Is Student-Directed Learning Possible in the Common Core Era?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 -- Scott Sterling

Good teachers know that the more a student can direct their own learning experience, the more buy-in you will generate, which hopefully leads to more knowledge retention.

Creative educators find a way to incorporate student-directed learning into whatever political and professional environment they find themselves, no matter what the standards say.

Just like with any other new set of standards, teachers are wondering what difference, if any, will the Common Core make to their classroom culture. Is there enough “wiggle room” to continue letting the students make choices in their curriculum?

Proponents of student-directed learning have always said that their approach is about the process of learning rather than specific facts and data that you may want to impart to the students. In other words, the students still need to learn how to spell or multiply. But in a student-directed situation, what they do with that knowledge is up to them (within some broad guidelines from the teacher about project scope, etc.).

First, let’s look at an old standard. This is a 3rd grade math standard from Florida, before the Common Core:

Develop understandings of multiplication and division and strategies for basic multiplication facts and related division facts.

There’s not much wiggle there; kids need to know their multiplication and division facts. And even a student-directed teacher would use the same strategies that have been used for generations, like flash cards or manipulatives, although they might give the kids some choice on how they want to study.

Here’s the corresponding Common Core standard:

Fluently multiply and divide within 100, using strategies such as the relationship between multiplication and division (e.g., knowing that 8 × 5 = 40, one knows 40 ÷ 5 = 8) or properties of operations. By the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.

The goal is the same, but there is some subtlety in the wording between the two. The Common Core seems more about making sure there is a process involved, and even suggests a couple, while the old standard didn’t really care how the kid got there as long as they get there. The Common Core is also more specific about what the kid needs to know: all products of two one-digit numbers.

You will find that across the Common Core. Does that mean a more regimented curriculum? It doesn’t seem so. Just make sure you can document how the projects or assignments the students choose align to the processes the Core would like to see.