Monday, January 6, 2014

Who Owns the Learning?

I have a confession:  I may be a bit controlling at times.  I like to know what is going on and that things are getting done (correctly!).  In my defense, I say that I am just a "rule-follower".   When I entered the teaching world, I had no idea that I would need to throw my micro-managing ways out the window (well, at school... home is a different's a work in progress).   I learned quickly that I was not the one who should "own" the learning... It needed to be the kids.

When I reflect on my philosophy as an educator, one belief I come to time and again is the importance of teaching all students to own their learning.  When creating a classroom environment of independent learners, I have found that it is important to deliberately structure my instruction in a way that helps kids see themselves as learners.  I accomplish this by knowing my students well, teaching explicitly, backing off a bit (not acting like a control freak) and trusting the kids to do their job.  I do think this requires practice, setting clear expectations, and holding kids accountable. This way of instructing puts pressure on me, the teacher, to have a clear understanding of what my students need to move forward as learners.  Above all, it puts pressure on the learner, since I am not going to handhold and do their work for them; instead, my role is to coach them to become problem solvers, thinkers, and inquirers. 

Students Must See Themselves as Learners
If we expect our kids to "own their learning" we need to make sure they see themselves as learners.  When students have authentic learning opportunities and can connect importance to the experience they are interacting with, the learning becomes more meaningful.  This is why in Writing Workshop, writers should always know who their audience is and why student choice (in books and writing topics) is a must.  Learning should always have a purpose.  As teachers, it is our responsibility to offer rich learning experiences where students:
  • Witness an example of what is being taught (a model) - This needs to be explicit and we can't always make everything look "easy".  We should be teaching students not only deliberate reading or writing moves; but we also need to be offering tips and strategies to help readers and writers persevere when they come to trouble.  It is important to show our students what it looks like to struggle and how to problem solve.
  • Have time to practice with others, as well as independently - Learning is a social act, so it is critical that our kids are able to interact with their learning targets and one another.  Students can then see how others are putting the skills and strategies into action.  Students also need to feel comfortable trying the learning on their own.  For some, this can be a huge, uncomfortable risk.  Having visuals from when you modeled can be very helpful when students are reluctant to try something independently.  For example, in Reading Workshop, we may have created an anchor chart that provides "thinking stems" to get started.  In Writing Workshop, the class shared writing example could be available for students to model their own writing after.
  • Are given feedback - The feedback from teachers should be actionable.  When conferring with students, we should be able to identify what they are doing well and then offer tips to help them push their work to the next level. 
  • Set goals -  It is important that we teach kids how exactly to do this.  When a student sets a goal, it should be reachable within a reasonable amount of time.  Students will be more likely to buy into their goals and reflect on their goals when the timeframe is short.  Goals need to be specific and should have an action plan to go along with it. (Not: I want to read harder books. I will do this by reading more.).  For example, I have had students who love fiction reading, but struggle with nonfiction reading.  This student's goal may be: "My goal is to improve my understanding when reading nonfiction.  I will do this by selecting a topic I am interested in (ie: Pandas) and use boxes and bullets to categorize my stop and jots in my Reading Response Notebook."  
I am a believer in pushing all students from being passive learners to active and involved learners.  This way of teaching requires patience and trust.  We need to be patient and allow our students to make mistakes and try again (and not do the work for them).  We need to energize our class as readers and writers - showing our students that in order to grow, we must try new things and collaborate.  We have to trust that when we say, "off you go" after the mini lesson, that they will "go off and work".  This way of teaching puts the ownership of learning on the kids ... rather than on the teacher.. 

There are so many ways to build students who hold ownership of their learning... Comment and share your ideas :)


  1. Give a person a fish, and they eat for a day. Teach them how to fish and they eat for a lifetime! Your philosophy is both practical and foreward thinking.

  2. So true. Early in my teaching career I was talking with a teacher about a student, and he asked, "How much of the line (problem, learning ) are you (meaning me) owning?" I never forgot that question and even after 20 + years of teaching, I still use it as a check on myself. (Perhaps that control thing runs in families, lol ? ! ? :) ) I too, want my students to own their own learning, their own problem solving and I love that moment when you witness them feeling empowered.

    1. What a powerful question your colleague asked you! I like that! :)

  3. Well said...teaching students to embrace owning learning is critical. It is a shift in instructional philosophy for many, but vital for the necessary change in our buildings.

    1. I agree! I think as a teacher, often we want to help and make sure kids are successful (immediately); thus, too much hand-holding can interfere with rich learning experiences. We have to be patient and trust our kids :)

  4. This is such powerful thinking. Often times we (educators) want to control every situation and plan everything out. While this is necessary sometimes, many teachers could learn a lot from simply letting the students take more ownership. The most exciting projects I've been a part of are those in which students have taken charge and held leadership roles. Thanks for the insight!