Encouraging Ownership

How do I get my students to “own their learning”?
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How do I get my students to “own their learning”?

After every course I teach I receive an evaluation from my students. Typically 80% or higher provide with highly positive feedback. 10% are indifferent and 10% are less than satisfied. Most of the dissatisfaction revolves around lack of structure and and timelines. This is partly my personal flaws and partly student preference and partly a communication failure. I take these evaluations seriously and don’t dismiss these critiques but really do try to improve. I need to get better. But….

As I try and create more ownership and agency for students, my efforts to empower them is the thing I need to really work on. How do I get my students to “own their learning”? Consider what ownership means. When you own your house, you can complain about the manufacturers of your home for its flaws but ultimately you’ll need to consider and act upon things that aren’t working. Sometimes you do it yourself, sometimes you ask for help, but either way as an owner you take action. Even if you ask for help, you are responsible they do the work and do it well.

Today I saw this tweet:

Do we want people to feel overwhelmed when leaving a conference? Not sure that’s a good goal.

— Brian E. Bennett (@bennettscience) July 16, 2014

Change the word “conference” to class or event. I agree. I don’t want people to feel that way. But…

One question to ask your students or yourself is “Do you feel empowered?” As much as I want to design spaces that make are conducive to great learning but ultimately I don’t own the learning. I do take responsibility for creating the space but I quickly invite my students to own it as well. It becomes a co-op. Some students quickly move in and start to move the furniture around. Others sit quietly and are either afraid or not interested in taking charge. As host, I want them to feel welcome, I want them to feel comfortable enough to ask a question or suggest a change. When they don’t feel this, that’s my failure.

I go back to a quote from Clay Shirky:

I’ve used this example before but when you enter a library you don’t say, “How will I ever read all these books?” We come to a library either with a specific purpose or the knowledge of how to find things or find someone who can help us. The library sits as a resource that inherently empowers the user and acts as a facilitator of learning. In some respects this is what our classroom/events should be like. We all understand how a library works and what the roles and responsibilities they hold. As classrooms and events shift, these roles are blurring.

With regard to conferences, formats like edcamp reflect this blur. These events are explicitly about empowering learners. That’s why the event resonates with teachers. It represents a shift from directed professional learning. You design your learning and take advantage of all the resources. The first time you attend it’s weird. People are encouraged to leave sessions they aren’t interested in. They are asked to contribute. It’s about community and collaboration. Those two ideas have not been valued or necessary in traditional classrooms or conferences when the locus of control is with the teacher or speaker.

I need my students to ask questions and say things like:

“This makes no sense”
“Can you tell me how I can make this better?”
“I don’t think this assignment is very helpful, can I do something else”?

I need to do a better job empowering my students. Some of my students do feel this way and ask these questions. Others do not. I use to think it’s a learning style issue and that some students need and require more structure. I’m not so sure now. It may be a mindset and perception and expectation of what education should be. Some think of it as a contract. They see themselves as consumers and teachers are selling a product. They either buy it or they don’t. I’m trying to create a community where everyone has a stake and responsibility. The ultimate goal is empowerment. Sometimes structure and scaffolding can lead to that, but that scaffolding still requires student input. The more you are the sole creator of this structure, the less ownership the learner has. You perpetuate the idea of expert and novice. Yes, there are some types of learning and situations where the learner is without any background knowledge but this is rare. Most of us come to new learning with some background, some familiarity and this is what a great host/teacher does. They help them see those connections and use background knowledge to build upon.

When you hear words like “overwhelmed” I wonder about who is responsible for this feeling. Feeling overwhelmed usually comes from not understanding or too many choices. When I speak or teach a class, I’ll take some of that responsibility. Like a library, I need to give people multiple entry points and explicit ways for my audience and students to take the reigns of learning and make meaning. What usually solves this problem is conversations. I need to have more and better conversations with my students. If you’re at a conference, you need to seek out people to help you work out ideas. The word “engagement” is often used passively. We expect engagement to happen because of something that’s done to us and not so much something we do.

This is what I’m going for.

PS. Let’s say you read this post and you think “this makes no sense” or “there’s something missing here” or “he’s wrong” and you don’t leave a comment, you kind of prove my point. I want my blog to be a community space where we learn together. If you have a complaint or suggestion but offer no comment, either I didn’t make it clear I want you to contribute or you see yourself solely as a consumer of this post. Or you’re just lazy.

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cross-posted at http://ideasandthoughts.org/

Dean Shareski is a Digital Learning Consultant with the Prairie South School Division in Moose Jaw, SK, Canada, specializing in the use of technology in the classroom. He lectures for the University of Regina and is the Community Manager of the Canadian DEN or Discovery Educators Network. Read more at http://ideasandthoughts.org.



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