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“Taking Ownership”: Trusting Your Students to Teach Themselves

December 30, 2019

By: Kendall Hunt RPD with contributions from the writing team of Pathways 2.0 and By Design Science grades 1-8

Your students may be returning from winter break in the next few days or weeks, and chances are your searching for a way to corral short attention spans and get them back into the school mindset. If you want your students to take ownership of their work, good news: there are two simple ways teachers can move students beyond the “because my teacher made me” mind-set. All it takes is a little trust.

Method 1: Students can teach themselves

According to David Gooblar, University of Iowa rhetoric professor and education blogger, “the best learning occurs when students teach themselves—when they discover something on their own.” Rather than telling students the concept up front and asking them to regurgitate it on a test, teachers can use inquiry learning to let students find the answer for themselves. If they do, students will be much more likely to remember it later.

In one of my high school physics labs, my classmates and I had to list at least three possible factors (length, mass, angle, etc.) that might affect the rate of a pendulum’s swing, then conduct an experiment to discover which factors did and did not. I remember very little of what was on the tests I took in that class, but I do remember that length, and not mass, affects a pendulum’s swing.

In inquiry learning, rather than memorizing from a list, students must personally find the answer. And when students are active discoverers instead of passive listeners, whatever they discover is more likely to stick with them in the long run.

Method 2: Students can teach each other

If the best learning occurs when students teach themselves, perhaps they can learn even more when they teach each other. Teachers might ask groups of students to present one chapter from a class anchor text. Based on how the class has been using the anchor text, teachers could direct students to focus on a certain strategy, such as predicting or visualizing. In a spelling lesson, students may be asked to think of a word they struggled to spell and tell the class their “trick” to remembering it now.

Listeners benefit from their classmates’ knowledge, but the young “teachers” profit as well. Students can practice metacognition, or thinking about thinking, by considering how they would best learn about the topic. In deciding how to help their peers learn, students discover their own best learning styles.

It’s about trust

Both these methods, however, require you to trust your students, to believe they can and will find the answer on their own without your assistance. If your students see that you have laid everything out for them, they might think you doubt their ability to solve the problem without being spoon-fed the answer. And when students feel their abilities are being doubted, they’ll live up to that prophecy and disengage.

But when the students themselves must explain a concept, they see that you believe in their ability to find the answer on their own. They sense your higher expectations for them, and they live up to those expectations. Teacher Carol Campbell once allowed her social studies students to select their own learning objectives, and the resulting projects—from medieval food demonstrations to weaponry science—allowed the entire class to “learn more than what they would have from just the curriculum that was provided.”

“Give your students a little latitude to explore the details of a topic that interests them,” she says. “[This] will give the learning more meaning, helping them internalize their discoveries.”

With a customized curriculum such as ByDesign Science and Pathways 2.0, teachers can tailor activities to their students’ interests, eventually relaxing the reins to let them teach themselves and each other. But in order to take that leap, the students must feel trusted.

Do you trust your students to take ownership of their work?