Who owns it?

For an elementary principal, enrolling in a course titled “Secondary Education Seminar” was a bit intimidating. Little kids = Awesome; Big kids = Scary. (Kidding.) But it turns out, learning is learning on any level, and our class spends the majority of our time discussing learning.

Last night we explored the topic of “ownership” in education. Who owns the learning?

We read the work of Janet G. Donald who has researched characteristics of student learning, particularly in secondary and post-secondary settings. She detailed the historical shift of learning from students being presented with a fixed body of knowledge, known to be factual, to a time when our best teachers are asking students to question, analyze, and internalize concepts to extend learning. How do we know when students are truly engaged with the content and their learning? Who owns it?

Think of a typical teacher leading a classroom discussion. Who does the teacher most often take their cues from? The students who raise their hands and provide the correct answers. Feeling as though those students represent the understanding of the rest of the class, the teacher moves on. What about the student in the back of the classroom? Or the student who doesn’t volunteer answers? Do they own their learning?

I raised the topic of formative assessments and how their use is essential, and several opportunities should be planned for student feedback and response throughout every lesson. Until a student owns his learning, he is locked into concrete thinking and cannot move along the learning continuum to more abstract, sophisticated levels of understanding. The learner relies on the teacher to “fill in the gaps” of understanding. There has to be a constant stream of communication between teacher and student so the teacher can recognize the gaps and help provide support to students in making meaningful connections.

This concept applies to the principal-teacher relationship as well. Consider the policies, procedures, and programs an administrator is asked to implement in a school. School-level leaders are often required to implement these programs through mandates from their supervisors, school boards, and/or governments. The principal is the person to whom the mandates are delivered, and is also the person who delves out the news to parents, teachers, and students that a new initiative is underway. The principal is responsible for ensuring follow-through and evaluating the implementation process. The principal is held accountable.

Who owns it?

Ideally I would love to say every directive I hand out in our school has a solid pedagogical foundation at its core. We can’t kid ourselves, though. Building-level administrators can only control so much, however…. we can do our very best to transform the mandates we’re given into learning experiences our teachers and students can own.

Example. Let’s do a better job rewriting/reorganizing/planning for our language arts instruction to be more inclusive of the standards at each grade level. If we do that, will our reading scores on standardized tests improve? Yes. Is that the only reason why we should do this? No. If that is my directive, then I “own it.” Next step is to help my teachers to own it. Provide support in the way of sample curriculum maps/frameworks they can use to begin the planning process. But let’s face it, they know their curriculum and students best. So do I ask them to be regimented in the way they plan? No. Do I ask them to toss out every idea they’ve ever had about what effective teaching and learning in language arts looks like? No. I ask them to give me feedback about how they’re feeling throughout the process, what they need, and how I can help. I want them to own it. To develop the best possible units and lessons that address the standards while providing inclusive, interactive, meaningful learning for students. So they can own it.

As will sometimes occur in a class filled with 99% teachers, the last hour of class turned into somewhat of a “But we are told we have to do this a certain way. If we don’t, we’ll get in trouble. But we don’t think that’s what’s best for our students” impassioned, verbal melee against school administration and their impossible-to-comply-with mandates.

My question to this particular roomful of teachers was, “What are you going to do about it? Who did you approach with your thoughts? What alternatives have you devised to present to your principals? What did you and your colleagues decide would be the best course of action from this point forward to address the needs of the district and the needs of your students?” The same would be true for a directive handed down from my superintendent to our principal team. We have been very vocal on many occasions about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of suggested plans for implementation.

If we aren’t vocal- if we aren’t knowledgeable about our organization’s needs and what we want for our students- then we can’t possibly own it.