“When young people discover they can become agents of change, wonderful things happen. They start to serve in the neighborhoods, learn about public issues, create innovative solutions to tough public challenges and eventually become the voters, community project builders and leaders in our communities and nation.
Place Based Learning empowers students by giving them a voice in the work they produce, but
student ownership - a defining design principle of any great project - is a gradual release, as we create self-managers capable of taking their learning to a new level. It creates ownership and pride in the process and creation of a meaningful product. It scaffolds the skills for being a change agent in the community and the world. It requires that we explicitly teach self-management skills and then step out of the way, allowing students to try out their efficacy in project work.
How do you build project efficacy in your classroom when just starting out with a place-based methodology? If students have the opportunity to exercise ownership over their learning only a few select, teacher-orchestrated times a year there will be limited lasting benefit and those self-management skills will be underdeveloped. Skills like critical thinking, innovating, metacognition and collaboration must be explicitly taught and assessed throughout a student’s educational life for the reward to manifest in project output.
Finding the Student Ownership “Sweet Spot”
Student ownership can be as simple as students generating questions they need answers to after working with a community partner, or as involved as students forming teams, deciding on the best way to showcase their work to the public, drafting, revising and presenting.
I know what you’re thinking. That sounds big and scary and my students aren’t ready for that. Let’s examine the following example from my 10th grade humanities class and instead think about small, manageable risks that lead to student growth and project efficacy.
Spring semester is always a hectic time of the school year. I knew I wanted to run a project that would take advantage of the strong classroom culture we had built while being respectful of how busy students’ schedules are. I also had a laundry list of writing, speaking and listening standards to teach and assess. (*Note the literacy content taught and assessed throughout the project in bold.) After looking at the Design Principles of Place Based Learning I constructed a few lessons where my students and I learned about Non-cognitive Competencies. We agreed that the class was pretty good at “Navigating Systems and Understanding and Dealing with Discrimination” (one of the competencies). We also agreed that we were getting better at “understanding multiple points of view,” a feature of a team mindset.
Armed with this new group awareness, and our co-created Essential Question of How can we, as teenage change agents, market our assets for the benefit of our community? we began to brainstorm community partners who might need people with these specific assets. My students thought that organizations focused on assisting recent immigrants with gaining access to jobs, housing and resources might be a place to start. We then composed emails and a phone script and student teams reached out to three potential partners asking to meet with one person from the organization to have a “learning session” focused on the question: How can we be an asset to your organization and end users? Then we waited, and while we waited we did things unrelated to our project.
After a few weeks, we had a nibble on the line. The director of an immigrant advocacy organization was willing to Skype with us to talk about possibilities. Students, instead of writing interview questions, crafted team asset statements, highlighting where their strengths lay and a few initial ideas for how the organization might benefit from a partnership (based on research students did on the organization). A few more weeks went by, during which time we again did things unrelated to our project.
Over the next month students talked to the partner a handful of times as they generated ideas together, clarified need and intent, and decided what was reasonable, spending approximately 10 hours on this phase of the project. In tandem with our partner, we found out that immigrants with teen children were often unfamiliar with the realities and nuances of American teen life – social media, peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, personal safety. Students began to think about how to fill this information gap for immigrant teens and their families in their community. Each team came up with a different idea and pitched it to our partner. To the surprise of many, the partner decided to go with a “no tech” solution of partnering immigrant teens with teens at our school to have a Scoop Session – a question and answer session – at the school or community center, whereby they could ask questions and get much-needed information while also making a face-to-face connection with a peer.
From there, my students recruited peers, created a database, set guidelines, compiled information they thought was vital to share, and tested the program. Once these pieces were in place it was fully turned over to the community partner to sustain, and the product was co-created with our partner as a natural result of the relationship we built and the questions we asked. We reflected with our partner, individually, and as a team, and the project (and school year) concluded.
The students owned the process, but every step of the way (for each of the bolded items above) I assessed students’ readiness levels and provided substantial support and scaffolding. Some students and/or teams needed extra time, 1:1 with me, accommodations, direct instruction and low-stakes practice with their emerging skills. My job was to teach and scaffold, both before and during the project, self-management skills such as: reflection, self-assessment, cross-cultural and intercultural communication, advocacy, collaboration, presentation, persuasion, ideation and evaluation.
Why Student Ownership Matters
If there were one word to sum up what students say it feels like to own their learning that word would have to be PURPOSEFUL. Students say things like, “I know why I’m doing this,” and “it makes sense,” and “I can figure it out.” Walk into any learner-driven classroom and you’ll find students who know the why, what and how of their task, and they are doing it! You’ll see a teacher orchestrating the environment, locating the resources, teaching just-in-time content and skills, and differentiating to meet the needs of all students. And you’ll see students who know how to use their teacher to get what they need to further their inquiry. I fondly remember a day toward the end of the project when a team of students called me over to their table and asked me if I had procured a particular resource from our community partner that they needed for their pitch. When I informed them I hadn’t received it yet, one student said, “Okay, then we don’t need you. Come back when you have it.” Although a little harsh, I was pleased that I’d taught myself out of the equation.
Student ownership isn’t either or. A common error that teachers new to place based learning make is to swing the student ownership pendulum to extremes in either direction, and then blame the resultant failure on the methodology. The refrain goes something like, “I tried PBL but my students couldn’t handle the freedom” or, “my students crave structure and the room was out of control.” When this occurs it is important to examine our attitudes and beliefs about our students’ ability to self-manage. Are we expecting our students to instinctively know how to manage their learning because of their age or gender? Likewise, do we think our students need structure because of how they were historically taught? What is at the root of our perceptions? Every child needs freedom and every child needs structure. Personalizing the project based on a calculated balance of these needs, putting in place appropriate scaffolds and removing them as students gain efficacy, and asking students to reflect on the experience in real time will help us understand that project learning isn’t an extreme, but a meeting in the middle of student potential and teacher support. As Deborah Meier says, “There is a radical - and wonderful - new idea here...that all learners could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world. It’s an idea with revolutionary implications. If we take it seriously.”