A hammer is not a one-size-fits-all solution. However, if all a person has is a hammer, they will surely use it as a means or a tool to fix everything; presumably, without questioning the efficiency of the tool itself or considering other options. This person will stick to the hammer unless better alternatives are presented. This person might be willing to develop, but there is a lack of tools at their end.
That is exactly what happens to our students in classrooms. Most students are eager to learn, they want to succeed, and they have dreams, but they do not know how to learn. They do not have the tools. They have never been taught to use any tool to learn or study, and they do not know enough study skills. Therefore, they keep using the only tool that they have.
One-sided education is unmotivational, affecting both teachers and students
Teachers work hard making lesson plans, selecting what suits their students, and adopting and adapting activities. Let’s picture this: The teacher is there in the classroom, executing their lesson plan, feeling confident, smiling, and trying to engage students. Right in front of the teacher, the majority of students are bored with no interest in the lesson.
The situation is common, and the reason is almost always pinned on students’ lack of motivation. Believing that the solution resides in motivating students, however, is misinterpreting the problem.
Students are not to be blamed for their lack of motivation. They have developed a lackadaisical habit because they are tired of the monotony of instruction. They have followed instructions and have relied solely on teachers to learn since their first school days. Asking them to change this habit with a snap of the fingers is like asking them to start breathing differently.
Teachers are preoccupied with self-development to strengthen their teaching skills, which is great. Attending meetings, participating in workshops about teaching strategies, sharing ideas and experiences, and reading books about the same topic is fantastic.
But focusing merely on honing teaching skills and turning a blind eye on refining and enriching students’ learning skills does not address the whole picture. Having the necessary teaching skills does not necessarily facilitate learning.
Fostering autonomous learning: Students should have greater ownership in their learning experience
Students attend classes unprepared to learn effectively and independently—they do not have the skills to do so. Students are taken for granted, and no questions are asked about study skills. All teachers care about is their teaching. Conversely, if students have a clear idea about how to learn and have the required study skills, they can learn better even if the teacher is mediocre. Learner development and engaging students in the learning process are of high priority.
Learner development is not exclusively a teacher-student matter; it should be the concern of the whole educational system. The syllabus and its content should be created in a way that serves the purpose of teaching students how to learn.
Teachers need to run the marathon not the sprint. That is to say, focusing on the content is a short-term objective. The long-term objective is creating autonomous learners who can play an active role in the learning process, make decisions, and reflect on and evaluate their learning. Teachers need to help students develop different types of skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and learning how to learn.
For teachers to control and guide the course through lessons, they need to set objectives that students must attain by the end of the session. But, if one asks students what their learning objectives are, in an English class for example, they will surely answer, in a general sense, that they want to learn a grammatical structure, a set of vocabulary items, or how to write an essay.
Students should play an active role in determining, and thereby owning, their learning objectives
These objectives are good, but they are loose. For students to be on an equal footing with teachers, they need to learn how to set specific, realistic, and achievable objectives. The first step is to make students aware of their present performance through conducting a needs analysis or diagnostic test.
Sharing the outcome and discussing areas that need improvement is highly fruitful and will help students know where they are. The teacher then helps students set objectives based on their performance.
For example, if they have difficulties with many areas, the teacher should help them find one or two areas to prioritize for a certain period, instead of focusing on too many at once. Teachers and students can revisit these areas and see if they need to set follow-up goals or if new areas should be prioritized. By doing so, students will be able to set their own objectives and eventually grasp the concept of being responsible for their own learning.
Teachers can provide students with any type of needs analysis format to make them familiar with setting objectives, but leadership by example is the best criterion. Before an activity, teachers can ask students to identify the objectives. After completing the activity, teachers and students check if the activity served the elicited objectives or they need to add other objectives.
The added value is increasing students’ awareness of setting objectives and knowing why they are doing an activity. Students will be more focused on activities, more engaged in the learning process, and consequently, the discipline problems that emanate from “why are we doing/learning this?” will diminish. As time goes on, students will develop the habit of making sense of what they are learning and gradually become independent learners.
Mapping progress: Accountability through record-keeping
Dan Brown in his thriller “Origin” asks and discusses the following existential questions: “Where do we come from? Where are we going?” Although the theme of the novel is different, the questions perfectly fit the learner development theme. The students’ present performance is where they come from, and the goal that students set is where they are going. The map that teachers and students need is one that tracks progress.
It is highly advisable for both teachers and students to keep regular records of what students can do. Students need to have their own grades and comments available so that they can compare them with the upcoming ones. Keeping records is the only tool that can help teachers remember how well students performed and how to advise and help them.
Equally, keeping records helps students remember what they once found difficult. By making a table with the student’s name, class, date, subject area, comments, and grades, teachers can encourage students to get better and provide evidence of progress.
Teachers strive for learner development, but it should be integrated in lessons
The development of skills should start as early as primary school and it should be taught across different lessons and different subjects. The curriculum itself should aim at building reliable bonds between the development of skills and the teaching of content, because for students to unlock content they need skills.
Most subjects are content-oriented. Therefore, students develop the habit of passively receiving content instead of acquiring the skills to work it out. Additionally, integrating learner development and building skills into the existing course, as its own exercise, steals minutes from teachers who have a syllabus and plan of work to complete in a specified time.
For teachers to be able to integrate learner development into the course, they need to make it a part of their normal teaching and to be ready to change their attitude toward learner development and learner autonomy. For example, they could assign a task that would make students watch a video and take notes, thereby allowing students to develop valuable note-taking skills without deviating from the course.
Teachers should be willing to support autonomy, create a student-centered atmosphere, encourage student initiative, use non-controlling communication, and provide rationales and promote the value of tasks. In addition, teachers should give students the opportunity to choose tasks that go hand in hand with their personal goals and align with their personal strengths.
Both students and teachers benefit if students better develop study skills
It is not only students who are the beneficiaries of learner development initiatives. On the contrary, teachers receive meaningful benefits that include working in a motivational climate, building a healthy rapport with students, and having a sense of personal accomplishment.
Most students are willing to learn, they want to have good grades, they want to be proud of themselves, and they want to make their parents proud. Most teachers have a tendency to prioritize developing and refining their teaching skills. Teachers should not sacrifice the opportunity to promote learner development due to a focus on teacher development.
Teachers need to approach teaching in new ways and consider the perspective of students. By doing so, teachers will be more willing to create a classroom atmosphere that helps students achieve their personal goals and feel in control of their own learning.
In addition, teachers need to decide whether to teach study skills explicitly or implicitly. For levels who do not have an evaluation at the end of the school year, it is highly advisable for teachers to spare some minutes to teach learner development as a skill.
But for levels who have an evaluation at the end of the school year (baccalaureate students), teachers need to teach study skills that are related to note taking and exams preparation. Students should know/learn how to fly once they leave the nest.
Considering learner development as a skill and integrating it into the curriculum of all subjects is a must
If students learn study skills and understand the meaning of being autonomous at an early age, they will be able to handle the massive amount of content awaiting them in the upcoming years, be they school or professional years.
Conducting a self-assessment of learning skills and work habits is of utmost importance because it gives teachers a clear idea of the habits that students developed during the previous school years, both in the same and in other subjects.
Learning skills are certainly not exclusive to one subject. Therefore, teachers of different subjects should create a way to work together toward common objectives and decide on skills that suit each subject. For example, math teachers can focus on problem-solving skills, which in turn apply to learning other subjects and to professional development.
Students with study skills have different learning experiences than those who do not because they know the rationale behind doing a task and they can make sense of curriculum content. It is like having a musical instrument—students can stick to the content they have in front of them, or they can use their skills and unlock other content areas that serve their own objectives.