Let students own the learning

An amazing educator named Denise Krebs wrote a blog post you should read — A Year of Genius Hour — What Have I Learned?

When Denise gave her middle school students license to be geniuses — to determine, for at least some of the time they spend together, what and how they learn — the results were stunning:

It was such a thrill to watch the students fully engaged in purposeful learning, creating, producing, and mastering. They chose what they wanted to work on.

We  have continued to find our way through genius hour learning over the past 15 months. People often ask me if the students have trouble staying on task. To those people I say a resounding, “No, they do not have trouble staying on task.” (However, as most teachers can attest, they sometimes do when we aren’t in genius hour, when I am dictating the agenda.)

So why are most schools still dictating the agenda?

At TLC middle school, students will set the agenda for the morning “learn about the world” sessions. Project work will make up at least two hours of every day. But this will not be the sort of project-based-learning where teachers choose the projects. I can’t tell you for sure what projects we will do at TLC — at least not once we get going.

True, our initial projects will be chosen by teachers as a way to model how to do project work, to build basic skills, and as a way to build community. But by halfway through the year, I expect that our sixth graders will begin to propose their own projects. They will take more ownership for the projects in seventh grade. And by the summer before eighth grade, students will have had enough experience that they will be ready to propose a “capstone project” to work on for six months.

Those capstone projects are a few years in the future, but Denise is letting students determine what they learn right now!

Denise’s post got me so excited early this morning that I visited her blog to see what else was cool (there’s a lot).  I was drawn to this great VoiceThread she made.  It was so great, and so simple to make, that it inspired me to make my own voice thread.  If you click on the image below you can see — and listen to — her voice thread

(give it a second to load and then wait a few seconds for her voice to start)

denise voice

Please do click above so you can view Denise’s VoiceThread — you also get to hear her narrating eight slides.

[short aside: I’d been introduced to VoiceThread by Karl Schaefer more than a year ago, but never found time to explore it before this morning. VoiceThread is an amazing tool that we will make use of at TLC middle school. The video comment feature is something I’m going to explore in the coming weeks.]

I wanted to learn more about Denise Krebs, who I’d learned so much from this morning. I went to Google Earth where I found her school — she teaches in Granville, Iowa — and what blew me away is that the population of Granville, as of the 2010 census, was 312 people.

I made a short Google Earth video that shows my amazement at how we live in a world where geography doesn’t matter so much — we can learn from connected educators around the world.

But that connectivity and all the educational technology that’s available, such as VoiceThread, does not mean that students should just learn from home. It does not mean that we don’t need schools.

Indeed, Chris Lehmann points out, in his superb blog post, Humanity, Community and Technology in School, that

It is not that technology should supplant school, rather it should transform it. The promise of educational technology is that we can reinvent and re-imagine schools as the center of a community of learning. It is true that we no longer have to define school as four walls and floor, but let us not use that to throw away all that we have learned over the past hundred years of public school experiment. Let us instead mind the rich vein of educational history to find those moments of empowerment, those moments of connection, those moments of authenticity, those moments of care. Let us realize that those moments – more often than not – came at the intersection of a caring teacher and the students who trusted her. And then let us ask ourselves how can the technology enhance, magnify, multiply and transform those moments so that more children can feel that their learning matters and that their school matters every day.

Chris goes on to explain that schools still matter:

When done well, schools help children learn how to live lives of meaning. When done right, schools help children become profoundly and active citizens. When done with care, schools help children learn how to care for one another. Technology alone cannot do those things. The purpose of school is not to train children but to teach them, and that requires the human element. If anything, we need more adults in schools not fewer.

The sort of adults we need in schools are people like Denise and Chris and Karl and other folks I’m proud to have in my learning network — the sort of people who want students to own their learning. These are also folks who lead their lives in ways that serve as models to help students become the sort of citizens that Chris describes above.

Will Richardson’s recent book asks: Why School?

Here’s my best draft of an answer to Will’s question:

“Schools provide students with a group of caring adults who will give students ownership of their learning and also provide guidance/mentoring about how to be a citizen in a both a local and a global learning community”

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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7 Responses to Let students own the learning

  1. Oh, Steve, what a humbling (and beautiful) post. Thank you so much.

    I got teary-eyed when I read this in your post:

    “But that connectivity and all the educational technology that’s available, such as VoiceThread, does not mean that students should just learn from home. It does not mean that we don’t need schools.”

    We have a school holiday today, and I am home. I was just watching a little TV this morning and saw an advertisement for a K-12 online school. That made me even more teary-eyed because you are SO RIGHT! We need each other — students and teachers in real relationships.

    Maybe I’m a bit emotional lately because our school (yes, in a town of 300) will be changing next year. Due to the difficulty of operating a very small high school in our state, our private school will now become a K-8 school instead of K-12. Last evening we had both our last parent-teacher conferences and our last varsity district basketball game.

    I don’t think our changes are related to technology, but the future of education is in flux, isn’t it? I’m excited to spend some time reading about your new school. Best wishes!

    Denise

  2. By the way, that’s a grain elevator! Granville, where we lift grain with elevators instead of people. 🙂

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  6. Louis Parry says:

    Sadly, over the past 35 years teaching what I have observed more and more is our most talented students not wanting, no let me correct that, not able to own their learning. Why! Because of over-the-top course loads and extra-curricular responsibilities that forbid owing. Owing takes time and an ability to commit in a deep and meaningful way. On their inexorable march to the Ivy League college of their dreams, these things often get sacrificed. Many of these students may want to own their learning, but they are being forced to Rent Their Learning by a system that has lost it’s way.

  7. Bravo, Louis! That is so true. Your last line about a system that has lost its way resonates. I often wish that administrators or board members would sit through a day of school with students. The students are over-stressed and overworked. Not overworked on the joy of learning, but on working the system to get good grades. It saddens me.

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