Cultivating a Love for Self-Directed Learning

SDL

Recently I’ve been using the internet to learn about Google Apps for Education in order to pass at least five tests to become a “Google Educator.”

I’ve spent the last two months studying, and one of the biggest takeaways upon reflection is how important it is to cultivate within young students a willingness to learn on their own.

With so much information at our fingertips, developing new skills has never been easier. Young people must understand that learning never stops. Too many programs are being created and changed on a continual basis, making it impossible to exit college and never participate in another lecture, tutorial, how-to book, etc.

Learning is not always easy. Sometimes it’s very difficult, so the educational system must instill a willingness to keep learning so students will never cease their intellectual and skill set growth.

How can this be done?

That’s the trillion dollar question. The best place to start is to teach content the students find relevant and even enjoyable. Give them tools that foster creativity. Allow them to publish their work to a wider audience than just the teacher or classroom. Make learning 24/7. These are essentials for today’s young generation.

I’ve been a proponent of teaching students how to code. It will always be important to provide young people with the most recent technological skills so they can have a foundation to build upon as they progress through their education until the day they enter the workforce.

It’s also apparent, however, that computer programming is changing – perhaps to a large extent even disappearing. The tools that are being created now such as Adobe’s Muse, which allows designers to create websites without writing a line of code, can very well make website creation much more ubiquitous.

Here’s what’s happening: The tools for communication, creativity, and production are becoming more sophisticated and easier to use. Programming will be important for creating these tools, but more and more people will be given the power to create professional websites that they couldn’t have created years, or even months, ago.

It’s because of this that we need to teach students how to think, not necessarily how to do a particular skill. I repeat, I’ll always support teaching students how to code, but there are important goals educators must have, and they include:

•  Developing a love for learning
•  Being able to teach students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn as times change
•  Teaching students how to have the wherewithal to think critically and on their feet

These are the foundations we build skills such as coding upon, and it’s important to note that coding can help train someone how to think, so there’s definitely a dual purpose there.

The bottom line, however, is that students must know that learning never ceases.

The Right Attitude is cruicial for learning

Horse Human


After teaching for the past one year, I got the first-hand experience of the meaning of “You can lead the horse to the water but you cannot make the horse drink it if it doesn’t want to.”

We can teach students the means of scoring, spot questions for them and give them as much practice as we can, but if the heart is not willing, there’s nothing we can do. I am sure a lot of parents had such frustrations.

Earlier this year, when we first started classes, we got to know this smart boy in Primary 6. His grades were not satisfactory- when I gave him extra assignments, he would get all of them wrong. However, he would be able to answer them if I asked him again in person.

I knew that if I didn’t do something about it, no amount of training would be useful, so I requested to have a private dinner with him. Just the two of us.

I brought him to a fancy restaurant with a sea view and asked him to order any food that he wanted. I told him I was spending time outside my work and classes because I care and we have faith in him. I fed him with my grandfather stories and tried to convince him that he should study hard.

Fortunately, in the months to come, I saw a change in him. He tried to improve. We play games in class where I test my students on their past mistakes. Very often, he would be the pillar in his team as he would be the one who remembered the correct answers.

His attitude has changed and he had become more industrious and sensible. And that’s most vital. Regardless of the eventual grade, I believe one will succeed in life if he has the right attitude.

That’s just one of the ways I try to get my students interested in studying.

I don’t talk down to my students and I have never scolded someone for not doing their homework (as that will probably backfire.)

We are equals in class and students can point out my mistakes. We play games to get them interested and camouflage the fact that they are doing drills.

If we have daily assignments, I try my best to return the work to them by the next day at the latest- I want them to know I am working hard with them and they can rely on me.

More importantly, just like how I want them to study with their heart, I care for them from the bottom of my heart. It makes a difference to have an adult/mentor figure genuinely concerned about your welfare.

I can’t say I will be successful in motivating every student I meet but I will definitely try my best for everyone. I aim to help as many students as I can and change them for the better within my means.

I think, that should be the approach to education.

Can Everyone Be Smart at Everything?

When a student gets a good grade, wins an award, or proudly holds up a painting, we all know by now that we’re not supposed to say, “Good job!” Praising the achievement rather than the effort will backfire. 

To a kid, “Good job” means “You’re smart” or “You’re talented” — the praise goes to inherent, natural-born abilities or intelligence. But that immediate spark of self-pride will turn into deep self-doubt when the child invariably comes across a bigger challenge and doesn’t immediately succeed. 

Kids who are praised for their intelligence end up caring more about grades, trophies, and awards than those who are praised for their effort, according to the famous 1998 Stanford report “Effects of Intelligence and Effort Praise” by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck. The study showed that “after failure, kids also displayed less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low-ability attributions, and worse task performance than children praised for effort.” 

But there’s another by-product: children praised for intelligence “described it as a fixed trait more than children praised for hard work, who believed it to be subject to improvement.”

Why is that such a bad thing? Because telling kids they’re smart when they get good grades encourages them to continue focusing on the grade rather than the learning process. They just want to keep being smart.  

BEYOND SMARTS

In more recent years, research on how the brain learns is building on those studies. “How we learn shapes what we know and what we can do,” writes author Annie Murphy Paul in a recent Time column. “Our knowledge and our abilities are largely determined not by our IQ or some other fixed measure of intelligence, but by the effectiveness of our learning process: call it our learning quotient.” 

The idea that anyone can learn, regardless of their inherent IQ — with emphasis on the process, the work, the effort — is at the heart of the work of Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. 

Mendoza-Denton extends the idea that what’s harmful about emphasis on achievement and intelligence can also be applied to emphasis on learning styles (audio, visual) or “multiple intelligences,” a theory by Harvard professor Howard Gardner who distinguishes between different kinds of learners: spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, and so on. 

Mendoza-Denton believes that emphasizing “native intelligences” reinforces the belief that kids are good at some things and conversely, bad at others. 

“It’s pervasive in our cultural narrative,” Mendoza-Denton said at the recent Innovative Learning Conference. “‘I’m not this kind of learner or that kind of learner. I’m good at words, but not math.’”

Taking that idea one step further, kids might think that if they have to work hard at something, that must mean they’re not smart. “It’s a theory about how the world works,” he said. 

A recent story on NPR somewhat backs up Mendoza-Denton’s theories. Although “an entire industry has sprouted based on learning styles,” a review of learning style studies led psychologist Doug Rohrer to believe that there is “no scientific evidence backing up the idea.” 

“We have not found evidence from a randomized control trial supporting any of these, and until such evidence exists, we don’t recommend that they be used,” he told NPR. 

Another researcher added more nuance. In a recent story by California Watch, a researcher questions the effects of calling out native abilities. “Clearly, people have distinctive abilities and aptitudes. Some people have higher visual ability, and some have higher auditory ability,” said UCSD professor Hal Pashler, lead author on the report. “But the question is whether that predicts anything about the most effective way to teach them. … There is a complete lack of evidence of the sort.” 

This has caused a big debate in education circles by those who question the motivation of those debunking learning styles. But Mendoza-Denton maintains that reinforcing the idea that effort and elbow grease are as important or more than innate smarts will place kids on the best path of learning.

“Instead of saying, ‘I’m not good at math, why bother trying,’ she’ll say, ‘I didn’t study enough, so I should try harder,’” Mendoza-Denton said. “The meaning of difficulty changes. Difficulty means trying harder, trying a different strategy. They understand that change is possible, and progress occurs over time.” 

And just as importantly, that mistakes are part of good learning. As a Wired article recently reported about why some are more effective at learning from mistakes, “the important part is what happens next.” People with a “growth mindset” — those who “believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy” — were significantly better at learning from their mistakes. 

This also touches on social justice issues, of course, that bring up stereotype beliefs about gender and race — Asians are better at math, girls are worse at math, African Americans don’t do well on tests like the SAT. Mendoza-Denton cited a number of studies that showed students live up (or down) to the expectations set for them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

All of this is not to say that people don’t have specific talents, he said. “People have aptitudes that are undeniable,” he said. “We can’t all be geniuses, but we can all access learning.” 

So what should parents and teachers take away from this? What we might consider ancillary to learning — things like bonding with the teacher or mentor, words of praise about working hard over good grades — are actually crucial to achievement. “Simple things can affect achievement in a deep way,” he said. 

All of this raises further questions. What values about learning do we want for our kids? Is it important for them to be naturally smart to be ultimately successful? What does this say about our school assessments? How do we measure and define “achievement” without grades? 

The Art of Praising to Aid Learning

Being smart means learning comes easy is one of the myths that haunt students. This fixed mindset leads students to avoid challenges for fear of looking stupid. Dweck says teachers can challenge students’ fixed mindset beliefs by using effort or “process” praise — for engagement, perseverance, strategies, improvement, and the like.

Below are some examples:

  • You really studied for your English test, and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, outlined it, and tested yourself on it. That really worked!
  • I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it.
  • It was a long, hard assignment, but you stuck to it and got it done. You stayed at your desk, kept up your concentration, and kept working. That’s great!
  • I like that you took on that challenging project for your science class. It will take a lot of work—doing the research, designing the machine, buying the parts, and building it. You’re going to learn a lot of great things.
  • For the student who gets an A without trying: “All right, that was too easy for you. Let’s do something more challenging that you can learn from.”
  • For the student who works hard and doesn’t do well: “I liked the effort you put in. Let’s work together some more and figure out what you don’t understand.”

Raising Responsible Digital Citizens

Digital Citizens

Do you remember when you were first allowed to go to the playground without adult supervision? You would be given some rules to follow – Be kind to others. No fighting. Do not talk to strangers. Come back by dinner. As you headed down to play, you might have been aware that your parents had been continually looking out for you from the window.

Today, the Internet is akin to the new playground for teenagers, and it has become a lot more difficult for you to protect your children from afar as your parents once did. Hence, it is important to educate your child on the proper usage of the Internet so as to ensure they do not become troublemakers or victims of online abuse. You will be surprised at how the same set of playground rules you were given as a kid can be applied to the online world:

Online or offline, be kind

When we teach our children to be kind to others, we also have to teach them to apply the same kindness online – having online anonymity does not mean that they can be mean or harsh with their words.

At the same time, they should be taught to look out for people who are being mean online. Should they happen to meet such people, let them know that they should not take to heart what has been said to them, but neither should they respond with mean words. Instead, teach them to ignore such people, who will stop these actions once they realise that their words have no effect on your children.

Think twice before you post anything

As it becomes more common for people to share their thoughts online, teach your children to take responsibility for what they post on online platforms. Legal actions can be taken against any defamation made online. Thus, they should understand that inappropriate comments posted online may result in dire consequences in time to come.

Do not leak personal information

Educate your teenagers on the dangers of giving out their personal information to strangers online, as spilling personal details online can be as dangerous as letting a stranger into the house. It may seem harmless, but you do not know what they may take from you, or do to you.

While it is fine to give teenagers the freedom to surf the Internet, it is our responsibility to exercise house rules with them so as to encourage responsible usage. The Internet, like the playground, can be a fun public space where learning and bonding can take place when used appropriately.

3 key takeaways

1.The Internet is the new playground for teenagers. While it can be fun, teach your child to use it responsibly.
2.Teenagers may not know that under the cloak of online anonymity, they still have to be responsible for their actions.
3. It is important to educate your teenager that divulging personal information online can be dangerous.

How do digital portfolios help students learn?

Digital Portfolios

Digital portfolios for learners is a relatively new concept. Anyone who has been in the classroom for some time knows that assessment for learning and assessment of learning don’t always have a clear distinction while we are engaged in instruction. The teaching/assessment cycle ebbs and flows, based on learners’ needs and our responses to their needs.

The same concept can be applied to digital student portfolios. During instruction, we are always on the lookout for students showing progress toward the learning target. Teachers will attempt to capture this learning in order to respond to it during instruction.

What digital tools such as iPads and Evernote provide are ways to efficiently capture this learning through a variety of techniques, including audio, images, and text. This allows the teacher to both respond to the student in the present moment, as well as look back later on artifacts of learning to prepare for instruction in the future.

Something else I know: When students finally meet the learning target, thanks in part to the teacher’s ability to document student progress and respond with personalized instruction, their performance should be celebrated.

For instance, one practice many of our teachers adhere to is taking pictures of their students who master their basic math facts. This image is placed in their digital portfolios, to be shared with their families. The child’s parents know this is a big deal, because prior to this celebration, they had access to their child’s portfolio and followed his or her progress through the math facts learning journey.

What Digital Portfolios Look Like in Action

Instead of totally distinguishing between performance and progress portfolios, let me recall Chris Tovani’s formative and summative assessment table. Consider this :

Performace VS Progress

Now, what if instead we visualized the two different types of portfolios in the context of a learning cycle:

Matt-Perf-Progress-cycle

This learning cycle, similar to Regie Routman’s Ongoing Cycle of Responsive Teaching, might better represent how performance and progress portfolios connect and support each other. We set a clear learning target (the performance), and provide support and scaffolding for students (the progress) as they work to meet the expectations.

Sometimes students will have to go backward in order to go forward. Maybe they weren’t clear on the directions, or they were still in the planning stages for their work. Other times, we leave the learning cycle completely. This may be due to the learning task being too difficult and the student not being developmentally ready. When do we know this? We might find out through a quiz or exit slip, but after a whole lesson, it might be too late. We then spend an additional period reteaching the content the next day.

By capturing student learning progress and performance in the moment, using digital tools, we can bring learning to life. Here’s an example from Evernote – a note documenting work by first-grader Morgan. Academic growth is represented by the work they have produced at any given point in time, collected in progress portfolios. We can show students, through audio or images, where they are in their learning progression and help them become more self-aware of current reality. This understanding can lead to improved performance when they are ready.

To be clear: Performance portfolios contain the best examples of a student’s work and are summative in nature. Progress portfolios are more fine-grained; the contents collected in these portfolios show growth over time; the ups and downs, the struggles and breakthroughs, that are always part of the learning process. Although we consider progress portfolios as formative assessment, we do have an end goal in mind. They are also products that will be placed in the students’ performance portfolio and become part of his or her summative assessment.

It’s all about progress

A teacher may create a progress portfolio to document students’ progress in a particular area associated with a learning target (e.g., informational writing). Like Morgan’s image of her writing plus her audio, meaningful artifacts are collected in their portfolios over time. They can happen both on the fly, like the Morgan example, or more systematically, such as during a grade level meeting when teachers bring student work with them to analyze and score .

These portfolios of student work take shape according to what we need them to be. If a teacher is working on a fairly narrow piece of curriculum, such as informational writing, then she might consider one Evernote note with several pieces placed chronologically over time. For a more comprehensive “historical” portfolio that the teacher and student might examine together, they can collaboratively select pieces each quarter that best represent achievement and growth toward a student’s personal goals.

In terms of digital management, a student would typically have a single overarching portfolio that contains both artifacts showing growth over time (progress) and final work to celebrate (performance). It is important that the audience – the, teacher, the students themselves, other staff, the parents – see the growing and culminating pieces side by side. Learning is a process. We should be aware of all the steps it took to get to our goals.

Digital student portfolios can provide what other assessment tools cannot: Real, unabridged, minimally processed artifacts of learning that make sense to all the learners in the classroom, including the teacher. Technology used in this way can bring us as close as we can get to peering inside our students’ hearts and minds to find out what they currently know and are able to do.

The impact of technology on kids’ learning

Technolgy learning

Technology has become a seamless part of students’ lives in and out of the classroom, and schools must find ways to integrate it. This is one of the conclusions in a report by the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), which states that policymakers at the highest level need to understand the trend and form a cohesive course of action for schools to follow.

“Our kids are digitally savvy when it comes to gaming, texting, and social networking, but when it comes to information, even the best students can be digital doofuses.”

Up until now, much of the enthusiasm for education technology, blended learning, online courses and other digital aids in the classroom have come from teachers themselves. In fact, many ed-tech companies are pursuing a teacher-first strategy, opting to hook the educator and avoid the complicated bureaucracy of selling to school districts. That has left a patchwork of tools and uncertainty among some teachers who would like to take advantage of new tech tools, but aren’t sure how to get started.

“State boards of education along with their state education agencies are key to providing the leadership on education technology issues our school systems need to ensure students are ready for life and work in a digital era,” wrote the NASBE study group tasked with investigating emerging tech trends. At the same time the report acknowledges that the current landscape is a “wild, wild west” of various products and approaches. “Because of their formal responsibilities, state education systems are the only entities able to offer a sustainable platform for aligning these promising—but still fragmented and rapidly changing — forces,” the report said.

CHAPTER 1: ADDRESSING THE VOICE AND NEEDS OF TODAY’S STUDENTS

Much has been written about the cohort of students in school today, who are generally considered digital natives. Commentators frequently point out how these children have always lived with computers in their homes, cell phones in everyone’s pocket, and hundreds of channels available on their televisions. They easily adapt to every new piece of technology that arrives in the marketplace and can text as easily and quickly as adults can talk. They are constantly “plugged in.” For this generation, there is no divide between “technology” and their daily lives.

Ideally, we need school leaders who help communities think very carefully about what learning goals they have for their students, their faculty, and themselves, and then look at how technology tools can support those learning initiatives. It’s not about “using more tech” or even about “using technology to boost engagement,” since what is engagement without direction? The fundamental issue is how do we think about the kind of learning experiences that will prepare people for work, for our democracy, and for a well-lived life, and to what extent can technology support those kinds of learning experiences. – Justin Reich, Education Week

Today the combination of immense portable computing power, digital communications, and the Internet presents education with an enormous number of opportunities, challenges, and imperatives. There is the imperative, for example, that all students be digitally literate, which will require educators to meet students in the technological world where they now live in order to bring them to a new place. There are the challenges that come with ensuring students are good digital citizens—that they understand the potential consequences, negative and positive, of anything they put out on the web, understand plagiarism, and how to harness the power of technology safely, respectfully, and responsibly. Finally, there are the vast opportunities technology brings as a vehicle for enhancing the learning process through greater personalization of instruction—something leaders may need to address through policies that provide the flexibility and incentives needed to allow educators to take advantage of these opportunities.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

•Today’s students have never lived in a world where the internet wasn’t in their homes and cell phones weren’t in everyone’s pockets. For them, there is no divide between “technology” and their daily lives.

•“Our kids are digitally savvy when it comes to gaming, texting, and social networking,” one expert told state board members, “but when it comes to information, even the best students can be digital doofuses.” In other words, just because they have a more intuitive grasp of how to make technology “work” doesn’t mean students automatically know how to use it as a tool for learning. Students still need to be taught foundational research skills and processes that can be enhanced by technology use. This means students—and educators—need to understand that doing research is more than just sorting through what pops up via online search engines.

•Internet information often does not have the ordered structure provided by textbooks or other resources for students. Educators need to be sensitive to this, and to their students frame of reference in regards to online searches, when integrating technology into their lessons.

•With increased access to many different types of tools for learning and socializing and ever-increasing multitasking, it has become even more important to teach students how to focus their attention.

•One of the great advantages of technology is its potential for personalizing instruction. Students are used to being able to personalize how they receive information—and when schools don’t present information in the same way, they sometimes become bored and disengaged. Instruction should be designed to take advantage of each student’s personal style of learning.

•Because online problems can cause disruptions at school, there is a role for schools to help students learn to be safe, responsible, and respectful digital citizens. But in order to do so, school teachers and staff have to be prepared and equipped to monitor and instruct students in safe environments that are close to what they will experience once the filters and monitoring are removed.

RECOMMENDATIONS

1.Address digital citizenship and digital literacy. These are relatively new areas for education leaders to address through the creation of policies and programs. It is important for policymakers to realize that every school community is different and each is starting at a different place. Some will be ready to institute integrated curricula, while others first need to create common definitions. The study group recommends that state boards urge their districts and schools to address the critical areas of digital citizenship and digital literacy and ensure that the state education department is prepared to offer resources and guidance for these discussions.

2.Design instruction to take advantage of how each student learns now. It is time to revisit what “school” is and how education policymakers can ensure that their decisions create a learning environment that best fits current learners’ needs. Policies at the state and local levels should be responsive to student’s lifestyles and behaviors at home and in the classroom.

3.Create policies that allocate resources based on data, student needs, and student, parent and stakeholder voices. These key stakeholder groups understand the complexities of the issues involved, and can provide the most accurate feedback about what solutions might work best. Additionally, providing access to student performance data to parents and students can also help them serve as an informed partner in ensuring that student study habits, methods and schedules are most conducive to learning outside of school hours.

Sometime ago, I witnessed students that were taking computer-based classes. It surprised me that they were passing their tests with ease until I figured out what they were doing. They had two screens open — one was the computer-based course and the other screen was Google, Wikipedia, or Ask Jeeves. When they ran across a question they did not know, they just looked up the answer on one of those other sites (we had to shut that capacity down in a jiffy).

This incident made me think a bit. What do teachers have to offer students when students can learn anything they want from searching for it on the Internet? Why should a student sit in class (or classes) all day long when they can find all the information they need instantly? With so much knowledge everywhere, aren’t we trying to sell a product they already have?

Come to think of it, I’m no different than those students in the computer-based learning class. When I wanted to install radiant barrier insulation in my attic all I had to do was go online and look it up. Hundreds of videos, websites, and resources popped up. I read through a few, saw that they were selling more than explaining and I went on to others. I watched a couple of how-to videos that seemed to know what they were talking about and so I used them as my model (disclaimer: installing the radiant barrier is not as easy as the videos make it appear). Voila! So with a little bit of research, I became an instant expert on something I did not know anything about previously.

Here’s another example. The other day in class, I couldn’t remember how to spell a word and before I could turn around and find a dictionary, a student had already looked it up on her phone. I had it right, but it got me thinking again. How is the instant knowledge (that is available almost everywhere) changing how students learn and view education? Deep stuff. We are not quite to the point of the science fiction concepts of instant knowledge, though rapidly science fiction becomes science fact. It seems to me that we are in a transition period, primarily because we still have a huge digital divide — some students and schools have access to technology resources, while others do not.

Even if the technology were ubiquitous (I really like that word) in school and out of school, the answer to that question is simple: Instant knowledge has changed how everyone learns because the questions we need to have answered are just a few clicks away, and this brings up more questions—Can I trust the answers? How can I double check for accuracy? What information is missing?

In the Classroom

With so much knowledge available, good and bad, for students, it boils down to a consistent focus on what they need to know. What is the role of a teacher in such a scenario? Well, we need to put aside the traditional knowledge acquisition model, “You need to know this just in case” to a new model, “You need to know this in order to (build, create, resolve, discover…) that.” The main effort of teaching shifts to designing learning environments that enable the students to realize they “need to know” certain things in order to accomplish others. How do we do this? Let me illustrate:

In my Spanish II classes, I create scenarios that motivate students to learn Spanish. For example, in order to have a reason to learn the vocabulary and phrases for travel, we recreated a hotel and the students were the employees and the guests. They created the registration forms, brochures, letter head, menus, television guides, and most importantly they researched, designed, and practiced the interactive dialogues that typically occur in hotels across the Spanish speaking world. This learning environment gave them an authentic reason to learn the verbs and the Spanish phrases that pure book-work could not provide.

The same kind of thing happens in an English class when they create newspapers, or publish books, and in social studies or history when they role-play the armistice of World War I, or the debates between Lincoln and Douglass. Science teachers do this when they design inquiry lessons about the nature of salt, or experiments concerning plant growth and fertilizer. Math teachers create rich learning environments for students to practice their skills when they set up a bakery business and students have to make financial decisions that can make the shop successful or can make it go out of business.

When the micro-computer came into vogue in schools, doomsday prophets predicted the demise of the public school teacher. Now, we have so much more technology in schools and student’s pockets, and we still have teachers. What then, will be the role of the teacher when each student can look up every answer on their wrist phone, or with their eyeglasses? My answer is that we will always need great teachers. The teacher’s role will be to motivate and inspire the students to want to learn, but for this to happen, the teacher must first provide a compelling answer to the oft-repeated question, “Why do I need to know this?”

How do you create learning environments that motivate students to learn? In my opinion, the best learning environment is beyond the 4 walls of the classroom. It is important for students to learn by experience. If they are made to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the environment around them, people will learn to appreciate nature when they have seen it first hand, are amazed by it, and that’s when they start to care about it.

We’ve just launched our organization, but we’ll be running our first Youth Environmental Ambassadors Program this summer on an arctic expedition. In my view, that is just about the best learning environment. We get students engaged using a unique approach – we teach students how to take photos and videos and teach them how to use those to create their OWN visual presentations about their experiences and about environmental preservation. On the smaller scale on which I’ve done this before, kids are so much more engaged by this full-on experience. And teaching them to use technology to communicate is a great way to help kids to express themselves, tell their stories and share their experiences. When you combine this with inspiring them to care about the environment, kids become passionate about nature conservation.

Free Play is the best for learning

Free Play

Several researches have showed that the more time children spend in structured, parent-guided activities, the worse their ability to work productively towards self-directed goals.

Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health. The value of free play, daydreaming, risk-taking, and independent discovery have been much in the news this year, and a new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado reveals just how important these activities are in the development of children’s executive functioning.

Executive function is a broad term for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to switch between activities. It is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth. The focus of this study is “self-directed executive function,” or the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them on a practical level. The power of self-direction is an underrated and invaluable skill that allows students to act productively in order to achieve their own goals.

Children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function.The authors studied the schedules and play habits of 70 six-year-old children, measuring how much time each of them spent in “less structured,” spontaneous activities such as imaginative play and self-selected reading and “structured” activities organized and supervised by adults, such as lessons, sports practice, community service and homework. They found that children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also true: The more time kids spent in structured activities, the worse their sense of self-directed control. It’s worth noting that when classifying activities as “less structured” or “structured,” the authors deemed all child-initiated activities as “less-structured,” while all adult-led activities were “structured.”

All of this is in keeping with the findings of Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, who studies the benefits of play in human development. In his book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, he elaborates on how play supports the development of executive function, and particularly self-directed control:

Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.

When we reduce the amount of free playtime in American preschools and kindergartens, our children stand to lose more than an opportunity to play house and cops and robbers. Some elementary programs recognize the importance of play and protect its role in preschool and kindergarten.

Montessori schools and Tools of the Mind curricula are designed to capitalize on the benefits of self-directed free play and student-initiated activities. Tools of the Mind programs, for example, place even more importance on developing executive function than on academic skills. In their terminology, “self-regulation” is the key to success both in school and in life:

Kindergarten teachers rank self-regulation as the most important competency for school readiness; at the same time, these teachers report that many of their students come to school with low levels of self-regulation. There is evidence that early self-regulation levels have a stronger association with school readiness than do IQ or entry-level reading or math skills, and they are closely associated with later academic achievement.

This is not news to most teachers, who, when tasked with educating increasingly crowded classrooms, hope and pray for students with well-developed executive function. The ability to self-direct can spell the difference between an independent student, who can be relied upon to get her work done while chaos reigns around her, and a dependent, aimless student, who is distracted by his classmates and must be guided from one task to the next.

Parents, if you really want to give your kid a head start on coming school year, relinquish some of that time you have earmarked for lessons or sports camp and let your children play. That’s it. Just play. Grant them time free from your ulterior motives and carefully planned educational outcomes. Let them have dominion over their imaginary kingdoms while their evil dragons, white wizards, marauding armies, and grand battles for supremacy unfurl according to their whims and wills.

Jessica Lahey is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a former English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middle, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.