How Do We Graduate Self-Determining Adults?

As I read through my highlights in the section entitled “Developing Self-determining Learners” in Regie Routman’s book, Literacy Essentials, I couldn’t help but have my literacy coach hat on as well as my parent hat.  

As I read the highlighted words below, I found myself saying “That’s what I want for my kids!  That’s what I want for every kid–to be able to graduate from our K-12 system with these qualities so that they would be better apt to lead a successful life.”

Not only is it what I want, it is what our kids need to thrive in the world in which they’ll live when they graduate, a world much different than when we were kids.

Some of the highlighted words were “self-direct, self-reflect, self-taught, deep inner questioning, set their own worthwhile goals, curiosity and knowing how to learn.”  

If my kids graduated with these qualities, I would be confident they would be able to navigate their life more effectively.

If our kids graduated from high school and they possessed these qualities, we would have succeeded in our endeavors.

As I contemplated these concepts with my literacy coach hat on, I began reflecting on two things: 1) John Hattie’s work and his list of top instructional practices 2) My most effective coaching cycles over the last four years.

Much of what Routman encourages in this section are several of those practices from John Hattie’s work: learning targets/goals, success criteria, feedback, and monitoring learning to name a few.  As I think of my most effective coaching cycles, it is those cycles where the teacher chose to work on some of these top instructional practices. The engagement that I saw in students skyrocketed. The ownership of learning did as well.  And each time, the teacher would get so much enjoyment and satisfaction as she watched her students progress in their learning–as they became self-determining learners.

But, here’s where my own questioning came in and this is a question I’ve contemplated as I’ve become very familiar with these things that both Routman and Hattie are suggesting impacts kids.  When we discuss how we engage kids, how we teach them in a way that prepares them for the world in which they will live and how we improve student achievement, why are things such as learning targets, success criteria and feedback not received with the same level of excitement as other topics or initiatives? I’m going to refrain from naming those other topics, because I don’t want to come across as not seeing the value in those.  But I wonder that sometimes Hattie’s work (much of what Routman is suggesting) is not as sexy or fun to learn about (or at least seemingly) as other initiatives and we miss the boat when it comes to impacting kids with them.

To take my wondering deeper, I contemplated some possibilities as to why they are not as sexy. I wonder if it is because we think learning targets, success criteria and feedback are for the adults. When, in reality, we want students taking ownership of those things. They facilitate student-directed learning.  If they are not used for that purpose, perhaps I could see why one would think learning targets aren’t something to get excited about–if we just write it on the board as a lesson’s learning objective, of course that’s not engaging to learn about.

You see, in those most successful student-centered learning cycles I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of, it is when students have taken ownership of the learning because of the learning targets, success criteria and feedback. Not because teacher went through the motions and utilized them in instruction.

It excites me to no end to think of a district putting several years of focus on those things Routman is suggesting we do to create self-determining learners. Just think if a K-12 system focused on this, what our students would be capable of as they enter the workforce.  I have no doubt engagement and student achievement would skyrocket. And, our kids would be better prepared for life.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (, including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Author: Annie Palmer

Wife. Mother. Learner. Coach. Becoming better today than I was yesterday and better tomorrow than I am today.

4 thoughts on “How Do We Graduate Self-Determining Adults?”

  1. Annie, This is such a thoughtful and important post. Regarding your reflection on why “learning targets, success criteria, and feedback” are not embraced by students, I strongly suspect–just as you do– it’s because teachers continue to take charge of learning. I just had a conversation this afternoon with a high achieving graduating high school senior, and he told me no teacher had ever offered the opportunity for students in any classes to give input to the learning targets and criteria on a rubric. I was taken aback. How can students become self-determining students in school, let alone life, if we don’t invite them as collaborators on the teaching-learning journey? I also strongly agree with you and have written about the fact that school learning needs to extend to life learning. With admiration, Regie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Regie! And, again, thanks for the reflections your book causes in me! I think the good news in all of this is I see hope for this transition of more student-centered learning to take place. I see pockets of change, discussions occurring and teachers motivated to rethink instruction and learning! So exciting for our kids and our communities/workforce!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. In my experience, goal setting, responsive teaching, and timely feedback that causes reflection as well as the “why,” really empowers kids to take the initiative to drive some of their own learning. I think for some educators, the fear of loosening the reins of control is what holds them back. They don’t realize the potential that comes from relinquishing some control. Watching kids, even first graders in my most recent experience, owning some of their own learning…priceless. 🙂


    1. What you’re saying makes sense. I think for so long our focus has been on teaching. When we focus on learning, I think it’s easier to loosen those reins! Agreed–there’s nothing like watching students take ownership of their learning. My son was blessed with an amazing kindergarten teacher who had her entire class being self-determining learners. If five-year-olds can do it…. 🙂 Thanks for reading the post and providing your insights!


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