Saturday, December 4, 2010

When students own the learning

A topic about which I talk, teach, and preach often is Marc Prensky’s concept of Partnering with Students for learning. The idea in part is to let teachers be expert in pedagogy, but to let students use the tools THEY know and love to demonstrate mastery. When I came across this post at the Ed Tech Ideas and knew I had to share with readers of The Innovative Educator blog. This piece shows an on the ground view of how innovative educator did this with his students and what happened as a result. I admit that even I was surprised at the limited amount of direction the students needed to get going when given the chance to learn in their own ways using the tools they choose.

I invite you to read the post below and encourage you to visit for more insights into ideas for educating innovatively.

Relinquishing Control

Today I relinquished all control of learning in my lab and shifted the responsibility of learning to the students. Most of my activities in my lab are project-based, but they are usually created by myself and the classroom teachers, have directions, pre-set expectations, rubrics, etc. In a recent workshop I attended, Alan November posed the question, “Who owns the learning in the classroom: the teacher or the students? This inspired me to relinquish control.
It went like this: My 4th graders are studying isopods and beetles in science so I presented to them a challenge: “Using any method you choose, you are to show your isopod/beetle expertise.” That was pretty much all the direction I gave.

Looking around my lab, here is what I saw being created:
  • Bitstrip comics starring themselves as scientists explaining the diversity of crustaceans.
  • Students researching sources using advanced search features for trust-worthy and relevant information
  • Online jeopardy game creations
  • Using Scratch to create interactive stories
  • PowerPoint and Prezi presentations
  • Using Flipcams and Moviemaker to create infomercials
  • Podcast radio interviews
  • Glogster Posters
Some students worked in pairs; others chose to work alone. They assigned each other roles. One the researcher, one the graphic designer, one the note taker. They asked if they could research! They created their own rubrics. Their usual, “How do I do this?” questions to me were redirected and asked of themselves: “How can we find out how to do this?” It was truly an amazing experience. Their newly-discovered independence and ownership in their learning freed me up to go around and make suggestions, teach specific search strategies, work one-on-one with each student discussing their projects, and really feel the excitement and buzz of authentic learning taking place.

EdTechIdeas: As teachers, it is often difficult to make a shift from forced learning (teacher delivered content) to student directed learning. I challenge you to just take one lesson; one activity; one afternoon and flip the way you’ve always done it in the past. Take a leap of faith, and relinquish control. See how you feel. Discover how your students feel. Feel the learning.


  1. Thanks so much for mentioning me in this post Lisa! Letting go like this is one of those moments in teaching where you get goose bumps because you can truly feel the excitement of learning taking place.

  2. Fabulous story! However, would 4th graders know about Glogster, Bitstrips, Prezi, and Scratch on their own? I suspect the high quality of the previous projects and experiences in this class laid the foundation that prepared these students to work on their own.

  3. @Anonymous,
    You know, it was interesting. Usually, when I assign a specific project using a particular technology, if students don't know how to use the tech, they are full of questions directed at me. When I assigned this open-ended activity, because they knew they were in charge of it all, they put the learning on themselves and actually went online, on their own, looking for tutorials! It was truly amazing!

  4. Good on you for trying this! Can you see the next step? It sounds to me as though your students are still regurgitating existing information. Can you move them on to creating new knowledge? One of my 'rules of thumb' is - if you can Google it and find the answer then someone else has already done the work. Did they actually have beetles and isopods at hand as they did this? Putting the student at the centre is very powerful learning. The New Zealand national curriculum is based on this.