Self-Discovery: Students Discover Growth Over Time

by Art Costa, Bena Kallick, and Allison Zmuda

If students leave our schools knowing more about their ability to learn and who they are becoming as continuous learners, they will be prepared for now and for the future.

There is nothing more fundamental to becoming a self-directed learner than developing the capacity to learn both from internal and external assessment feedback. Typically, most schools perceive the purposes of evaluating student performance as a means of assessing the educational and fiscal effectiveness of the school district’s efforts to achieve its goals. After years of being judged by others with tests, performance checklists and grades, students come to perceive assessments as a process that others, outside themselves, inflict upon them—teachers, parents, test makers; and later supervisors, bosses and administrators. Self-evaluation becomes a distorted, foreign, sometimes frightening and intimidating process from which we tend to recoil. We feel insecure in estimating our worth when the judgment of others who carry more influence and power tell us what to think about ourselves. When we have limited sources we lose confidence in what we may wish to see when we look through the lens of a projector into our future.

As the educational trend toward personalization matures, it becomes obvious that what is missing in this policy statement is the lack of student voice—the student’s self-evaluation about reaching their goals and the effectiveness of their learning.

It’s the district’s goals and resources, the school’s efforts and practices and the organization’s decision about effectiveness.

Through assessments and feedback from peers, teachers, parents as well as themselves, students come to understand themselves as learners and know more about what they want to do both in the world as well as in their future learning. They reflect on the development of ideas, skill-sets, knowledge, and performances to help envision what might come next. Our ultimate aim is for students to form their identity as self-directed learners who know how to manage themselves in a variety of ambiguous situations. Students need to know enough about themselves to be able to make wise decisions as they navigate through the turbulence of a rapidly changing environment.

If a main purpose of education is to produce self-directed learners over time, then teachers must consider instruction about assessment critical. This does not mean teaching to the test. This means helping students increase their desire for, and skills of receiving and acting on, feedback from a variety of internal and external sources. To become self-directed, learners need opportunities to generate data and to self-evaluate. They must learn how to compare their current performance to previous performances, and they must learn how to analyze their performance in terms of personal goals for effective performance. To that end, some schools ask students to prepare a resume of themselves as learners that is a part of an ongoing portfolio from K-12. Through self-discovery, students learn how to describe themselves in more dimensions than merely their cumulative grades and position in the class.

The focus should be on increasing each student’s capacity to be self-reflective. One that draws on an innate but undeveloped ability to observe ourselves and our impact on our environment as well as our ability to act in accordance with aims and values that we have set for ourselves.

Teachers can establish a routine for learners to self-evaluate by asking a core question, ‘What would I like you to notice about my work?’ Before submitting their work and seeking feedback on their progress, they should think carefully about those elements on which they would most like feedback thus providing learners an opportunity to think carefully for themselves about what feedback they need most, rather than waiting for someone else to decide for them. Questions they might consider include:

  • “Is there an element of the criteria with which I feel I have been especially successful?”
  • “Were there any parts or steps of the task that I have felt less confident about, where feedback might be most useful?”
  • “On which particular skills or techniques needing improvement do you find that I am showcasing in my work?”
  • “What other innovative resources or additional information might you give me as feedback?”

To promote self-direction and self-evaluation, the teacher might also pose such questions about this process as:

  • “Let’s review the conversations we had before you started, while you were engaged in your project and after you completed your project. How did these conversations benefit you? What insights have you gained from our discussions?”
  • “What were you aware of in our conversations that produced those insights?”
  • “What insights or learnings might you carry forth to future projects of this kind?”
  • “Which portions of these conversations might you conduct by yourself without my prompting or if I weren’t present?”

Including student’s voice in this process causes them to take ownership of the work. They are more able to self-manage, self-monitor and thus self-modify themselves. We must continue to provide opportunities to have students take ownership of their learning or they will never learn how to do so.

As we re-imagine the critical role that assessment plays for students to become more self-directed, our vision is of learners who are open to growing by seeing themselves through multiple lenses of assessment data, each providing insights to their self-discovery. We would like to see creative learners who have the humility of knowing what they do not know, which is the highest form of thinking we will ever learn.

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