Podcast Transcript: A Self-Directed Learning Environment

Mullen: Welcome to the EXPLORING THE CORE PODCAST, where we delve into the elements that make up our education system and learn more about how that system can improve for the benefit of all students in schools today.

I'm Greg Mullen, and I’d first like to take this moment now to thank you for listening to this podcast. This will be the final episode of this season. I hope you’ve enjoyed the episodes, I hope you share this podcast with other educators, and I hope you’ll listen to these episodes again, to the experts interviewed, and begin exploring how your own schools and classrooms can benefit from shifting toward a self-directed learning environment.

In this episode today, you may recognize a different tone to my voice, a different feel to this episode, than in the previous episodes. Today, I want to share a few of my more personal stories

and insights from my classroom experiences early in my career that helped lead me to my current perspective toward education, experiences that helped shaped my perspective toward what I now believe is a path for creating a more meaningful approach, a self-directed, student-centered, classroom learning environment. I’ll be putting myself out on a limb here, sharing a few of my more vulnerable moments, because what I’m hoping you will take away from this episode, from this season really, is how there’s not just one perspective for journeying toward a self-directed learning environment but that whichever philosophical path you have chosen to follow, you and so many other teachers today have already begun choosing to take a path away from what we’ve been taught for so long of what school is and begin considering what school ought to be. The experiences I share today are not causal, are not the single events that sparked my whole perspective. They’ll simply be instances where I began to question some of the more traditional school practices that were particularly challenging for me. So please keep in mind the context in which these experiences happened will be different than your own but that the choice to question the underlying intent of various traditional practices will surely align with many different teachers in a variety of different situations and environments.

Plus, I’ll be sharing a phone conversation I was lucky enough to have with Starr Sackstein from New York about how she’s been moving away from traditional school practices, even going completely gradeless, and coaching other educators with books and TED talks helping others create a more student-focused approach, and celebrating how the institution of school can be so much more than what we’ve always thought school had to be.

So thank you for listening. I hope you enjoy the show.


Mullen: For me, the last decade of teaching has created a lot of great memories, single moments, snippits of random days where a student did or said something that really struck me, made me think about what I’m doing as a teacher, what they were doing as a student, and what we were all really trying to do together in that classroom. For me, I always seemed to be teaching a different grade level each year, a different perspective, meeting different needs. My first few years of teaching were by far the most challenging, and when I speak with first-year teachers about their struggles keeping themselves afloat with everything their teacher credential program did or did not prepare them for… I empathize and relay to them stories of my first years and, while it doesn’t always directed address a specific challenge, i can see in their face a little bit of that stress is curbed because they are reminded they aren’t alone in this, it’s an unfortunate part of the process that we leave these freshman teachers to fend for themselves, to figure out so much about what we’ve learned these past few decades about what about traditional teaching approaches is so difficult.

There’s one particular story I like to share with first-year teachers when the chance arises...

I was hired my first year out of my credential program to teach seventh grade at a district where, the summer I arrived, had disbanded their middle school, changed their K-5 schools to K-8, and had implemented a district-wide overhaul toward a performance-based system where grade levels were no longer strictly age-based. Ok, so I’m a new teacher fresh out of the credential program, hired to teach seventh grade to a revolving set of rosters that included advanced 6th graders, on-level 7th graders, and remedial 8th graders, so I spent that summer doing all of things I was taught to prepare - organizing the seating and room arrangement, looking up and preparing materials for lessons, decorating the walls, preparing file cabinets of folders, and learning how to use the district’s new online platform for grading and resources. The first day of school, my room is suddenly full of middle school students talking and laughing with each other as I walk up to the front of the room and begin to introduce myself. I’m clearly nervous and the students quickly recognize this. Like a new actor getting his bearings on local stages, develop