Monday, March 11, 2013

Student Ownership of Learning

"Student Ownership of Learning" is a buzz-phrase in education circles these days. My Google search of this phrase turned up almost 18 million hits! Lots of people are talking about it. Now, if only they were all talking about the same thing.

What I have observed that many people mean when they talk about getting "students to own their learning" is trying to come up with clever ways to make, or sometimes "trick," students into doing more of what we want them to do. It is usually framed as a method of "making kids more responsible." The conversations I hear often center on organization, homework, keeping up with a schedule, turning in assignments on time, asking for extra help, etc. There is obviously nothing wrong with these habits. Children who develop them are likely more successful than those that do not.

However, this mindset about student ownership of learning may be the most shallow discussion of the topic, and it may miss the point altogether for two reasons. First, it has little to do with learning. What we need to be preoccupied with as educators is the process of learning itself. Our focus should be on questions like the following:

How does the brain process or retain new information?
How are students able to think critically?
What are the barriers to retention and critical thinking?
What is the role of choice in a learning environment?
How is knowledge constructed (or more accurately, "co-constructed") by people today?
Has technology literally changed the way brains operate?
What matters most when it comes to getting the brain's attention?

When I speak to educators, I define helping students own their learning as "transferring the 'brain work' to them." In other words, the talking and thinking and sharing that the teacher has traditionally done can be gradually turned over to the students so that they are now making decisions, manipulating pieces of information, connecting to previous knowledge, and teaching others. Simply, the necessary shift is about students moving from mere consumers of knowledge to producers of knowledge.

This leads to the second problem with the popular notions of student ownership of learning. Today's students demonstrate responsibility in many ways, and some of these ways are unrecognizable to the previous generation (aka. the current teachers). For example, a kid today can access resources and information about a given topic through a variety of multimedia sources in minutes. Old-fashioned study skills simply don't appeal to this kid. It doesn't necessarily mean the kid is less responsible or doesn't care about his learning. It could just be that he cares differently.

There are, of course, exceptions. Some students are unmotivated and do not take initiative. There are other factors involved. As always, with the teaching/learning dynamic, there are countless variables at work. It is difficult to isolate one of them. Still, we cannot ignore the foundational points of what we truly mean when we talk about student ownershp of learning in the early 21st century.

And, yes, it will be a different conversation in the mid-21st century. But if we don't have the right conversation now, then we will be that much further behind when that time comes.

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