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October 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 2

Listening In on Self-Directed Learners

    Instructional Strategies
      To study the development of expertise in the classroom, we observed 70 1st–6th grade students nominated by their teachers as “most self-directed” and 70 nominated as “low self-directed.” Our observation system focused on children's statements and questions to peers, teachers, and selves, while a narrative account of each child's behavior provided the background for interpreting what was said. An observer who followed the child about the classroom recorded everything the child said, along with accompanying behaviors.
      Each sentence was coded for dialogue features, task functions, and emotional tone. The dialogue features describe the social context in which the sentence occurred. The task functions describe the metacognitive or task-regulatory function of each sentence. (Dialogue features and task functions are illustrated in fig. 1.) Finally, in order to tap the emotions that accompany performance, each verbal unit was coded for emotional tone (positive, neutral, or negative). We did not code instances of social talk concerning non-task-related events (such as, “Do you know how the Toronto Blue Jays did last night?”) and “verbal products” (reading, counting, or spelling aloud). Thus, only task-directive language was coded.

      Figure 1. Categories of Task Directive Speech

      Listening In on Self-Directed Learners - table1

      Dialogue Features

      Task Functions

      1. Initiation: whether a child initiated the sentence spontaneously or whether the sentence was in response to a teacher or peer.1. Defining: Statement or question labels and notes features of tasks, procedures, and objects (“It's John's game.” “That's red paint.”).
      2. Direction: to whom the sentence was directed (to a specific peer, group of peers, teacher, or self).2. Planning: Statement or question about what will or should happen next (“Can I do X?” “Mix some soap in the paint.” “Where are the sparkles?” “I need ...”).
      3. Mode: whether the verbalization was a statement or a question.3. Conditional planning: Statement or question relates a plan to a condition or specifies the basis for choosing between alternative plans (“If we make noise, then we won't have recess.”).
      4. Ownership: whether the task being discussed belonged to the child or a peer, or was shared.4. Monitoring (ongoing task): Statement or question notes progress, or lack thereof, on the task (“You're going too fast.” “Slow down.”).
      5. Context: whether the context conveyed by the verbalization was strictly current (referring only to the immediate situation), or whether it was elaborated to include reference to other settings (“This is like what we did at recess”) or to categories (“Some people would call this editing.”).5. Evaluating (completed or aborted task): Statement or question concerns conclusions on ending the task—regarding the product, the child's ability, or the experience of doing the task. (“This is my best one so far!” “I can't do it!” “The math squares are fun!”).

      • Highly self-directed children spontaneously initiated more than twice as many statements about tasks per hour (22) as the less self-directed children (11).
      • Most of the higher rate of the self-directed children's spontaneous statements about tasks was accounted for by planning (what next), conditional planning (if, then; choosing between alternative plans), and monitoring (checking own or other's progress) statements. Both groups had similar rates of defining and evaluating statements. We suggest that spontaneous planning and monitoring statements are crucial indicators of the degree to which a child is functioning with expertise in a specific situation.
      • When expressing emotion about their own tasks, the highly self-directed children were mostly positive, while the less self-directed children's emotions were about half negative.
      • While both groups asked similar numbers of questions, highly self-directed children questioned peers about half the time, while the less self-directed children mostly asked questions of teachers.
      • Data from our second study indicate that less self-directed children received an average of 17 task-directive sentences per hour from their teacher. In contrast, the highly self-directed children received an average of just two sentences per hour from their teacher. This suggests that teachers and peers often “think for” less self-directed children.
      • Teacher language directed toward the less self-directed children shows that the teacher is planning, monitoring, and the like for the children (see fig. 2). These children elicit more task-directive support from their teacher than from themselves.

      Figure 2. Examples of Children's Verbal Exchanges

      Listening In on Self-Directed Learners - table2

      Less Self-Directed Children

      Highly Self-Directed Children

      Teacher to Child: What are you doing? What do you have to do first? Did you check your assignment? You will have to clean up your desk after you're finished.Teacher to Child: You did research about Terry Fox. This is just like that. Look it up in your book. You can find the answer. Tell me how you solved that.
      Peer to Child: You forgot to loop again. You can't have two the same. Did you ask 32 people yet? You have already done that. If you do X, then Y will happen.Peer to Child: What are we supposed to do? Should I ...? How did you do that?
      Child to Peer: Can you help me? What do they mean by ...? Do you know what I'm supposed to do here? My card is missing.Child to Peer: You don't cut each one individually. You cut the whole thing. That glue goes this way. You've done that already, haven't you?

      In contrast, highly self-directed children received many opportunities to nurture and practice their metacognitive skills. They were often asked by teachers to help other children and were also asked to share procedural information with the class. Thus, highly self-directed children seem to create a learning environment in which they can develop their self-regulatory skills.
      End Notes

      1 The Laidlaw Foundation and the Izaak Killam Research Fellowship provided support for this research.

      Andrew Biemiller has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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