Student Directed Content Application Methodology

by Justin Miera

This methodology is designed to provide seven clear steps that will help lead students to self directed skills. It is through personal initiation that students find power and relevance. Students then move into team activities with classmates and peers. As their self directed skills grow, students can ultimately manifest the greatest demonstration of knowledge, teaching others. With this command over their will, students become more responsible, respectful, and resourceful.

These steps are meant to be a linear progression, each building upon the previous: (1) purpose, (2) approach, (3) responsibility, (4) contributions, (5) consensus, (6) teams, and (7) teaching. Of course, every class and teacher are different. Each requires unique timing and application. The intent of this methodology is not to deny variations on these steps, or to concertize the order of their introduction. In fact, facilitators are encouraged to find individualized application of these concepts. There will be times when it is beneficial to revisit earlier steps. After an initial exposure to all the steps a facilitator may want to add new responsibilities for the class, or reestablish the purpose of curriculum and concepts. There are probably many successful approaches already being used for classroom management, so no need to dismiss what works. Simply adapt it into the overall model.

Again, the ultimate purpose for this method is to encourage student directed application of content material. In the long term, that means more freedom and flexibility for the teacher to apply individualized assistance. It encourages a strong sense of intrinsic inquiry for students. It also provides students with great opportunities to make mistakes, learn from their difficulties, and grow. In the short term, the teacher must be extremely clear about the goals and curriculum for the class. The teacher must then be willing to sacrifice ego and control for the sake of education. It requires great patience to let students struggle with each other, and the material, instead of rescuing them before they discover relevant solutions. At times, it may seem detrimental to let the students fall, but if they never learn that internal balance then the skill of running becomes impossible.

Step 1 - Purpose

The first step towards self direction is to give students the reason for study. How does their study relate to other areas of their life? What is exciting about their study? What are the tools they will need to succeed in their study?

Teachers begin each year with long, intermediate, and short term goals. Often, these goals are spelled out in an established curriculum. Give these goals to the students as a road map to their study. At the beginning of the year describe the general destination that we will all be traveling towards. Next, provide the benchmarks that will help guide the way (e.g. quarterly goals). Finally, introduce the daily, or weekly concept(s) that will be immediately studied. If this method is initiated during the middle of the year, then outline only intermediate and short term goals.

There are several ways to maintain perspective through the duration of study. One, post the curriculum in an obvious, accessible place, so that a student can refer to it quickly and easily. Two, create a posted time line that marks intermediate and long term goals, where they will be met during the year, and a box to mark off completion. Third, give students a outlined handout at the beginning of each quarter describing the important concepts and the intermediate steps needed for mastery.

All of these activities give students perspective on where they are going. Students can now help budget class time and monitor progress. Within this general framework students will also find individually pertinent references which will further boost intrinsic motivation. Once students are armed with this information it is also possible that teachers may be challenged on the importance of curriculum or its place in the academic calendar. Try not to become defensive. Instead, respond to the students as if they were colleagues by clarify district curriculum goals or educational philosophy. Listen though, because they may have a valuable perspective. Ultimately, in the interest of time, the teacher has the power and responsibility to veto descent and move on with the agenda.

Step 2 - Approach

It is equally important for students to know how to travel, not just where to travel. The approach, or method of classroom behavior management, is personal to each facilitator. The teacher should be clear on the strategy they use. This strategy is the way students will learn to treat each other in team and teaching situations. Try to narrow the aspects of approach to a few memorable cues. Describe these cues at the beginning of the year, post them, and refer to them when they are applied.

There are many effective cues, and no way to reference all of them here. Cues must be modified for individual classes, communities, and ages. These are a few: (a) waiting (e.g. "We can not get started until everyone is ready to go."), (b) polite requests (e.g. "Everyone feels better about new and challenging ideas when we use respectful, polite words like please and thank you. If you raise your hand with a new perspective then we can all hear the idea."), (c) natural consequences (e.g. "If we are not all ready to go then we will have to move class time into recess," or "If you have been impolite to other students, then they may not respect your ideas in the future."), (d) three strikes (e.g. "If I have to ask you to quite down that is one warning, the second time you will sit outside of the group, a third time and you will have to leave the class for the principal's office."), (e) aural and visual cues like a hand clap pattern or a finger gesture.

The approach theory itself is not the point. It is the clarity of the tool, the cues, that give students a reference point. When the students are participating in teams, or teaching the whole class, then they can handle problems and leave the facilitator free to provide in depth, personal attention around the room.

Step 3 - Responsibility

The teacher should provide daily activities for the students to conduct so they can practice leadership skills. Again, the activities themselves are relatively unimportant. It is easiest to start with mundane tasks that have only moderate impact on the progress of the class. Rotate the leadership role frequently so that students can practice, observe others, and then retry their skills. Help students create an easy to follow leadership schedule so that they figure out who is next without involving the facilitator (e.g. alphabetical last names, or locker numbers).

The activities and responsibilities should be relevant to the particular subject like leading brain gym warm ups, muscle stretches, vocalizes, calendar dates, whether changes, current events, etc. As daily class lessons progress use the leader for spontaneous chores like choosing people to hand out books, picking small group leaders, or organizing a clean up crew. It is surprising how much learning can take place during a simple task like dividing the class in three equal parts.

With rotating leaders, every student gets an opportunity to feel both the power and terror of being in charge. As the year progresses, and everyone gets a turn, all students begin to palpably empathize with the leaders, and the teacher.

Step 4 - Contributions

Through leadership activities students developed confidence and skills in interpersonal interaction. Now, we will help students explore, shape and share content. It seems daunting at first, but with gradual, progressive steps this is quite empowering. As the facilitator introduces new concepts and ideas, she will need to provide examples for demonstration. Rather than using examples from a text, or the teacher's experience, ask the students to fill in the blanks. After all, it is the concept we are sharing, and we would like the students to ultimately apply it in their daily lives.

This can happen in any subject area. Let us start with 1st grade math and the concept of subtraction, finding the difference. Ask the students for an example of something to count. They may come up with leaves, snowflakes, or kittens depending on their mood and experiences. There is no way for a teacher to peer into the subconscious of a child for their motivation, so ask. Next, have a student give a quantity, or minuend, of these things. Now, have another student take a number away from the original quantity, the subtrahend. Suppose we started with eight cars and the next student said to take away nine cars. The facilitator, in a constructivist model, would Socratically question the choice: "If I start with eight cars and take away nine are there any left? What if I started with nine cars and then took away eight? How many would be left? So does the first number need to be bigger or smaller than the second? Lets try another one."

There is also a way to extend this lesson and method into homework, without the traditional twenty, predetermined number questions on a photo-copied sheet. Set up a blank work sheet with three columns. The first express the minuend, the second is the subtrahend, and the third is the difference. Have the students find a set of objects in their home. Students then write down the name or draw a picture to describe their objects. They count the number of objects and put that number in the first column (e.g. seven flower pots, sixteen black chess pieces, or four pencils). Next, the students pick a number less than the original quantity and write it second in the formula. The students then remove that second number of objects from the original set and write the result in the third column. Students now have the opportunity to concretely examine the process with their own manipulatives rather than working in the abstractions of irrelevant number formulas. They are also having to use other skills like symbolic representation and writing. Since this is an explorative process parents are more likely to become interested in joining the fun.

Obviously, these are isolated examples. Other opportunities should be developed to explore finding the original quantity or the subtrahend. The lessons could be furthered by having several subtrahends. In all cases, the teacher sets the broad parameters and encourages the students to provide the specifics, to "fill in the blanks." Teachers must let go of the misconception that they need to control all aspects of a lesson. Invite the students to be co-contributors to their education.

Step 5 - Consensus

Consensus is about building general agreement among most of the people concerned in an endeavor. There is no way to gain complete unanimity among individuals because every person's perspective, no matter how closely related, is inherently unique. The challenge is to gain this agreement in a way that does not alienate or harm others. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to be considerate and polite. Students then learn that even when we do not get our way, it is still an enjoyable, rewarding experience to participate and create in cooperative ventures.

Because this notion of polite consideration is essential to all aspects of life it is difficult to find a tidy, linear place for it in the student directed model. From step 3, we saw that when students take new responsibilities, polite consideration is imperative. For this reason, polite consideration is a necessary cue to share with students. We must reiterate politeness now at step 5, with special emphasis, because students are going to be sharing personal, vulnerable insights with their friends and peers. If the class environment is hostile then future explorations become more difficult. Arguably, this step is one that should be delivered early in a student's educational experience. The sooner students master polite consideration, the less conspicuous and vulnerable they feel in their adolescent years.

Almost any communication exercises will help to develop consensus with polite consideration. One notion is the talking stick which helps listening skills. Only the person who holds the stick, or other symbolic device, is allowed to talk; no interruptions or arguments. The stick is then passed around the group giving each person a chance to say their piece. Children are sometimes so concerned with having their own way that they miss an identical idea from their neighbor. A second exercise is clarification. Before a student can comment on, or challenge another's idea they must first relate the original notion. This guarantees that accurate listening has taken place. Some students are verbal learners, and the simple act of clarification may provide insight.

No one ever gets all that they want, nor are we always happy with another's ideas. Compromise will help to minimize pain and maximize success. This means that each party in a disagreement settles the problem through mutual concessions; everyone gives up something. During a project there are always several problems to be solved. For instance, in a musical analysis of Gustav Holts'' symphony, The Planets, students in a group may disagree on which planet to study. If students know the progressive points of the lesson, the goals, then they also know that each team member will need take on a duty, such a secretary, and a sub concept, such as melody. With this in mind one student might be willing to study Mars in exchange for first choice on duties.

Traditionally, the teacher may be tempted to take on the role of arbiter and enforce her arbitrary perspective. Instead, the teacher can ask probing questions that would bring out each student's priorities: "Why is Mars such an important planet for you?" "Is there a particular concept that you have more fun studying?" "Who would like to be in charge of controlling the cassette deck?" Each of these questions will help students to examine their options, and then work for a solution based on personal priorities. If the teacher is the final decision maker, then momentum will require that most of her time be spent solving conflicts, rather than tutoring insights.

Step 6 - Teams

After students become comfortable with contributing examples to preexisting problems then they can be challenged with solving the whole problem in a small group, or team context. Working cooperatively, in teams, addresses several opportunities for students to learn. They develop deeper communication skills, discover how to find their role in a group, synergistically draw upon the insight and ideas of others, and free themselves to make mistakes in a supportive and safe environment.

There are many models of cooperative teaming and each contributes its own specialty. Most models work with 3-5 students in a team. Some teams are constructed by students, others assigned by the teacher. One family of methods, like Student Teaming-Achievement Divisions (STAD), has the team study a problem together, and then demonstrate their knowledge through individual worksheets or tests. Some techniques, like Learning Together, serve the purpose of developing group communication skills, without emphasis on content. Group Investigation is a method where student groups are each assigned a problem area. The students then delegate individual responsibilities to satisfy the exploration, and choose their own method of demonstration. Jigsaw is a technique where each group is assigned the same large problem. Individual students are then assigned specific components of that problem. That second group is reassigned, by those subdivisions, for in depth study. They then return to their original group and teach the others about the sub category insights. Choosing the cooperative method is an individual teacher's prerogative. Find one that is personally compatible with teaching style and district outcome requirements.

An example for curricular exploration is American history. The problem is to convey an important aspect of early American slavery. One group might choose, or be assigned, the Middle Passage, the journey aboard slave ships. Using the Group Investigation formula, one student in the group might investigate intertribal warfare, another student studies African abductions, a third looks at the terror at sea, a forth might explore the Caribbean connections, and the fifth considers the auction process in America. For their project, the group may decide to write five theatrical vignettes, or maybe create a mural depicting the elements of study.

Again, it is not the method of teaming, or the area of content study that is the purpose. Simply to allow students the opportunity to self direct and coordinate their studies with each other provides powerful intrinsic motivation. Because students have ownership of the process they can more easily see the relevance of study to their personal lives.

Step 7 - Teaching

To impart knowledge and information the teacher must have an understanding of her subject. For this reason, at the most basic level of evaluation, teaching demonstrates a student's understanding and application of content. Teaching can take place in small groups, like the expert's descriptions of Jigsaw and Group Investigation. Teaching also happens through individual presentations to the class. This has been a traditional form of evaluation: oral presentations and project exhibitions. A powerful way to combine these two notions is to have the small group teams present their projects to the class, and then provide an evaluation instrument for review.

To precede this process the teacher would give an overview of the concepts to be studied. In the case of Holts' symphony example, the concepts are melody, dynamics, tempo, rhythm, harmony, form, and timbre. Initially the teacher spends seven classes clarifying these concepts and their grade specifics (e.g. moving from eighth notes in third grade to triplets in forth grade). Planets are chosen at the point when teams are formed. At the end of exploration each group presents their planets and teaches how all the musical concepts are used in that particular movement. At the conclusion of the presentation, the teaching team may choose to do a question and answer evaluation (e.g. "What instrument is unique to the movement Neptune?"). Their evaluation may be a 10 question written quiz. The team may have the class do different dance gestures to depict the formal changes of Mercury. In all instances, students are exposed to new information, and evaluated on their understanding of it. No content has been lost, in fact, more relevant connections have been made.


These seven steps are not the final word on educational implementation. They do promote several vital aspects to teaching and learning. Self direction encourages students to find the purpose for school and understand the steps that lead us to new information. Students also learn how to approach and interact with each other. They learn personal responsibility and leadership skills. Student contributions create relevant connections and intrinsic motivation. Through consensus building students not only learn interpersonal communication, but also problem solving. Team work brings together the allure of friends and the synergy of collaboration. Self direction not only provides students with all this knowledge and ability, it also gives them the skills to teach their great insights to others. What good is a rainbow if it's beauty is never seen. With self direction, these children will seek out the wonders of creation in ways we elders have never imagined.


Adams, D., Hamm, M. (1996). Cooperative learning. Illinois: Thomas Books.

Brooks, J. G., Brooks, M. G. (1993). In search of understanding: the case for constructivist classrooms. Virginia: ASCD.

Glasser M.D., William (1986). Choice theory in the classroom. New York: Harper & Row.

Slavin, Robert E. (1983). Cooperative learning. New York: Longman Inc.

Slavin, Robert E. (1990). Cooperative learning: theory, research, and practice. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Slavin, Robert E. (1991). Student team learning: a practical guide to cooperative learning. Washington, D. C.: NEA.

Slavin, R., Sharan, S., Kagan, S., Hertz-Lazarowitz, R., Webb, C., Schmuck, R. (Eds.). (1985). Learning to cooperate, cooperating to learn. New York: Plenum Press.

A project in partial fulfillment of the course Student Directed Content Application, MLS 654 I, Course Consultant is Mona Gardner, Ph.D., REGIS UNIVERSITY, March 16, 1999.Students Directed Content Application

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