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The debate about fidget spinners often misses the bigger issue of student ownership. When we focus on student distractions and student engagement, we miss out on student empowerment and student ownership. 

student empowerment student ownership

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Fidget Spinners and Student Ownership

I don’t know what I believe about fidget spinners. I know, I know, everyone is supposed to choose a side on this debate but I don’t have a strong opinion either way.  So, I asked my son (sixth grade) what he thought about fidget spinners in school.

“How do your teachers handle fidget spinners?”

“They all handle it differently,” he said with shrugged shoulders. Clearly, the fidget spinner controversy wasn’t that big of a deal to him.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“One of my teachers will take it away if he sees it at all. Most of them say that they don’t want to hear them or see them but our math teacher lets us play with them,” he explained.

“Really, he doesn’t care?”

“No, he says it’s normal to tap pencils or fidget with things or shake your leg when you’re solving a hard problem. He says a lot of kids get nervous in math and that’s okay. What matters is that you keep trying to solve the problems.”

“What are your thoughts on it?” I asked.

“I think they should be allowed but I’m not that easily distracted by other people’s noise,” he admitted.

“Good point.”

“What about you? Would you have allowed them?” he asked.

“I’m guessing yes. I allowed cell phone and head phones when I was a teacher. And kids used to have those tiny skateboards and I was never too uptight about that. So, yeah, I’d probably allow them. But bottle flipping? I’d have shut that down.”

“Because it’s distracting?”

“Because it’s annoying.”

He laughed, recalling the distinct moment I pulled him aside and told him bottle flipping was officially an outdoor sport.

The truth is, I’ll take fidget spinning over bottle flipping any day.  Fidgeting doesn’t bother me too much. At the same time, I believe there is value in staying focused and hitting a state of flow. I’m a fan of deep work and I want to prevent distractions from creeping in to my productivity. It’s why I voluntarily turn off the wifi on my computer when I write a draft and why I prefer listening to music that doesn’t have lyrics when I’m grading.

We’re Asking the Wrong Question

It’s no secret schools are banning fidget spinners because they are a distraction. It’s the same reason they ban headphones, cell phones, food, and drinks. On some level, I get it. We want students to stay focused at school. We tend to view distractions through the larger question:

Are the students engaged?

But what if that’s not the entire picture? What if we asked another question?

Do the students own the learning?

Suddenly, cell phones, ear buds, and fidget spinners become a chance to self-regulate and create personal boundaries. Instead of focusing on confiscating items, you get the chance to explore acceptable use. It might take time in the beginning but consider the amount of time teachers spend focusing on whether or not someone has chewing gum or if they’re secretly hiding headphones in their hoody sleeves or whether or not their jeans are too baggy or too tight.

But I think the fidget spinner question illustrates something bigger. If we want to deal with distractions and boredom, maybe we need to go beyond the question of engagement and consider student ownership.

Student Ownership is the Answer

For the longest time, I believed in compliance. If I could just make students follow the rules, things would run smoothly. I still believe that compliance is necessary at times. When there’s a fire drill, I want students to comply. When we’re in line by the busses and we’re next to a busy road on a field trip, I’m looking for compliance. But a compliance-driven classroom was exhausting and reactive.

Eventually, I realized that I could prevent misbehavior if I made the lessons more engaging. In this moment, I shifted toward engagement. Students would be less likely to seek out distractions if they weren’t bored. On some level, it worked. Students were less likely to talk over me or get defiant. But there was something missing. It was still all about me. I had to make the lessons engaging and when they were disengaged, I would double down on engagement. So, I crafted entertaining lessons that pulled students away from boredom and into engagement.

Eventually, I moved toward empowerment. As a dad of young children, I noticed a trend. My kids were small, loud, and immature (of course they were, they were little) but they owned the learning at home. And if a three-year-old could chase his own questions and find his own answers in our back yard, couldn’t the same be true of an 8th grader in a school?  I started to approach each class with the following question:

Do I want to engage my students for the next hour or empower them for a lifetime?

Instead of thinking, “how do I get them to focus for the next hour?” I began to ask “what can I do now that will allow them to become the lifelong learners I want them to be?” I still kept things interactive, fun, and engaging. But I started moving toward empowerment.

My friend George Couros describes it as a continuum of student agency. As students take more ownership over their learning, they move from compliant to engaged to empowered.


I want students to be on the right side of that continuum. I want them to be empowered, self-directed, lifelong learners. But this requires student ownership.

Student Ownership Is Risky

This shift toward student ownership felt terrifying. What if I empowered students and then they couldn’t handle the power? What if I came across as weak? What if the class got too chaotic? What if it got too noisy? I was scared that autonomy would lead to anarchy.


So, yeah, I was pretty scared (a topic I explored in this post as well).

But here’s the crazy thing: empowered environments tend to have fewer disruptions. If you had walked into my classroom when I emphasized student ownership, you would have found students who were more focused than they had been when I emphasized either compliance or engagement.

I have a few theories about why this happens:

  • Students tend to act more responsibly when teachers trust them with responsibilities
  • You are more likely to take care of something that you own (a car, a house, etc.) and the same is true of learning
  • When students have full buy-in, they are able to own their actions and therefore think more ethically
  • When students own the process, they aren’t having to fight against the system. In other words, the system fits the students rather than the students trying to fit the system. There’s less anxiety about being behind and less boredom from being ahead.
  • Students have fewer reasons to rebel.
  • They are able to navigate emotions because we build metacognition into the process

A little nuance here: even in empowered environments,  when I shifted toward student ownership, I had moments of disruptions. Certain students remained off-task. I had cringe-worthy moments when I yelled at a class. I was sometimes impatient and even angry. Certain movement and sounds can make the environment feel too chaotic and then I get edgy.

But that’s not an issue of student ownership. That was an issue with me. I was an imperfect teacher leading an imperfect community in an imperfect world.

What about that one difficult class? Can they still own the learning?

I had one class (a self-contained sixth-grade class) who didn’t seem to handle student ownership well. We scrapped the Geek Out Projects and the Genius Hour after they talked over me during directions and used the independent time to talk and to play with little folded up paper footballs. I cut our first design thinking project short when their volume reached a deafening decibel. That was when I switched to highly structured assignments with a few small choices built into it.

It backfired. I spent the next two weeks fighting ridiculous battles and getting into power struggles.I moved into that “ban all fidget spinner” micromanager mode until I realized that it wasn’t working for anyone.

So, I took a risk. We tried out a student blogging project, where they chose the themes and topics and media formats. They were on-task. It wasn’t perfect. A few students were playing games on their devices instead of learning. But there was a difference. They were buying in. It was the first project where they had any kind of ownership.

I tried another student-centered project and brought back Genius Hour. We added design projects. Eventually, students self-selected their own strategies chose their own interventions and engaged in self-assessment.  By the end of the semester, they were a pretty well-behaved group. By the end of the year, they had become an empowered community.

Student ownership was the solution, not the problem.

I no longer believe that choice is a privilege. I believe it is a fundamental right. It’s something that all students need. But more importantly, it is something that works. It can feel risky to empower a student who misbehaves. However, it is worth the risk. I’ve learned that so many students, labeled for years as being the “bad kids” do amazing things when they feel empowered to own their learning.

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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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