How many times have we heard students ask us, “Why did you give me a C?” As if we give out grades like candy. Do I look like the candyman? Students earn grades based on their ability to meet the learning objectives covered. Rather than take ownership of their learning, they blame the teacher for giving them a grade they feel they do not deserve. If only they accepted responsibility for their actions and choices, they’d be able to see why they earned the grade they did. Blunt students who ask us about grades are usually the ones who don’t put forth the effort to meet or exceed the standards or objectives assessed. So, instead of learning from their mistakes and taking the opportunity to redo the task or assignment, they complain and blame. Teachers don’t give, we guide. We don’t provide students with answers or grades, we guide them to answers and help them to see how to meet or exceed graded objectives. Students do the earning. In a world where many students act entitled and feel as though everything should be handed to them on a platinum platter, as teachers, we need to help our students see the world through a different lense. We need to teach students self-awareness and ownership. The more opportunities the students have to see how their actions and choices dictate the outcome, the easier it will be for them once they make it out into the real world and see that one poor choice can cost them a job, relationship, or worse.
While this sounds great and makes complete sense to me as a teacher, how do I do it? How do I teach students to own their learning? What can I do to empower the next generation of leaders? How can I help my students see that what they do impacts what happens to them? Along with all of the problem based learning projects completed throughout the year, the constant self-reflection we have the students do, and the e-portfolio we have the students maintain, I make sure to put the learning completely on their shoulders. When they ask me a question about a task or assignment, I usually respond with another question. “How do I exceed the objective?” a student asked me today. My response was simple, “That’s a great question, how could you exceed the objective? What will you need to do to demonstrate mastery of the objective being assessed?” While my students dislike when I do this, it forces them to do the thinking, problem solving, and learning. If I gave this student the answer to his question today, I would have stolen a learning opportunity from him. I would have prevented him from understanding how to solve a problem as well as what it takes to exceed a graded objective. Approaches like this are one of the ways I have helped to teach my students how to own their learning throughout the year.
Another way is in how I structure the tasks my students need to complete to showcase their learning. Rather than having them take a final math exam to prove what they have or haven’t learned in the sixth grade this year, I created a final project that puts the onus completely on them. They have all of the power to determine into which math course they will be placed next year. After completing a final placement exam, the students self-corrected the test and discovered what gaps still exist in their math knowledge. What skills proved tricky for them to master? Upon knowing what skills they still need to work on to be able to be placed into the math course of their choosing, they need to create an action plan for their summer. What will the students do to fill in the gaps in their learning? How will they be able to meet the goal they have set for themselves?
In class today, following a mini-lesson on how to create an action plan and what one looks like, the boys generated their own action plan. The students put much thought and effort into generating a useful plan that they can use to help them prepare for seventh grade math. The boys were specific in what they will do. Some of the students are planning to use Khan Academy to review and learn the skills with which they struggle while others are going to have their parents print out worksheets that they will complete. While each student had a different, individualized plan, they all had one thing in common–much learning should happen this summer. The students know exactly what they need to do to meet their math goals. Now, the onus is on them once again. They need to follow through and do what they have said they will do. I’m hopeful that many of the students will meet and achieve their goal come September, but I’m also certain that a few students will not do what they have said they will do to meet their goals. Those are also the same students who are quick to argue about grades. They aren’t quite ready to take the responsibility needed to showcase their true potential. Perhaps one day they will discover the power of ownership, but in the meantime, we as their teachers, can keep trying to help them see how important it is to them to own their learning.