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November 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 3

Perspectives / Learning: Whose Job Is It?

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The camera pans across a college classroom. At the front is a lecturer writing words on a chalkboard that are barely legible from the back seats. Sitting at their desks, laptops at hand, are college students, each serious and silent, taking turns holding up signs. "I spend 3 1/2 hours a day online." "I spend two hours on my cell phone." "I listen to music 2.5 hours a day." "I Facebook through most of my classes." "I do 49 percent of the reading assigned." "I read eight books a year," some of the signs read. And finally comes a question, "If students learn what they do, what are they learning sitting here?"
These are the messages of a YouTube video called "A Vision of Students Today," the work of Michael Wesch's anthropology class at Kansas State University. Last time I checked, it had 2,700,347 views and 7,813 comments. Many of the comments suggest that traditional teaching practice does not meet the needs of students who have at their fingertips an array of data sources, exciting outlets for creativity and collaboration, and—depending on how you look at it—either short attention spans or amazing abilities to multitask.
It is not just older students who tell us that they "pretend attend" school. When 5th and 6th graders were asked to draw their typical learning experiences, they often put books and teachers and chalkboards in their pictures—but not themselves (Bishop & Pflaum, 2005). But when they depicted learning they liked, their own images were front and center.
From the looks of it, both student engagement and student accountability in school are on the downswing. One measure of lack of preparedness to learn is that almost 26 percent of high schoolers—38 percent of those with the lowest test scores—frequently come to school without paper, pencil, or homework (NCES, 2007). No records for how many come with iPods or cell phones.
In these days when making adequate yearly progress is a school's major goal, instilling ownership of learning can seem like a low priority. But making adequate yearly progress is no guarantee that students will be ready for college, citizenship, and employment, says Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap. And statistics show that students drop out more from boredom than from failure. Using external measures for accountability is nowhere near as powerful as imparting to 21st-century students that ancient staple of learning—ownership.
But what can schools do to get students to claim ownership of the many hours they spend in school? A report on school organization notes that one tested structure is the small learning community, which supports collegial relationships among teachers and personalized learning environments for students (Center for Public Education, 2008). Studies show that students are more satisfied, more academically productive, more likely to participate in school activities, better behaved, and less likely to drop out when they are organized into smaller groups. Providing alternative programs—for example, the relatively new construct of grade 8.5 for transitioning 8th graders or the early college high school program for students who need more relevance and rigor—might also be worth trying, according to the report.
This issue of Educational Leadershiplooks at many ways to instill ownership of learning. First, our authors suggest how to engage students—from providing relevant curriculum to using technology appropriately; from offering choice in learning projects to making sure some learning can be active; from letting kids move at their own pace to introducing students to authentic audiences who actually put students' work to use.
The other side of the ownership coin, however, is instilling student accountability. Our authors talk about how to do that, too—from teaching study skills for independent learning to making students more aware of their own behavior to enlisting them to help their teachers turn schools around, embrace technology, and learn new professional skills.
Just as turning over the keys to the family car to a teenager can be both rewarding and risky, turning over ownership of learning to students calls for finesse. We must balance freedom with responsibility if we are to encourage the self-directed learners that the modern world demands.

Bishop, P. A., & Pflaum, S.W. (2005). Student perceptions of action, relevance, and pace. Middle School Journal, 36(4), 1–12.

Center for Public Education. (2008). Full report on the effects of school organization on student engagement. Alexandria, VA: Author.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). Indicator 22: Student preparedness. In The condition of education 2007. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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