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While some students thrived during the coronavirus-inspired spring of remote learning, educators, parents and students themselves have reported frighteningly low engagement. Among 20,000 middle and high school students surveyed by Youth Truth, a national nonprofit research organization, just 41 percent of them said they could motivate themselves to do schoolwork while their school buildings were closed. Broken down by grade, 57 percent of fifth graders said they could motivate themselves, and that portion steadily dropped by age with barely one-quarter of 12th graders saying the same.

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Some of these students were understandably distracted by the global health crisis, called to take care of siblings during the day and armed with perfectly reasonable excuses for ditching their schoolwork. Others, though, simply didn’t know how to stay on task without a teacher looking over their shoulder. And the drop in motivation by age mirrors the way student engagement plummets over time. Based on data from its Student Poll, Gallup called this phenomenon the “student engagement cliff,” finding that just 32 percent of high school juniors feel engaged, compared to 74 percent of fifth graders.

During remote instruction, many students felt unmoored. “In a classroom, most of the time, you are forced to work on assignments either as a class or in a small group of friends. At home, you have to push yourself to be productive,” said one student in anonymous comments as part of the Youth Truth survey.

Another student described struggling to maintain focus while learning from home: “The school would push the students to learn and pay attention, but over a screen, where they are muted, students can easily slack off.”

Some schools, however, have long cultivated students’ ability to work on their own. Students in these schools were among the most prepared to pick up where they left off once instruction resumed remotely. Tyler Thigpen, co-founder of The Forest School: An Acton Academy in south metro Atlanta, said learning in his school went on mostly as usual after the coronavirus hit. Even before the pandemic, students spent much of their time working through schoolwork at their own pace and driven by their own goals.

Related: How to unlock students’ internal drive for learning

Thigpen has now founded The Institute for Self-Directed Learning to encourage more schools to adopt such practices – particularly those serving historically marginalized student groups who rarely get such control over their own learning.

“Low-income communities and communities of color are learning and operating in traditional systems where teachers continue to explain things to them and kids have to continue following rules that adults are making up,” Thigpen said. “After enough time, you’re graduating kids who know how to follow rules and listen to explanations in a broken, unjust system.”

While there are other hubs for self-directed learning, Thigpen’s institute will be rare in focusing on the model as a way to increase educational equity. And while it launched just as the coronavirus was grabbing international attention, it will start working with more schools just as they are addressing glaring gaps in educational progress as a result of months of remote learning. Already, the institute has projects under way with a handful of public and private schools.

Brandi Kenner, founder and CEO of the Choice Filled Lives Network, an education consulting firm, conducted a review of self-directed learning on behalf of the fledgling organization. She found many schools struggling to facilitate remote learning because students didn’t have experience setting and meeting learning goals. They didn’t know how to think and plan and consider how their actions and progress one day would affect their workload the next. 

“We as a society in general are just not doing enough to build up these skills in our students,” Kenner said.

The Institute for Self-Directed Learning will primarily serve as a resource hub for the field and also work with individual districts and schools to expand self-directed learning among their students. Thigpen conceived of the institute before the coronavirus hit, but the pandemic – and the remote learning it required – has made very clear its mission is more important than ever.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about self-directed learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, WA. After graduating with...

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