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Let's do it right! Autonomy is not the same as self-regulated learning

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Today's blog post is about a topic I feel very strongly about. No worries. Although it's emotions that drive me to write this piece, I won't get carried away. Or will I? The last couple of weeks more and more schools contacted me in search for ways to help students take learning into their own hands. Multiple reasons drive their interest in self-regulated learning:

  1. Teacher shortages force schools to create bigger classrooms. Some of them turning to radically new ways of working: co-teaching, weekly assignments, independent work, etc.

  2. Teachers visit exemplary schools to get inspired and try to implement examples within their own contexts.

  3. Student diversity has teachers explore differentiated instruction. Students start learning in smaller groups without the constant presence of their teacher.

  4. Meta-review studies show that self-regulated learning and meta-cognition are one of the most effective and scientifically underpinned interventions to improve student performance and motivation.

  5. As a result educational policy institutions both international (e.g. European Commission) and regional (e.g. Flanders) integrate self-regulated learning in different policy instruments. Examples are new curricular targets or guidelines for inspectorates.

  6. The pandemic caused teachers to acknowledge the importance of self-regulated learning. Self-regulated learners who were used to having autonomy before the pandemic appeared to be more successful during times of home education.

Needless to say that the increasing interest in self-regulated learning excites me.

And still…

Listening carefully to the experiences of schools the last couple of weeks, made me feel really really uncomfortable. Here's why.

Many forces stimulate teachers to help their students become self-regulated learners,

But No One Explains How

We know so much from the past decades of research. And only so little is accessible to teachers, school leaders and teacher educators. I see many schools struggle. Almost no one explains exactly what self-regulated learning is. Or how to support it most effectively. When I talk to schools who already implemented radical innovations to increase student autonomy, many are now confronted with huge challenges. Mostly because they don't know how to help students succeed in these highly autonomous settings.

Students, teachers, and parents become frustrated. Teachers are saying it doesn't work. You know what? We should believe them. Don't get tempted to convince them otherwise. Don't tell it will once start working because research says so. Or because it worked in one school or with one teacher. Schools and teachers vary in what they know about self-regulated learning.

Student autonomy is not the same as self-regulated learning. They are related, but completely different concepts. Research overwhelmingly points to self-regulated learning as important vehicle for improving student outcomes. Not to student autonomy on its own.

Although uncomfortable,

I still feel excited too.


maybe you will still get a happy ending ;-) Many educational professionals now believe self-regulated learning skills should be a priority in schools. That is massive. What you believe as a teacher hugely impacts whether or not you'll actually introduce it in your own classroom. But we need more than beliefs. We need to help students, teachers, school leaders, and teacher educators to grasp:

  • what self-regulated learning is

  • What knowledge, competences and attitudes successful learners need

  • How teachers can support it most effectively

Like students, teachers too need time and contexts that allow them to learn successfully. Let's please apply all we know about successful learning and teaching to the professional development of teachers! When you want to reproduce the same effects as shown by research, we need to invest in both pre-service and in-service teacher education. We need researchers or knowledge brokers translating research to practice We have some serious catching up to do It will take time It will be complex at first Ambitious too But let's train teachers It will be worth it It's what's at the heart of learning

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