Cologne International School – an IB World School
A guest blog written by Ed Parker

2020 will bring some big changes for our school’s community. In two years, we will move to a new campus and are participating in workshops to plan the new learning spaces and agree on common approaches to learning and teaching. The school leaders and architects have involved students, teachers and parents in the process. We have agreed that self-directed learning is one of the key approaches and are examining ways of developing this form of learning in our primary, middle and upper schools. This year the IB has introduced its new standards and practices and Standard C (Curriculum) has been replaced by a new standard entitled “Learning: ensuring effective education” (International Baccalaureate, 2019). Under the new standards, students are viewed as “lifelong learners” and are empowered to “take ownership of their learning.” We see this as a mandate for promoting more self-directed learning.

What is self-directed learning?

  • Other terms: Self-regulated learning, self-organised learning, heutagogy, self-management
  • Zimmerman (Zimmerman, 2000, p. 15) self-regulation “refers to self-generated thoughts, feelings and actions that are planned and cyclically  adapted to the attainment of personal goals.”
  • Kaplan (Kaplan, 1998) mentions metacognition, self-regulation and the “purpose of engagement” when discussing this form of learning.
  • De Bruin et al (de Bruin, et al., 2011, p. 294) see this as a form of learning that “involves metacognitive monitoring and regulation of study.”

Zimmerman names three phrase structures within self-directed learning. The ultimate importance of these phases is to view learning as a process. Before we start, we need to examine our motivation and set goals. While involved in a task, we need to learn to control and monitor our learning so that we can change direction if necessary. Afterwards, we need to evaluate learning so that we are ready for the next cycle.

Forethought Performance/volitional control Self-reflection
Task analysis

  • Goal setting
  • Strategic planning

 Self-motivation beliefs

  • Self-efficacy
  • Outcome expectations
  • Intrinsic interest/value
  • Goal orientation

  • Self-instruction
  • Imagery
  • Attention focusing
  • Task strategies


  • Self-recording
  • Self-experimentation

  • Self-evaluation
  • Causal attribution


  • Self-satisfaction/affect
  • Adaptive/defensive

Table 1:  Phase structure and sub-processes of self-regulation (Zimmerman, 2000, p. 16). 

Using the IB Diploma core to develop self-directed learning

The IB DP contains three mandatory core components: Creativity, Activity, Service; Theory of Knowledge; and the Extended Essay. These components help to create cohesion between the subject groups and are ideal for modelling approaches to learning.

  • Creativity, Activity, Service: Experiential, reflective learning. By completing a community service project, students can learn and practise the phases and sub-processes in Zimmerman’s table.
  • Extended Essay (a pre-university research project): By planning the investigation, changing direction, reflecting on progress and demonstrating engagement, students are learning self-management skills.
  • Theory of Knowledge: Students apply knowledge questions to real-life situations of their own choice. Interim reflections are built into the assessment tasks.

‘DP 1: The school provides opportunities for students to take ownership of their learning through the DP core. (0402-06-0231)’ (International Baccalaureate, 2019)

By developing self-directed habits in the DP core, students can apply the skills in their six subjects. We estimate that a third of assessed learning on the DP is or should be self-directed. There is scope for more.

A new course:  School-supported self-taught (SSST) literature

We introduced SSST literature in 2014 and have helped students to maintain their literacy in French, Spanish, Icelandic, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian.

At a first glance, the development of this subject seems to be moving in the opposite direction to self-directed learning. The subject used to be called self-taught Language A, but the IB introduced the ‘school-supported’ component to clarify its expectations of school. Since 2019, the level of regulation has increased and schools are required to ensure that each student has a supervisor who is familiar with the Language A course. There must also be a tutor proficient in each language offered so that students can receive language-specific support. This change suggests to me that the IB has experienced different levels of student-school competency in SSST language A compared to taught Language A subjects. Does this mean that self-directed learning is a utopia for students in Grades 11-12?

As long as the school provides the correct level of support, there is plenty of scope for self-directed learning on the SSST course. The IB provides an excellent self-assessment tool which can help students with the goal setting and strategic planning mentioned by Zimmerman (2000).

ManageBac as a tool for enabling self-directed learning 

Our school has been implementing ManageBac since 2015. Recently there have been some major changes to the IB Diploma modules which are relevant to self-directed learning and the features of ManageBac allow us to provide additional support to students.

  1. The resources stream: In the information age, the role of teachers seems to be changing from being the biggest source of the students’ knowledge. With the masses of information available to students online, there is a need for teachers to be curators of reliable sources of knowledge that enable students to work independently. We also need to help students to evaluate sources critically. Self-directed learning can be resource-heavy and this requires lots of prior planning from the teacher. The new resources stream in ManageBac allows teachers to organise media-rich resources that students can use for their independent study. The resources stay with the subject and the unit and can be reused or supplemented next year.
  2. The Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge worksheets: Goal setting is a major sub-process in self-directed learning. The EE and TOK worksheets on ManageBac allow students to set to-do lists which enable them to break the process down into more manageable tasks. The supervisor can use data from the student’s goal setting as evidence of Extended Essay criterion E (engagement). ManageBac allows effective two-way communication between the student and supervisor and leaves a trail of interactions which is useful for authenticating the student’s work. The planning and progress forms for TOK and the EE allow students to meet the IB requirements, but also allows the students to reflect on setbacks and major changes of direction in their research.
  3. The learner portfolio in Language A classes: Students sometimes see written reflections as a chore. The Learner Portfolio on ManageBac is a great tool for promoting student self-management. It turns reflection into a multimedia process with lots of room for creativity. Students can use the portfolio to chart their own engagement with the course. There is scope for creativity and the portfolio format is similar to the evidence gathering used by professionals in their careers. It is a more adult form of learning.

A new idea: The Independent Learner Licence

Our experience with IB coursework has taught us that self-directed learning can be chaotic and stressful. We are revising our approach to the schedule of deadlines and are planning an Independent Learner Licence to promote the skills. The license will identify and promote the skills for approaches to learning. We are excited about this work and will update this blog to share our future work!

About The Author

Ed ParkerEd Parker was fortunate enough to participate in French and German exchanges as a young language learner. Being immersed in the language for two-three weeks each year was a fantastic opportunity which served as an inspiration to study Russian and German at the University of Bath, UK. He trained as a teacher in Modern Foreign Languages at the University of Sheffield and a lot of the emphasis was on motivating students and making their learning relevant to their own experiences. His first teaching experience was gained as a teacher of German and Russian in Cumbria, UK.

In 2003, he started his international school career in Moscow, Russia. He taught German as a foreign language, developed the school’s Creativity, Activity, Service programme and went on to coordinate the IB Diploma programme.

In 2013, he moved to Germany with his family to teach at Cologne International School. Since then, the school has earnt authorisation as an IBDP school and has guided four cohorts of students through the DP. In 2019, the school completed its first official programme evaluation and is now planning a move to a new campus in the city of Cologne. In 2017, Ed ‘went back to school’ to start a distance-learning MEd in Leading Learning at the University of Dundee.


de Bruin, A. B., Thiede, K. W., Camp, G. & Redford, J., 2011. Generating keywords improves metacomprehension and self-regulation in elementary and middle school children.. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 109(3), pp. 294-310.

International Baccalaureate, 2019. Programme standards and practices, Cardiff: International Baccalaureate Organization (UK) .

Kaplan, A., 1998. Clarifying Metacognition, Self-Regulation,and Self-Regulated Learning: What’s the Purpose?. Educational Psychology Review, Volume 27, pp. 447-484.

Zimmerman, B. J., 2000. Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In: M. Boekaerts, P. R. Pintrich & M. Zeidner, eds. Handbook of Self-Regulation. New York: Academic Press, pp. 13-39.