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A few years ago, I co-wrote the book Empower with the driving question, “What happens when students own their learning?” As a middle school teacher, I had seen how the biggest challenges I faced with student engagement were actually challenges with student self-direction and self-management. I worked with some amazing colleagues who helped redesign the learning experiences with a focus on student-centered approaches, including project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and service learning. We ran a co-curricular program called Project IMPACT and launched Social Voice, where students created blogs, podcasts, and documentaries. We took on the mindset of “PBL for all” and I got to participate in a STEM Camp for English Language Learners.

As a classroom teacher, I also got to observe early elementary teachers who launched student-centered lab experiments and social studies projects. But they also found subtle ways to incorporate voice and choice, like the way their students would compare and contrast math strategies or the times the way they incorporated choice boards into their learning. Over and over again, I noticed that something powerful happens when students own the learning.


A Snapshot of Student Ownership

Right now, my middle son is at the computer typing away on a shared Google Document that he and three of the neighborhood kids created for a collaborative story they’re all writing. They formed a writing club. For fun.

They initiated the entire project and they own the entire process. Even though they are only a few blocks away, they are instant messaging each other and leaving comments on one another’s work as they plan out the plot, setting, and characters. Assessment is happening naturally. They are setting up their own work schedule and deadlines. Project planning is happening naturally.

At some point, they will probably publish on Wattpad and Storybird and perhaps even start a blog. But for now, it’s a small shared document. It’s completely unassuming — even humble.

And yet . . .

It’s powerful. On a lazy Saturday morning, they are choosing to be makers and designers and storytellers. Instead of passively consuming cartoons, they are actively crafting stories.

But there’s an invisible collaborator that nobody sees right now. This entire self-direct project actually began with a teacher. She didn’t come up with the idea (the kids did that). She isn’t monitoring their progress (the kids are doing that). But she sparked the love of writing in a few students and empowered them to share their work with the audience. Students chose the topics and themes and worked through the writing process in collaborative teams. Now two of her students are working with both a younger and an older student to do a summer-long writing group on their own time.

They own the learning.

And it’s not just her. Joel’s science teacher empowered students to create their own experiments. It’s the first time he’s ever done that at school. Now he’s making a list of supplies and questions and half-baked hypotheses.

He owns the learning.

My daughter has a stack of books she wants to read. She has things that she is planning to build this upcoming week. She has topics that she wants to explore based upon things she learned in class. Her entire year has been a journey toward an ever-expanding worldview. And it’s because of her teacher.

This is a bold reminder of the power of student ownership and the role that teachers play in empowering their students. They are becoming self-directed, critical thinking, creative learners who are learning how to plan and design and collaborate.

7 Things That Happen When Students Own Their Learning

We know that it’s important to move from compliance to student engagement. But what happens when you take it another step and empower your students to own their learning? Here are seven ideas:

#1: They fall in love with learning by finding joy in pursuing their passions and geeky interests. In the process, they learn how to research and curate and communicate. When I look at my son’s class, I am struck by the fact that so many of the students are sharing their work with one another on their own time. And it isn’t simply the “best” writers. They’re all convinced that they have something valuable that they want to share with others. But it’s because of this shift that the teacher has made from trying to “make the subject interesting” to “tapping into student interests.”

#2: They embrace a maker mindset as they work through a design process and launch their work to the world. When students own the creative process, they become designers and engineers and builders and tinkerers and artists. They learn how to solve problems and create solutions and share their work with an authentic audience.

#3: They develop iterative thinking, viewing mistakes as a chance to learn. This leads to a shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. Whether it’s a maker project or a shared document or a science experiment, my kids are going to make tons of mistakes. However, they’re going to view it as a part of the process. The idea isn’t to embrace failure so much as failing. Failure is permanent and fixed. Failing is a temporary thing in the journey toward success.

#4: They become self-starters, exploring new frontiers, asking hard questions, and trying new things. Not every kid will become a future entrepreneur but they will need to think like entrepreneurs in an uncertain world. The corporate ladder is gone and in its place is a complex maze. But self-starters are the ones who will navigate the maze and figure out how to build something new along the way.

#5: They become problem-solvers and systems thinkers. It might not seem like a big deal in the moment, but when students own the project management process, they figure out how to solve problems in the moment. They learn how to navigate multiple systems and even build more efficient systems as well.

#6: They also challenge the system as hackers who think divergently and rewrite the rules. If the last two points deal with navigating systems and thriving in a Creative Economy, this idea is different. It’s the notion that student ownership is subversive. It challenges the status quo. This is the idea that learning should be disruptive and that students should be empowered to challenge injustice and create a better world.

#7: They become architects of their own learning, engaging in project management and collaboration. We often say that we want students to become lifelong learners but that requires student ownership.

A.J. Juliani puts it this way, “Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.”

In other words, when we empower our students, they are able to own their learning forever.

Empower Your Students with Voice and Choice

Want to get started with student ownership? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the Empower Blueprint and Toolkit below.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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