Anthony Reibel is a creative, vibrant, and caring school leader who hails from Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Illinois, where he is the current director of assessment, research, and evaluation.

Student Self-Instruction Grows Like a Garden

I have to admit, this blog post took a while to write. 

There were many fits and starts as I tried to find a topic that I felt might be relevant to discuss. Ultimately, I found it hard to write about assessment in isolation from the unfolding world events. So, I stopped writing and examined my recent experiences, both internal and external.

As I ruminated on what to write, I remembered a TED Talk I saw about the “Hole in the Wall” experiment led by Indian computer scientist Sugata Mitra. In 1999, Mitra and a team of researchers set out to see if children could learn independently, irrespective of who they are or where they are. 

To study this theory, his team placed an internet-ready computer in a public space and observed local children engaging with the new tool. To his team’s surprise, these children seemed to demonstrate the ability to teach themselves, learning all sorts of subjects and competencies without formal supervision. 

What I learned from this experiment

I learned from the Hole in the Wall experiment that education is not a transactional system where some supervisory adult initiates and manages learning for children. Instead, as Mitra states, we should think about education as a self-organizing system, where knowledge and skill are emergent phenomena (2005). 

Over the years, as I reflected on this idea, I gained the self-confidence to help my students create and sustain their own learning. All I had to do was set the conditions for this self-organizing process to occur. 

Myself, the gardener

I am not a gardener. I have never owned a garden, and I don’t know much about the practice. However, the one thing I do know is that a gardener does not tell a plant how to grow. The gardener sets the conditions for growth, and then observes as the plant grows itself. As the plant grows, a gardener ensures the soil is healthy, gets the plant enough water, and prunes it when necessary, but the plant does all the growing. It grows the way it wants and becomes the plant it wants—or needs—to become. 

For much of my teaching career, I acted as a gardener—one who pruned and watered my students’ self-initiated learning and maintained the conditions for their growth. But it wasn’t easy. Becoming the gardener of my students’ learning took me many years of mistakes, successes, and practicing. The following are reflections about how I developed and applied a gardener’s perspective in my classroom:

Who’s in control of the learning?

Students expect teachers to be the ones primarily responsible for their learning. That is how education works—after all, they are the teacher. 

When teachers take too much responsibility for a student’s learning, they may develop an external dependency on someone, or something, for growth, maturity, or even survival. When a student asks the teacher explicitly or implicitly for too much support, the teacher should pause and attempt to put the student back in the driver’s seat of their learning. By consistently redirecting students to control their learning, a teacher can help their students better develop self-sustaining learning behaviors. The following chart can help act as a guide for how a teacher can redirect students to control their learning.

Context:Student asks:Question that does not redirect (teacher retains control):Question that redirects student gains control):
Student is given an X-ray of a repaired broken bone“What is this picture showing?”“Well, you know that these are staples, right?”“Ok, so what is interesting about these pictures, what stands out?”
Student is given a picture of a skull“Is this a skull of a male or female?“It is female. Do you see how the front of the skull is curved in this way? That signals it most likely is female.”“What if I said this skull was male, would you agree?”
Student is given an equation to solve for x“Where should I start this problem?”“A good place to start is [here]. Then go to [next step]. Got it?  OK. Do that, and I will check back in a few moments.”“Where do you think I am going to ask you to start? Yes, exactly. Think about where to go next and I will check back in a few moments.”
Student is given questions to answer about a passage“How do I answer this question, I can’t decide between these two possible answers?”“You may want to look here in the passage. If that doesn’t help, I would think about what went over yesterday and then reread for context clues.”“Let’s just say both of those answers could be correct, tell me why you feel [A] is correct? I like what you said there about [detail]. Ok, how about [B]?

Who’s doing the teaching?

In my experience, I found that the more moments of self-instruction I built into the lesson, the more my students seemed engaged. When I created lessons that permitted more organic self or group instruction, my students seemed to retain more material, demonstrate better competence, and enjoy learning more. 

Self-instruction does not mean that the teacher sits at the desk while the students learn autonomously. No. It means that a teacher becomes less of a deliverer of instruction and more of a reactor to their self-instruction. 

When teachers react to student learning, they provide thoughtful guidance, challenging them when their reasoning may be flawed, supporting them when they struggle, and affirming them often. In the following chart, I provide examples of teacher-led instruction versus student-led instruction.

Teacher leads instruction:Teacher asks students to lead instruction:
What do you think about [this topic]?“If I told you [fact, information, context], what would you think?”
How are you trying to solve [this problem]?“What if you changed [this part or thinking], would you still feel or think the same about your approach?”
“How can you answer this question, including all the essential details?”“Would adding [this detail or thought] change your approach?”

Self-instruction ability will serve them well-adulthood. Researchers (Bergin, 1987, Bandura 1997, et al.) continue to find that the stronger the student’s ability to self-instruct, the more learning they engage in on their own outside the school. 

Who’s listening to me?

Thinking back about my time in the classroom, the moments when my students genuinely engaged in the lessons were when I affirmed their thinking, and even feelings, before giving them feedback or instruction. Whether they were succeeding or struggling, I felt it paramount to validate whatever they were going through at any given moment before I began to teach.  

In his book, I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships, Michael Sorenson says the validation of someone’s internal experience is the bedrock of trusting relationships (2017). He also states that “giving unsolicited advice or assurance, especially before you validate the other person’s emotions trivializes their experience” (p. 82). He also says that providing advice too soon demonstrates that you know how to resolve the issue better than they do. 

As I learned to apply this practice in my classroom, my students saw that I respected their individuality and accepted, without judgment, their current state of learning. The following examples are ways I tried to do this:

Student says:Teacher follow-up statement that invalidates:Teacher follow-up statement that validates:
I can’t figure this out. I’ll never get this [problem].That’s not true, you will get it. Let’s review the steps I showed you yesterday.There are a lot of steps to remember. I know that can be difficult. I have full confidence that you will work through this.
I am not sure where I goofed up. Don’t worry. Let me show you where you went wrong.It’s not easy to work through these problems. Let’s relook at it, tell me how you got here?
Can you tell me if this is right? I am not totally sure.Yep. Generally. This part needs to be changed but the rest of the steps are correct.Yeah, these problems can make you second-guess yourself. What part is leading to your uncertainty?

We all should make validating students’ internal experience a central part of our teaching so our students know we care. As the protagonist in Elizabeth Acevedo’s book, The Poet X, states when assessing her new teacher: “I think Ms. Galiano actually wants to know my answer.”


Bandura, Albert. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. [Authored Book] New York, NY, USA: W. H. Freeman & Co, Publishers. 1997, ix, 604 pp.

Bergin, D.A. (1987). Intrinsic motivation for learning, out-of-school activities, and achievement. Standford University, Stanford, Calif.

Mitra, S., Dangwal R., Chatterjee S., Jha, S., Bisht, R. S. and Kapur, P. (2005), Acquisition of Computer Literacy on Shared Public Computers: Children and the “Hole in the wall,” Archived 23 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 21(3), 407–426.

Sorensen, M. S. (2017). I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships. Autumn Creek Press.


  1. greta Donnetta Price

    This is valuable information, especially during virtual learning.
    Thank you!


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