What Student Ownership of Learning Looks Like: A Remarkable Day at The Shipley School

What does student ownership of learning look like? How do even young students rapidly engage when given the freedom to ask expansive questions? Do students really need to start at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy before building to abstraction and synthesis? Do we even begin to tap the insights of students that would contribute richly to our schools’ strategic thinking? Read on for examples and key lessons!

I rarely get a day to work with students, so was honored when Steve Piltch, head of The Shipley School, with no guarantee of success, allowed me to spend almost two hours with groups of about 15 students from each of the lower, middle, and upper schools last week.

IMG_1457I turned the 4th and 5th graders loose to wander their campus for ten minutes and return with observations about something that interested them. Most raced outside and returned with long, long lists. I then gave them just a few minutes to ask “what if” questions based on their observations, writing them one to a post-it note. Here are a few of the gems they jotted down:

  • What if there were unlimited letters in the alphabet and you were just allowed to make up new ones whenever you wanted?
  • What if there were no teachers?
  • What if there was no school?
  • What if people were born knowing how to read?
  • What if there was no color? What would our life be like?
  • What would it be like if there is no sky at all?
  • What if we didn’t win the French and Indian War? Would we be speaking French?
  • What is there was no such thing as fun?

Working in groups, I gave the students about six minutes to affinity map (categorize) their questions. One group struggled and an adult was tempted to step in to help, but resisted. Two minutes later the students had named three groups: “Humanity”, “Knowledge”, and “School Mishaps”. Priceless! 4th and 5th graders; just a few minutes; virtually no instructions.

IMG_1460With the middle and upper school students I tweaked the group work based on an existential challenge that had been thrown down the previous evening: for an individual and a school, what is the difference between “success” and “significance”, between “great” and “leading”? I asked groups to take about ten minutes and build idea maps exploring those questions. Some moved quickly to Venn diagrams; others grabbed an area of white board and rapidly built extensive systems-level maps; still others focused their discussion on defining the words within a context they created. The level of discourse was remarkable; we captured much of it via the idea maps and am sure this will be shared with both the faculty and the school’s trustees.

I then sent the students off on a ten minute walk around the school to “observe how learning takes place, think about what is most relevant to you, and come back in your groups to prototype and pitch an idea on now to improve learning at the school”.

Twenty-five minutes later, the student had pitched:

  • Livening the classrooms with bright colors (“to wake us up a bit in the morning and late afternoon”).
  • Changing furniture styles so “our backs don’t hurt from sitting down for most of the day”.
  • Flipping classrooms (with an extensive listing of the strengths and weaknesses of the approach).
  • Adding an assistant teacher in the room to increase differentiated learning.
  • Creating mechanisms for students and teachers to meet frequently, adjust curriculum to interest, increase intrinsic motivation (their words), and allow students to help design assessment plans.

IMG_1463The level of discussion among the students, with virtually no direction from any adult, was astonishing. In just a few minutes they shared observations, synthesized new ideas, tested them against their own understanding of great learning, imagined solutions, shipped the ideas to colleagues, and gathered feedback.

There were comments so honest they could only come from students given true freedom of expression. One student said he had observed a class of students taking a test and saw “deep melancholy” on their faces, as opposed to another class that was in rich discussion with a teacher. He wondered “how can we inject passion into the classroom?” Another student told us that she learns Latin verb conjugations “until the weekly quiz is over, then I forget them until the semester exam. Then I forget them again.” She also said she is pretty sure she will learn and forget the formulas for calculating parabolas by the end of the week.

IMG_1465One of the Shipley staff is a seasoned filmmaker and followed us all day; I can’t wait to share the remarkable experience through that medium. Here are the key takeaways from a day like this:

  •  Allow students to observe, ask questions about, and learn from THEIR world. Build content acquisition around these lenses and students will be much more likely to construct context that deepens the learning.
  • Allow students to find ways to organize their thoughts without significant adult direction.
  • Allow students to work out of their seats, on the floor, on the walls, in any configuration that allows them to move more freely.
  • Spend more time on higher-order skills; that is where interest, passion, and engagement are found. Even younger students understand that strict adherence to Bloom is often wrong.
  • We VASTLY underuse deep student inputs in our strategic thinking. Schools that have one student sit in on portions of trustee meetings, or who invite a panel of students to present ideas at a faculty meeting once a year, or who allow student councils to focus largely on pizza parties and dance preparations are tossing away an enormous bank of talent. My experience is that some students groups (more than we think) are able to contribute to strategic-level thinking with every bit as much insight as their adult co-learners.
  • This kind of learning should be the rule, not the exception.

2 thoughts on “What Student Ownership of Learning Looks Like: A Remarkable Day at The Shipley School

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