top of page

Self-Directed Learning: The Five Secrets of Letting Go

The STEM Camp

I’m sitting here in a 4th floor classroom of one of the most prestigious campuses in Beijing. Twenty two of the most disciplined students in Beijing have been assembled to take part in an annual STEM camp. I’m in the forensic science class. There is light chatter and excited voices muffled by the hum of the air conditioner.

The engagement is palpable.

Two girls paint red ink onto a shirt in an attempt to simulate the way in which blood splatters when struck with a bullet. Out of consideration for their peers, they have opened up a window to allow the shirt to vent. One of their partners looks up dates associated with the infamous murder.

Immediately behind them, a boy with straight black hair that falls just below his ears carefully draws a living room with furniture strategically placed according to the crime scene. His partner measures the room to ensure it’s drawn to scale.

Across the room another group works on their renderings. With a pencil pressed tightly against the paper, a girl with pulled back hair and thick glasses carefully draws a small vehicle onto the middle of her paper, and builds a scene around it.

Two boys have just stepped outside to film. They are hoping to stage the video surveillance gathered in the scene of their crime- a murder at the school.

The last group huddles together around a small ink pad, pressing each of their fingers firmly on the black ink in order to gather a distinguishable arch print; a mark belonging to only 5% of the population.

The Project Task


Their project task is simple yet profound: Use forensic science to solve a murder according to the evidence, clues and facts left behind by another group.

This is project- based learning at its finest.

Relinquishing Control

Although this was the first STEM camp for every one of the 22 students in the classroom, the teacher was nowhere to be found. In fact, she wasn’t even in the classroom. Just five minutes prior she left in a taxi to the other side of town, and would not return until the next day.

But I’ve never seen a more well behaved and engaged classroom. In my entire life!

So what was her secret? Did she tell the kids they would be punished if they did not behave? Or offer a class party if everyone completed the task? Nope. She simply relinquished control. Here’s how she was able to do that:

The five keys to letting go

Secret #1: Give students an authentic task/ outcome

“I introduce the project on the very first day. I tell them what we are planning to do. I do this before we even talk about forensics.”

When students know the final outcome, they see a purpose behind the learning. In Deb’s case, students knew that they would be responsible for re-creating a crime scene, including evidence, clues and details to help another group try and solve their murder. This created a greater sense of urgency for information gathering. Students knew that in order to be successful, they would have to better understand how to identify fingerprints, collect and document evidence, and examine and cross- examine witnesses. This need for “content” allowed Mrs. Debbie to remove herself from the equation. She could lead students into asking the right questions and pursuing answers for themselves.

In creating your authentic tasks and outcomes, it is imperative that you find out what people do in the real world around your topic. Debbie knew that forensic scientists were engrossed in helping detectives solve crimes. This understanding allowed her to better engross her students in relevant tasks.

Secret #2: Be explicit about the skills your are hoping to asses

“I have a list of material with content. I walk around and make sure those standards are being met by asking students related questions. But they do all the discovery themselves.”

Many educators assume that self-directed learning involves students determining what and when they will learn. While this may be true in some extreme cases, most students still require the same explicit learning outcomes as they would in a more traditional, teacher- centric environment.

These outcomes and standards focus them and ensure they will be successful in the final project task.

In Mrs. Debbie’s classroom, students were each provided with a list of essential questions they were required to answer. For example, “How do forensic scientists analyze fingerprints found in a crime scene?” As students worked on re- creating their crime scene, Mrs. Debbie was able to circulate the room and ask students to answer this question while providing evidence of their understanding. This in turn would lead to deeper questioning and investigation of content.

As a teacher new to student- centered learning, you can take baby steps. First, lead students through guided activities to explore the content they will need to be successful in the project task. This will help front load content as they dive deeper in their more individualized pursuits.

Secret #3: Prepare the Environment

“The skills necessary to create the crime scene need to be taught. I do each in small groups. Everything is set up into stations. This group moves to the fingerprinting while this group still catches up on the content.”

A prepared environment is absolutely critical to self- directed learning. Having the right materials, resources, technology and information available to students allows them to construct meaning and find greater success in their more personalized tasks.

In Debbie’s case, several stations were set up to expose students to the various levels of investigation they would need to conduct in order to create their crime scene. There was a station for analyzing blood; a station for identifying and matching fingerprints; a station for interview techniques; and a station for looking at teeth imprints. Students moved to each station at their own pace with Debbie on hand to help students who struggled with the content.

Preparing this environment will certainly take more work than a direct lecture based approach. However, by setting up your room in such a way, you will allow for deeper, more long- term engagement. In essence you will have created a number of lessons by simply re-arranging and re- organizing the classroom environment.

Secret #4: Create a sense of Urgency- Deadlines

“I would assess various learning aspects.”

A common misconception with student directed learning is that there is no assessment. Students reach conclusions on their own with little input from the teacher. This could not be further from the truth.

In reality, self- directed learning demands an even greater deal of assessment. The assessment is crucial in providing guidance for the next steps, and overall success in the project task. In Debbie’s case, students were assessed on the vocabulary of a crime scene, the analysis of a series of pre- arranged hair, finger, and teeth marks, and finally, on the details of a common pre- existing murder. These assessments allowed Debbie to find out what students knew and what gap might exist in their learning to address in smaller groups.

In your case, I suggest starting with the bigger unit or project outcome and understanding, and working backwards to plan the necessary assessments. Plot these on the calendar, and consider how you might assess students in the most authentic ways. Finally, provide the opportunity for students to self- assess so that they can keep track of their overall growth in the learning.

Secret #5: Providing questions vs. answers

“I don’t give them standards, I give them questions. They understand more by coming to it on their own devices.”

Mrs. Debbie understood one of the greatest secrets of self- directed learning; providing the right questions. In a traditional classroom, content comes first as teachers are often afraid students do not possess the level of understanding necessary for deeper investigation. This may be true, but it takes away from one of the biggest joys of learning: Discovery! Good questions create a gap in learning that can only be filled by discovery of key content.

In Mrs. Debbie's case, students acquired this content in numerous ways. Some conducted research on the internet. Others watched videos. Even more participated in labs set up in corners of the room. And finally, some went directly to their peers. Their research was framed by the inquires necessary to be successful within the project task.

This process reflects the natural way in which content is acquired in the real world. We don’t often have experts at our disposal, and the more rapidly we can learn to discover answers ourselves, the more successful we can be on complex tasks.

In Closing

This afternoon, students will exhibit their learning for their parents. Parents will be given the same challenge students were asked to complete in the 5 day exploration: Solve a murder using the evidence provided in the crime scene.

This will provide a small window into the forensic science their students learned in the past five days.

You too can create the opportunity for students to master their own learning. Provide them with an authentic task, ask the right questions to guide their work, and assess their learning along the way.

You will finally be able to “let go.”

To your success!

  • Facebook Black Round
  • Google+ - Black Circle
  • Twitter - Black Circle
Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

Preliminary School Transformation Guide



Learn how as a school leader to take the first steps to transform student learning at your school!

My Book

Change doesn't have to be so hard. This book equips leaders with simple strategies for school transformation; helping schools conquer standards, individualize learning, and create a community of innovators.

Search By Tags
bottom of page