If you ask middle school and high school students these days the most important skills they’re learning, they’re likely to name something they picked up on their own, outside of normal school hours.
That’s according to Julie Evans, CEO of the nonprofit Project Tomorrow, who has been doing focus groups with students for years—both before and after the pandemic—and whose organization conducts an annual survey of middle and high school students about their learning. That survey effort, called Speak Up, polls hundreds of thousands of students and adults about learning trends and makes the local data available to individual districts.
Evans says these students’ eyes light up when they talk about the self-directed learning they’re doing. Some are learning to better use Photoshop so they can raise their Instagram game, or how to make more compelling videos for their personal YouTube channel. For others, maybe a mention in class of the horrors of medical care during the Civil War sends them down a rabbit hole of internet research to learn more about what soldiers of the period went through.
And these are not just super-precocious kids digging into self-directed study—what Evans calls “free agent learning.” Her group’s surveys show that about two thirds of middle and high school students say they’re doing this kind of self-study outside of school thanks to online tools—and the trend holds across all kinds of demographic groups.
Evans lays out her research in a new book due out this fall, called “Free Agent Learning: Leveraging Students’ Self-Directed Learning to Transform K-12 Education.”
The trend that could have a huge impact on education, at the K-12 and college level, Evans argues. For one thing, it’s a challenge to teachers—that they should do more to tap into the intrinsic motivation of students, that students can learn so much more if they’re excited about what they’re doing.
But it’s also a challenge to the way many teachers view their role. In other words, maybe the best teachers are those guiding a student’s self-study rather than the one at the front with all the answers.
EdSurge sat down with Evans last week after a talk she gave at the ISTE Live conference in New Orleans.