Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Five Suggestions For Establishing Student Ownership

In the traditional scenario, the teacher tells the struggling student to "reach for the stars."  Other versions of the same tale are told as examples of trying to inspire students by explaining that their potential is limitless.  Sure, reminding students that you believe in them and know they are capable of better is important.  However, focusing only on the mythical heights of potential might be cutting out an important piece of the process.

When students are not working to their potential, it is natural to want to inspire them to do better.  You give examples of wonderful work the student has done.  You tell stories about former students and use their experiences to inspire your current student.  You repeat how much you care and how much you are there to help.  Sometimes, this works...for a while.  But eventually, unless the student learns to take ownership of his or her work, old habits will come back and the student will, once again, struggle.

The important piece to this puzzle is the learning to take ownership.  We use this term (or ones like it) with students, but most students really do not know what taking ownership is, nor do they have much of an idea about how to begin doing  it.  The traditional scenario (see above) involves the teacher trying to create a vision of achievement designed to inspire the student.  After which, the student, transformed by this vision, makes the decision to work harder, focus more, and engage actively in the learning process.

However, there are some potential pitfalls with this one sided strategy.

1.  The vision of what "can be" is espoused by the teacher with little or no input form the student.  Therefore, student buy-in is low.  A shared vision has a better chance of being realized.

2.  The vision rarely includes any changes on the part of the teacher.  In other words, the burden of reaching for the stars is almost entirely placed on the student.

3.  Striving to reach a higher level of achievement is difficult (or at least it should be).  Difficult goals are better achieved when the student is able to break them down into smaller, more direct steps.  Focusing on small victories builds momentum and adds up to large wins.  Teachers need to be prepared to help students identify these specific, smaller steps towards progress.

4.  The inspirational vision ignores failure or what to do if the student falls short.

The point here is not to devalue having a vision of success or believing in the potential for all students to do better.  The point here is to recognize that ONLY hoping to inspire students to higher achievement is not a complete plan.  In order to complete the plan, students must begin to take ownership of their work.  Unfortunately, as mentioned above, students often need help learning how to take ownership.

So, how can teachers change their approach to helping students achieve better?  What elements can teachers  add to the traditional approach that would present a more complete plan for students?  What can a teacher do to help a student begin to take ownership?

Here are five suggestions.

1.  Included the student in the crafting of the vision of success.

Ask the student what a successful experience looks like.  What is the student doing when she is successful?  What type of results would suggest success?

2.  Explain what ownership is and why it is important.

Ownership is not the same as being left on your own.  Ownership is being committed to a standard of quality that exists in everything you do.  Ownership is being responsible.  Ownership is being honest.  Ownership is knowing when to ask for help.  Ownership is accepting that success is better achieved when you take an active role in developing the relationships needed to support your efforts.

3.  Help the student define and commit to their MINIMUM STANDARD OF SUCCESS/SATISFACTION.

This may sound counterproductive.  Why would you want to focus on the minimum when you are trying to discover the maximum?

Here's why.

Unless the student knows where his bottom line is, they cannot hold themselves accountable for any of their results.  In other words, at what point does the student look at their work and accept it as satisfactory?  Once that minimum level is defined, they must stick to it.  The minimum also provides a clear foundation from which the student can define better.  If the minimum isn't known, how can he clearly envision better?  Better than what?

The rule here is to remind the student that the minimum is the lowest acceptable outcome, effort, etc. for everything she does.

4.  Support self-accountability by developing an if/then protocol.  

Every time the student gets feedback, they should measure that feedback against their minimum standard.  Once they do so, they should go through an if/then exercise.

"If I met my standard, then I will __________ ."
"If I did not meet my standard, then I will __________ ."

5.  Schedule check in and follow up meetings.

One of the toughest parts of any plan is the follow through and check ins.  it takes discipline and organizational skills to stay on track and having regular checks with the student will help you and her maintain focus and momentum.  At these meetings, remember to ask if anything has changed since the last meeting, any positives to celebrate, or any new challenges that have emerged.

Helping students appreciate and work towards better results is an important part of being an educator.  While it would be great if every student responded to the cheering and inspirational mantra we like to share, the reality is that, for many students, success needs a more specific and pragmatic approach.  Establishing a foundation from which student ownership is developed is a powerful way to support the long term growth of your students.
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