If you want to look for …tires for your car, you’re searching and you’re evaluating and you’re sort of doing it at the same time.

But maybe we should think of them as separate pieces. Or at least identify them for students until they evolve in their inquiry skills. And they sort of do it at once.

Jeanie: Daniel Kahneman, in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls that a heuristic? That we develop these shortcut methods by which we make decisions, or by which we can do things really quickly. But students (and sometimes adults, too) have faulty heuristics.

And so, I’m thinking about my students searching. They’ll often only look at the first page of Google. Or they’ll type the whole question into a Google search engine and not understand why they didn’t get the kind of hits that they wanted, the kind of documents or the kind of sites that they were looking for.

So helping them create new heuristics for how to fine-tune their search strategy is one like, small piece of impactful inquiry.

Margi: Agreed.

Jeanie: So, let’s get back to MacKenzie’s book. Because I do love the way he is sort of harnessing inquiry as a way to really engage students fully in their learning. And one of the things I noticed on page 13 was his work in engaging students in co-designing their courses.

Margi: I love this idea. It makes me a little nervous. *laughs*

You know, it’s one of these opportunities that’s a little scary because we’re really relinquishing a little bit of control. And we’re asking the students to come together with us and decide what’s important to spend the semester on.

Jeanie: Yeah. We have a lot of teachers, educators in this state who are doing negotiated curriculum with students.


But I think what really was powerful for me about the section is the way MacKenzie scaffolds it. And walks through how he does that.

I found it really fascinating the way he scaffolds it over time, so that students have the skills they need to do it, as they’re doing it.

Margi: Right. And you know, we all — teachers and librarians — I think do that within a semester or within a year with students. And then librarians, I think, are also sort of one step removed. We’re trying to scaffold a lot of this over maybe the four years. Develop the skills and then go back and refine the skills or dig deeper with some of the skills.

Jeanie: It reminds me a lot of what I used to do. The way I used to think about planning when I co-planned with teachers as a librarian. Which is to think about the places where we could embed more choice? And MacKenzie hits on some of those. Like: what topics would you like to dig into?

So, it could be that the topic is the place of choice. It could be that the process is the place of choice — like the how you go about it has a lot of choice built into it, and then, the product. What you create as a result of this inquiry could have a lot of choice as well.

Margi: Mm-hm. Are you familiar with the mountain campus? They do a semester-long integrated curriculum and it culminates in a project I think they’re usually done in small groups, where they’re deciding a change that they can create in their local community. And the end results run the gamut, but also the ways they get there. The paths they take to get there are all different.

Jeanie: That’s excellent. I would love to see some of those. I love there’s almost a page and a half of questions that MacKenzie negotiates with the students.

  • What role do you see technology playing enhancing learning in the class?
  • Do you prefer class discussions or teacher lecture? Why or why not?
  • If you could demonstrate your understanding in any fashion, how would you choose to do it?

Margi: Is this where he also talks about what makes a really great teacher? Because I loved that. I love the idea that he solicited information from the students on what makes a really great teacher. He made a list I think, and then he holds himself accountable. He posts the list within the classroom. And I think he emails it to his colleagues and puts it on Twitter.

Jeanie: Yeah, that’s in chapter three. He shares that with his colleagues in Google Doc form. He shares it with his students. And he uses it to assess himself. To evaluate his own performance in the classroom and ask students to give him feedback too. “How am I doing on this?” And I think that’s a really fascinating approach.

He also acknowledges that when you are focused on inquiry and giving kids this kind of choice, your role is going to be different. He redefines that role, and he calls it “an educator’s coach, facilitator networker, shoulder to lean on”.

At the Tarrant Institute, we’ve been thinking a lot about the roles teachers play in a personalized learning environment.

We think of teacher as scout, right? And in an inquiry project, you might be scouting ahead to make sure your students are going to have the resources they need, or the people, and some of those resources might be unconventional resource. Experts in the field, right? It also made me think these are the roles librarians have been playing for a long time.

Margi: They definitely are. Coach, cheerleader, supporter, teammate… I mean whatever it takes. I keep thinking of it, it feels almost like a cliché now that we’re not “the sage on the stage”. What it is is that we’re the “guide on the side”. And that’s very much a librarian role.

It’s always helpful. Any kind of heads-up — and MacKenzie talks about that — any kind of co-planning or collaborating with the librarian? The sooner the librarian gets pulled in, the more scouting we can do to try and, you know, make it easier. Or also softly guide! We want the students to do the work but, you know, if we can anticipate any roadblocks they might face, then we can anticipate how we might help guide them around.

Jeanie: Yeah. He makes it really clear that the shift in roles doesn’t mean we’re not teaching. It’s just teaching in a different way. We’re still actively involved; it’s just a different role. And I always found when I was a school librarian that one of the phrases I use most often, that kids rarely heard elsewhere, was:

“I don’t know, but let’s find out together.”

And so, often kids come to me with questions that I don’t need to be an expert on… it could be anything, right? Like working with kids on how to fix a snowmobile. I don’t need to be an expert on that. What I can be an expert on is how to find the information you need to solve your problem.

Margi: Right. And that’s what we’re hoping to guide them towards! We want them to develop their skills so they’re doing that more and more on their own.

I was talking with some other teachers about citations the other day, MLA-style citations, and when exactly do we teach students? And the conclusion we came to is, it’s really important to make sure students understand why we use citations. The value of citations, what it demonstrates about the student.

Let’s say they’re doing a typical research paper and if they have that source, that cited page, the bibliography. That shows how much work they’ve done, how much knowledge that they’ve incorporated.

Of course, it also gives credit to the original people. But that style piece, the details with the hanging indent or the alphabetical order… Yes, that’s important. But they can find that out. And a lot of times, they’ll ask me a specific question and I’ll say I can’t remember. But I know where to look!

And who knows where they’re going to end up. They might be doing APA citations. But as long as they understand that framework, why we do it? The details they can pick up.

Jeanie: And I love that appreciative approach. You’ve utilized all these sources to impact your thinking! Why wouldn’t you want credit for that? Yes, we want to give credit to where you’re getting your ideas from. We don’t want to plagiarize, right? But also like, you did the work of reading all that stuff, own it. Take ownership of it.

Margi: Right. Now, *you’re* the authority, you know, for this piece of information. So, you should take credit for that by sharing your sources.

Jeanie: It’s a source of pride as opposed to a way to protect yourself from copyright infringement or plagiarism. It turns that on its head a little bit. I love that approach. Yeah, I also know that you’ve said in the past that methods like this allow the learner to do the work.

I think one of the other interesting things about teachers playing different roles when we’re focusing on inquiry, when we’re using inquiry to guide learning and personalized learning is that students play different roles too.

It’s different than answering questions for a teacher, say. Or doing a project as defined by the teacher where you focus on inquiry. Do you want to think a little bit with me about the different role students play as they go through the inquiry process?

Margi: You should’ve seen right before the break, I had a student come into the library *so* excited because I had been visiting his class when his teacher was out one day, and they were picking topics. They were able to choose their own topic to answer a broad question; he had a vague idea of something he wanted to do. And then since I saw him, he specifically decided it was Edward Snowden was what he wanted to focus on.

He had gone deep into it. He was so proud. And this was one of the few times I think *he* would say that he got really excited about a project. The fact that he came running back into the library to tell me about it. And he had to do a speech that he was nervous about. But as he was standing in front of me, he rattled off all sorts of facts about Edward Snowden, and I was able to point out, you know what? You have it all. Here’s an example, you’re now an authority on Edward Snowden. Like, you can do this.

Jeanie: I think I had the same experience with my son, when he was in high school where he got to do this really big research project on net neutrality. He was really fired up about it. And he knew a lot more about net neutrality than I did. He was more of an authority than I am, for sure.

Margi: But that’s what we want, you know? However, we can do it, that’s what we want. We want to put the spark in the students so that *they’re* doing it. My son, last night we talked about the personalized experience, and we see it sometimes at home. I think parents can talk more about what’s more exciting to their kids.

We started a new semester yesterday (or the day before) and he’s in cinema and working on that first cinema project. Writing a screenplay. And he had other homework to do, there was like AP History and other things. But he kept coming back, across the room, spit-balling ideas for a screenplay. Because he was that excited about it.

Jeanie: A little enthusiasm goes a long way.

Margi: Yes, it does.

Jeanie: So, we’ve already talked a little bit about this, but I love that in this book, there’s actually a heading: “Collaborate With Your Librarian!” And Trevor MacKenzie gives a lot of shoutouts to librarians — for which we’re grateful! We also want you, listener, to collaborate with your librarian. And I wondered if you wanted to talk about the things a librarian can offer as a collaborator on inquiry. What that might look like for educators who haven’t collaborated with their librarian?

Margi: Right? I mean, there’s *so* many things that we can help with. And obviously it depends on the grade.

Jeanie: Do you want to talk about a little bit about what it looks like or what a librarian can offer as a collaborator, inquiry projects?

Margi: Absolutely. Probably a more obvious opportunity is when there’s a specific topic that a teacher wants students to work on: curating a group of resources for the students.

We had a freshman class and they did a project about the spread of Buddhism, and they looked at it through the artwork. They had to research artwork. And as we talked about it, the conversations I got to have with the teachers were really helpful. We decided that it was *really difficult*, potentially, for a freshman to research Buddhist art. So we put together the articles for them to read. We found the websites for them to look at.

Jeanie: That to me is a curation role. And sometimes I think we think kids have to do soup-to-nuts. Like they have to find their own sources. But sometimes, finding resources for them makes for higher quality work. It also allows you to focus on, say, synthesis. Or finding the right information within the sources to help answer your question, then present your learning or create something new with it.

Margi: Right! And then taking another step! In a few weeks I’m going to be working with freshmen again. I seem to be recently doing a lot of work with freshmen in a wellness class on *macro-nutrients*, which I need to learn a little bit about myself. And the purpose is going to be note-taking and annotation and synthesis. So that’s another example. That’s just a little piece of inquiry. And that might be a visit to the library or librarian into the classroom just to focus on one part of a class or for an entire block.

You can tell ‘m really big on this idea of focus! Let’s focus on a concrete part of the inquiry process. Soup-to-nuts is hard. And I love, you know, MacKenzie scaffolds us towards this idea of “free inquiry” which is… so fabulous to imagine. Students deciding what they want to focus on and how they’re going to get there. But he also lets us off the hook and says you can do this in smaller steps. And it might take you a few years to develop a curriculum that’s full inquiry. Which I appreciate.

Jeanie: MacKenzie starts with structured inquiry, which is really scaffolded. He has a diagram which is a swimming pool, and they’re on the side of the pool, holding onto the edge. Then the swimmers move towards controlled inquiry, guided inquiry and then free inquiry. And those are progressively deeper areas of the pool.

Dive Into Inquiry
Copyright Trevor MacKenzie. Used with permission

So it’s a sort of gradual release, allowing students to gain the skills they need in order to be successful with free inquiry. If we just throw them into the deep end right away, they’re not going to be successful. We’re going to be frustrated, too. And we’re going to be like, kids can’t do this. It’s too hard.

Margi: Right. It’s overwhelming.

Jeanie: But we can’t expect them to do what we haven’t taught. So, what I hear you saying is that we can chunk this out and teach bits of it, so that by the time they’re doing free inquiry, they have the skills they need.

I love this idea that free inquiry doesn’t just mean we just open up our classroom and say, “Study whatever you want!” That:

  • there’s a lot of skills embedded in this that we teach;
  • we tie it to the standards or the proficiencies that we’re working on;
  • and we’re giving them the support and the resources they need to be successful at it.


MacKenzie’s also big on backwards design. He really outlines in a way that I found really quite streamlined and organized what good backwards design looks like in inquiry. And he gives a bunch of examples. And I wondered about your thoughts about his approach to UBD (Understanding by Design).

Margi: I love that he teaches the students about UBD! We talk a lot about the science of learning and how the brain works. MacKenzie sets up this idea that the students create their own unit of backwards design where they’re figuring out what their goal is for their free inquiry project. And then, how they are going to get there.

So, they’re really accomplishing two tasks at once. They’re doing whatever the specific inquiry project is. And then they’re also building this skill of: I have a goal, it’s happening in the future and how am I going to get there? They reflect along the way and they assess and they adjust and keep aiming towards that goal.

Jeanie: I feel like you just defined self-direction without actually saying the word self-direction, right? By teaching them, like: this is what I want to achieve and how I’m going to get there. That’s what the roadmap looks like? And I think he really does actually ask them to develop a plan to get there along the way and to adjust their plan over time. That is unpacking self-direction without using the sort of catchphrases we use all the time for self-direction.

Like, “persistence”, right? He’s not just saying persist. He’s teaching them how to plan, adjust, chunk out goals into steps, right?

He unpacks all of that in these chapters about how he asked kids to plan. And there’s a great graphic on page 42 that looks like a map.

Dive Into Inquiry
Copyright Trevor MacKenzie. Used with permission.

Essentially, he asked kids to do these seven steps. To figure out:

  1. What they’re interested in
  2. What they’re curious about
  3. And what they’re passionate about
  4. To ask an essential question
  5. To create a proposal for their inquiry unit
  6. And to start to explore and research and collect evidence of their learning

Then, 7) to create something authentic and display it to the world.

And I think those seven steps are really powerful.

What I want us to do is to take a little time with these pillars of inquiry because I think this is somewhere we sometimes have gaps.

Margi: I had a conversation with a colleague who introduced what was called a passion project last year. And she said the students didn’t take to it the way she thought. Some of the pushback she got was, “I don’t have a passion”. And that’s a tricky word for some of us.

How many of us really identified at a young age what our passions are? And so we have other opportunities.

MacKenzie’s saying we could instead aim for a goal. We could delve into something we’re curious about. We could take on a new challenge.

And within this chapter, he also has a list of great questions that I love.

So, he has interviews with the students as they set this up. There’s this list of questions. And my favorite is:

“Have you ever lost track of time doing something? What were you doing?”

Instead of saying what was your passion, try and remember the last time that you got so caught up in something that you lost track of the time.

Jeanie: You know, I got a Rowland Fellowship a few years back. And my whole proposal was about helping kids do this kind of inquiry, based on what they were interested in and are passionate about.  I developed a whole curriculum. This was an area I spent a lot of time researching, and I really struggled with finding resources on how to get kids to find the passion, find the thing. Because it’s not just shooting in the dark. It’s not just like, sort of blind luck.

One of my takeaways, one of my new understandings I hadn’t had before — I went through this whole inquiry process myself — was that being interested in things is a verb. Like, you don’t just have interests. People who are interested in things? Are interested in a lot of things. And I like that word, “interest”, better than “passion”. But this is a skill we need to develop: curiosity or passion or interest or engagement with the world.

But I think if you ask students, I don’t know they’re used to being asked. And then we assume when they can’t answer right away, that they don’t have those things. Instead we should think, “How do we help them develop the capacity to realize their interests are really important?”

So, I really love chapter seven! These pillars of inquiry as a way of getting into what might you want to study.

  • What might you want to dig deeper on?
  • What might wake you up or give you motivation to stay with this inquiry?

Margi: “Are there any topics you find yourself consistently arguing or defending to others?” That’s an example: a student that’s arguing all the time about something, maybe that’s what they should be doing inquiry on.

Jeanie: Then sometimes interest looks different for different kids. If one of your students wants to be a nurse, their inquiry could be about what does that look like? What could that be like for me?

Margi: I saw a student fidgeting with fidget toys. And that was a launching point. What what makes a fidget toy work? Do you think you could design a fidget toy? How would that work?

And then there was a Rubik’s Cube; one student could solve them really quickly. So: do you think you could make a program or a robot that would mix up the Rubik’s Cube?

Jeanie: So, you’re asking questions related to what they’re already interested in?

Margi: Right. But they’re not necessarily focused on being interested in. I don’t know if I have that skill to ask those questions yet. It’s tricky.

Jeanie: But you have a growth mindset, Margi. I trust you can develop it.

Margi: I do! And I’m going to work on it.

Jeanie: Don’t you think he brings up a lot, which really rings true with Act 77, is this idea of authenticity. And I love this quote on page 67.

He says,

“Students want to have a genuine impact on others. And if we can bridge the divide between school and life, amazing things will happen.”

And I think a lot about how frustrating it can be as an instructor when kids ask: when am I going to ever use this in real life?

On the other hand, that just demonstrates to us that kids really want something to be meaningful in the real world. In their real life. And this kind of inquiry can help bridge that gap. That idea of authenticity points to some other things that resonated with practices I’ve seen be really successful in some Vermont middle schools. And that’s calling on community partners — experts in the field — to come and be someone that students work with.

I’ve had students who were interested in photography work with photographers. I’ve had students who are interested in talking about racial and equity work with people out in the world who are doing racial equity work and interview them and connect with them.

Margi: That’s certainly a librarian can help with and do. We’re not just about the books, or where the database is. A lot of times it’s about connecting humans. Where is the authority going to come from? Who is the authority that we can pull in?

Jeanie: Yeah. At Manchester Elementary Middle School, we’ve had members of the select board come in and talk to kids. Olympians come in and talk to kids for different projects so that kids had access to the real world resources that are humans. And social media allows us really to network with scientists and all across the world, right? Skyping in experts, for example. So, we can think beyond our communities.

But our communities are also really rich places for those kind of authentic experts.

Margi: Definitely. The local community versus the broader community made me think of using Twitter for certain things to research. You might get a larger, more global response than just Googling something. When we were working on the United Nations Sustainable Development goals, if you put in the hashtags for the different goals, it’s amazing. You would look at things from Bangladesh and Thailand. And as opposed to, you know, a lot of times we get localized responses through our search engine.

Jeanie: That’s also a way for students to authentically join the conversation, right? So, they’re not just consumers of information, they’re also participants in this larger conversation.

Margi: MacKenzie talks a lot about that the presentation of learning, and he votes for having a digital representation of even whatever the work is.

I think one of the projects was revamping an amphibious vehicle. So clearly it might not be that practical to bring the vehicle into the classroom, but a student videotaped the progress on the work, then videotaped the vehicle actually moving. And that artifact, that digital artifact can be shared out on a blog, on a website through Twitter.

And that reaches a larger audience and becomes authentic.

Jeanie: Yeah. When he calls these public displays of understanding, and I am a big fan of giving student work and teacher work a public audience.

Especially in an era where test scores are how we define the quality of our public schools? Having a public exhibition of student work can provide a different sort of vantage point or lens on what’s happening at school. That’s more meaningful to community members, right?

That’s more meaningful to say, oh, *that’s* the kind of work they’re doing at the school. Whether it’s a film festival or an art display or presentations out in the world. When we took students up to present to the select board [link goes to video] it was really a powerful day because those select board members got to see students presenting their work.

Margi: We have an expo here and we’ve expanded. I think initially it was science and now they’re trying to get every department to find ways to share student work. We’re all eager to see it!

There’s also a section in the book where MacKenzie’s talking about establishing relationships with the students. It’s just made me think of this. We all know how important the relationships are. And MacKenzie interviews the students and learns things that we might not know. The passions or the interests or the jobs. The the sports player that you might not know sitting in your classroom, or the ballerina. That it’s important to have that extra connection.

Jeanie: Yeah. MacKenzie never uses these words. MacKenzie never says “cultural responsiveness” or “culturally responsive pedagogy”, but what it makes me think about is the way in which by inviting in students interests, by inviting in the things that they’re engaging with, we are being more culturally responsive and honoring who they are. Right? Like, we are saying: the things that are outside of school that you bring with you are important here. They have a place here and you can use them to leverage your motivation for learning.

Margi: Right.

Jeanie: I found that to be a really powerful quiet message in this book that wasn’t said outright. But that felt really meaningful to me. This book is only like 115, 120 pages of really powerful plans for how to engage young people in their own learning in a more meaningful way.

Margi: I thought you’re going to say dive into inquiry again.

Jeanie: Dive into inquiry! Any other thoughts on MacKenzie’s approach to bringing inquiry into the classroom or into the way that you teach inquiry?

Margi: I think I said it once before. But I guess I always appreciate the idea that we can work in smaller steps. He does outline this broad plan for a future curriculum, whatever the subject matter that it’s all inquiry based, the entire thing which sounds great. But I love also the idea that we could start small. You know, we could start by offering choice and topic. We could start by offering choice of display and let students really individually think about what the best means is are, and my grammar is not good anymore late in the afternoon. But depending on their topic, how are they going to share with us what they’ve learned about the topic?

Jeanie: Yeah. And they surprise us, right?

Margi: They do.

Jeanie: Like they exceed our expectations when we give them the opportunity to do so.

Margi: Mm-hmm.

Jeanie: I really appreciate you helping me to think about inquiry. And to sort of dig deep into Trevor MacKenzie’s approach to leveraging inquiry for student engagement. Thank you so much Margi, for your time and your expertise.

Margi: Thank you. Anytime, always happy to talk with you.


vted Reads: Dive Into Inquiry
Burr & Burton Academy librarian Margi Putney (l.) and #vted Reads host Jeanie Phillips.


To find out more about Vermont Ed Reads including past episodes, upcoming guests and reads, and a whole lot more you can visit vtedreads.TarrantInstitute.org. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.