Student-Directed Learning and Self-Regulation

Like most educators living in the digital age, I worry about the effect of technology on students. On one hand, technology offers a wonderful way for students to connect to real life learning activities, and to benefit from access to all of the content in the world at their fingertips. On the other hand, it represents a huge distraction.

I’m coming to believe that attention will be the center of the next turning. Attention drives the economy, and each of us personally either remains mindful of, or driven by, the distraction the economy of consumerism creates, aided and abetted by technology. As Peter Herschock says, “But if economics is deciding how to allocate scarce resources, it makes very little sense to talk about an information or knowledge economy. Information isn’t scarce; knowledge isn’t scarce. What is scarce is attention. The kind and quality of investment that people have, in terms of their consciousnesses—that’s really what we’re talking about. That’s what’s driving the global economy.” So clearly, attention, and how we allocate our attention, is a big deal.

This creates quite a dilemma for educators. How to expose students to the richness of information and real world connections that the web provides while not allowing them to wallow in the distractions of Facebook, Twitter, etc. etc? What is our role? How do we help students best develop the crucial skills needed in attention regulation?

I’ve done some research. I’m aware of the argument that Nicholas Carr presents in the The Shallows. I get it. It’s hard to argue that our ability to attend to lengthy work, deep thinking, critical analysis etc., is not affected by our superficial leaping from item to item via the internet and all of the social media it has provided, and it makes sense that, because what we attend to affects our ‘wiring,’ the structure of our brains may be changing.

I’ve read Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It. I’m convinced that our ability to attend has always been compromised, if not by external distraction, then by the distraction that we experience internally. I was struck by Davidson pointing out that even when reading a novel that we are engaged in, a full 20 percent of that time is time that we are distracted internally. (I’ve done some self monitoring on this, and even though I’m a huge reader, that figure seems low!) To what degree is this distraction driven by technology, or merely a function of inherent distractibility?

I’ve read Howard Rheingold and agree entirely that one of the skills that is so important in benefiting from the positive aspects of technology while limiting the negative is the development of mindfulness. Rheingold recommends developing a mindfulness practice (as Buddhists would say, “On the cushion”) and then applying that our computer usage. Rheingold explains that we all suffer from things like “email induced apnea.” When opening email, the average user is likely to stop breathing- the anxiety of what is in that email folder creates that much anxiety, most of which is under our level of consciousness. Thus Rheingold suggests that attention to our breathing helps us keep our attention focused, our body functioning, and makes it less likely that we will get lost in internet distractions. This is a clear view of what we mean when we speak of ‘self-regulation.’

All of these authors agree that a much-needed skill is our ability to regulate ourselves in terms of our use of technology. And I believe that each would agree that we are all on the front edge of learning this. Also true is that engaging in technology is no longer an option if we want to remain relevant as educators. The technological tsunami will continue, along with our need to use it because of the potential it offers, and to use it critically because of the correlating potential to negatively affect us.

What’s an educator to do?

Along comes Punya Mishra and his partners at Deep Play Research Group with some very reassuring news recently published in Creativity, Self-Directed Learning and the Architecture of Technology Rich Environments. Mishra and his partners suggest that by immersing students in a technology rich environment that is structured around student questions and passions, the students will begin to develop the needed self-regulation skills that allow them to effectively negotiate this environment. The authors write, quoting B.J. Zimmerman, “As Zimmerman, one of the leading scholars and researchers in the area of self-directed learning said, ‘When students understand that they are creative agents, responsible for and capable of self-development and self-determination of their goals, their self as an agent will provide the motivation necessary for self regulation.'”

What this means is that if students are put in the position of being agents of their learning, rather than as subjects of the goals of others, they will be motivated to self-regulate. Their learning goals will trump the potential for technologically aided distractions. I think it’s safe to assume this self-regulation is a process, and there will Facebook and twitter forays along the way. However, it’s important to know that when students are allowed to control their direction, they will. The key is shifting the context of learning from ‘teacher controlled’ to ‘student directed.’ Mishra et. al. again, “What is clear is that the development of creativity cannot happen (at the very least cannot happen easily) in the kind of traditional classroom and disciplinary structures we have today. Open-ended, technology rich learning contexts appear to provide opportunities for students to be structured in their ways of thinking, even while they are open to pursuing questions of personal interest- the crux of creativity. As educators we need to understand that we are architects and designers of learning environments that allow students to develop the kinds of mental discipline required to think outside of the disciplines.”

We need to design a technology rich environment that allows students the space to ask their own questions and drive their own learning.

Mishra’s paper is a mere 4 pages long and well worth your time.


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