“I want students to own their own learning”


What do educators even mean when they say, “I want students to own their learning” in our school? Think about the context of that statement for a moment. In our highly standardized curriculum and over-tested classroom environments, this statement is an admission of guilt. Students are predominantly consuming “our learning,” being force-fed to them whether they like it or not.

Scenario 1

Imagine telling a child on her birthday that it is her special day and that she can have a party with a special meal, games, and gifts. Then imagine planning the party based solely on healthy food, a low budget, and what is convenient for you, ignoring any of the many attributes that make her a unique and special child. So a meal is planned, making sure to include the proper daily amount of fruit and vegetables and avoiding salty and sweet foods. Children are invited that she does not really know well or play with. Activities and decorations are based on themes that she has no interest in at all. Gifts are chosen by asking a stranger working in the store what a 6 year old likes. In all aspects, the cheapest option is chosen.

No parent would ever do that!

Scenario 2

Instead they would start with a birthday theme around her interests: mermaids, princesses, or unicorns. They would make her favorite foods, balancing nutrition with her tastes.  Her friends would come with personalized gifts that reflect her passions and hobbies. Maybe her parents would even plan a trip around something she loves because it is HER day, and HER party.

Reality in School

But isn’t the first option what school is like? Children need to learn required curriculum with a “balanced” intake of reading, writing, and math. Every student has to learn the same things, at the same time, sorted by age groups. They work with assigned groups on the same activities regardless of their personal interests or backgrounds. There is very little opportunity, in most schools, for students to “own” anything. It all comes in a one size fits all package from the district.

The same analogy about choice can be made for buying a house, a new car, or even clothes. When people “own” something they make choices, customize it to make theirs, and personalize it.

Voice and Choice

So if we want students to “own their own learning,” districts, administrators, and teachers need to give up some control and turn to student “voice and choice.” We don’t need to get students to “buy in” to something that they are not interested in (notice that this financial jargon implies that schools are “selling” something that students don’t want).

The first year of our wall to wall PBL school, the biology teacher did a project where students had to make a video on invasive species. A group of students approached him with a different idea. They had heard about a de-icing agent being used at our local airport which was ending up in the local stream. He let those students pursue this project instead of the video. The students went to the stream and did testing to prove the effects. They ended up getting more out of this project than any other group because they were allowed to explore their passions in biology.

Humans are naturally curious explorers of their world, and all children have things that they are passionate about. If we ever want students to “own school”, we have to give them the power to control some aspects of it and pursue their interests. Students will never own the learning unless we let them make it theirs.


3 thoughts on ““I want students to own their own learning”

  1. Wm Chamberlain

    You make the assumption that school should be about the student learning what they want to learn and in doing so getting the skills they need to succeed outside of school. Obviously this isn’t the reason we have school.

    I have been searching for the purpose of school for a long time. I think I decided the purpose of school is to create a shared experience for students. This creates a (rather tenuous) shared culture. Pretty much every public school kid in the US takes the same classes through at lest their sophomore year in high school. If you ask any adult on their thoughts of algebra they all have a story to tell.

    Should that be the purpose of school? Maybe. We spend an awful lot of time exercising our individuality in our culture since that is a point of pride, but just maybe we need to start thinking about others and how our individuality might effect them. We do live in a community and that requires that we do consider the greater good of that community too.

  2. Michael Kaechele Post author

    William, thanks for the pushback! Always appreciated. Can you say more about “Obviously this isn’t the reason we have school.” Not sure it is obvious to me, unless you are talking about the current structure of schools. I don’t assume that the current structure is ideal, necessary, or unchangeable.

    I have issues with the “shared experience” concept. Namely that I think the assumption is that “shared experience” is middle class, white values with a strong dose of patriotism and compliance. Too often, schools ignore the realities of the poor, people of color, LBGTQ, immigrants, and anyone else who doesn’t fit a narrow definition of “American.” So “shared experience” sounds a bit like spreading the dominant culture and ignoring diversity to me.

    The reason that I am a strong supporter of student voice and choice is because so much of school is boring and this is a way that I have successfully motivated kids and got them excited about learning. Personally I think the purpose of school should be developing critical thinking, empathetic humans who want to improve the world for everyone’s benefit.

    I am not arguing for total and absolute voice and choice in everything, but some balance in how we treat kids.

    1. Wm Chamberlain

      I mean it is obvious because this isn’t the focus of the public school system.

      The shared experiences may be flawed, but I suspect they are easier to address than a complete restructuring of schools.

      I agree we need more student choice, especially at the lower levels. I like the idea of required classes in the mornings with open classrooms in the afternoon where students can find experts, teachers, who they would like to learn from or be guided by. If kids just have the same tools we find in the typical school that they can leverage to learn their own thing they would be better off than what they might have access to at home.

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