Inside the iLab: Creating an environment for self-directed learning

The first thing that strikes me when I enter Winooski’s iLab in the middle of a class period is this: the quiet, focused energy in the room.  Students are working quietly on laptops, conferencing in near-whispers with a teacher, or sitting adjacent on one of the couches, heads together, comparing notes on a project.  Reeve might be in one corner taking apart an old PC as he learns how to build his own computer; Rainbow is sketching away on her anime-inspired graphic novel; Kristen is wrestling with how to hone her inquiry question about the influence of Korean culture on China; Ennis is writing computer code to create a digital Christmas card.  And in one of the best hallmarks of a well-running classroom, the instructors don’t immediately stand out from the students.  They – Matt Webb, Inge White, Will Andrews, and Nancy Keller – might be checking in with students on their progress, conferencing with individual kids, or often, hard at work on their own laptops, creating and maintaining the on-line systems that structure and scaffolding the students’ work.

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One student works independently; another checks in with instructors about her project.

This atmosphere of sustained focus is remarkable because of its contrast to other independent-study courses I’ve seen.  Too often, despite the best of intentions from instructors and students, these courses just don’t manage to support students in making the huge transition from teacher-directed learning to student-centered, student-directed inquiry.  And this makes sense!  Our traditional systems of schooling train students to be passive – sit in your desk, face the teacher, do the work you’re told to do.  It’s no surprise that after years of this training – and within a school day that uses teacher-centered pedagogy in seven classes out of eight – students would find it difficult to switch gears and become the independent drivers of their own learning.  The way this manifests, in my observations of independent study classes and senior project seminars in several other schools, is that students come in to the classroom, the teacher asks them to get to work, and then the kids often spend a lot of time doing nothing.  They surf the internet, they talk about last night’s football game, they just can’t themselves started or can’t stay focused for long.

All this made me wonder – what makes the iLab different?  What is it that helps iLab students make the leap from the rest of their school day into a world of sustained, focused independent work?  And what can we learn from this about how to best to shape our teaching and learning environments?

Two elements of the iLab stand out as important factors that help students make this mental transition from teacher-directed to student-directed learning.  One is the physical environment.  The iLab is situated in a classroom off of the library, physically separate from the other middle and high school classrooms.  When you walk through the door, the space is clearly different: the walls are bright blue, two couches occupy the center of the room, and bright blue and green chairs on wheels (some with flexible desks attached) are scattered throughout the room.  Huge, colored bean bags are stacked in a corner, and sometimes a student will lounge on one to read a book or recline while typing away, but I’m struck by how the majority students usually gravitate to the desks, where they can work more effectively.  Small tables sit by each window and have small desk lamps for use on dark or cloudy days; other than that, natural light prevails.  In short, the iLab feels very different from a typical classroom.  The physical environment says: this is a place where you get to choose; this is a place of calm flexibility; this is a place that’s designed to best support your learning – so get to work.

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Natural light and lamps make the iLab feel more like a productive cafe workspace than a classroom; students choose the seating options that best fit their work needs and styles.

The other element that, in my view, is essential in helping students transition to self-directed learning is the set of routines that iLab teachers have instituted for the start of each class block.  When students enter the room, they set down their bags and form a standing circle in the middle of the room.  They begin with Check-In – each member of the class, including instructors, has a chance to share whatever’s on their mind that day.  Students use this time to vent something frustrating that may have happened earlier in the day; to share family news or upcoming events; to identify what they’re hoping to accomplish that day.  This is so important!  It acknowledges and honors students as whole people, creates a sense of community in the class, and provides an opportunity for students to let go of some of the other things occupying their brain space so that they can go on to focus on their projects.


A student speaks during Check-In while others listen.

After Check-In comes my favorite part of the iLab start-of-class routine: Move It.  The Move It routine was designed by iLab teacher Nancy Keller on the basis of a growing body of brain research showing that physical activity has positive effects on cognition, attention, and emotional control.  Nancy has done extensive reading and her own action research in this field, primarily with the middle level students she has taught at WMHS for the past 11 years.  When she came to the iLab, she knew that she wanted to incorporate movement into the beginning-of-class routine. Move-It sessions last for about 10 minutes and have 3 components: (1) an activity to wake up the muscles, such as squats, lunges, and stretching; (2) something to get the heart rate up, such as jumping jacks; and then (3) a complex, coordinated movement sequence to challenge the brain.  This last piece could be a flowing sequence from a martial art practice such as Tai Chi or Bushintai-do, and often includes movements that require balance and contralateral movement (aka crossing the midline of the body with the limbs).  (Interestingly, contralateral movement is thought to stimulate connection and coordination between the two hemispheres of the brain, which students draw on for tasks such as reading, writing, drawing, and mathematics [see, e.g., JP Gallivan et al, Journal of Neuroscience, 1991].)

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Left: Matt Webb (front left), former P4C fellow and current iLab teacher, participates in Move-It along with the circle of students.  Right: Balance is key!

Nancy lights up when she describes the effects that the Move-It sessions (named to parallel the four phases of iLab projects, which are Think It, Learn It, Make It, and Share It) has on the students and the iLab community.  “Everyone starts giggling and laughing,” she says.  “It makes them feel better, and then their interactions with each other are more positive.  Physical activity really is mood-altering!”  Nancy also describes the positive effects that physical activity can have on cognition and academic work.  “Neurons in the brain that are working on solving a problem are using oxygen at a high rate.  When you’re sitting for hours or getting sleepy, not enough blood is flowing to the brain to provide this oxygen that your neurons need.”  Standing up and getting the blood flowing brings this essential fuel to the brain.  Nancy believes that it’s not only important to incorporate these movement routines into the iLab, but to help students develop the habits of doing them on their own.  “Move-It brings kids’ attention to the mind-body connection and how important it is to brain health.  We encourage them to think about the importance of getting and moving periodically as a break when they’re sitting working on a computer for so long.”

What implications does all this have beyond the iLab?

  • Intentional transitions are important, especially when we are asking students to switch gears to being self-directed, self-motivated learners.  Intentionally designed physical environment, physical movement, and time to share (and therefore let go of) what’s on their minds all contribute to making that transition fully and effectively.
  • Movement and exercise are key!  While personalized learning holds much promise, it also threatens to increase sedentary, screen-focused time.  A 20-minute break for a walk or coordinated exercise should be built in regularly through the school day.  This is also supported by the data collected from our November 2nd Community Learning Conversation, where requests for more hands-on activities, movement, and time outdoors emerged repeatedly from small-group discussions.

My hope is that we keep these essential elements in mind as we continue to shift towards personalized, student-centered learning and as we design classroom environments that truly aim to foster self-direction.

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