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10 Tips to Teach Students to Own Their Work

"Help will always be given at Hogwarts for those who need it," Albus Dumbledore said so famously in J.K. Rowling's' extremely famous Harry Potter series, and as teachers, (and parents) we want desperately to provide children with the help they need to be successful with their learning.

What if, however, our help becomes a crutch, crippling them with being enabled, rather than actual help?

Of course, in the beginning, help is warranted  but at what point do we take off the training wheels and force kids to leap on their own?

This week I had an interesting conversation with a student about the feedback he received from a peer. He didn't agree with it and asked if it was okay to ignore it.

"You have the final say in your work as the author as to what gets changed and what stays. However, remember you got the feedback because the reader was trying to help you. Perhaps you don't see what she sees?"

Students always have the right to decline on the feedback provided by me or their peers, but they need to be clear as to why they are. Sometimes stylistically they are trying to accomplish something and this is a means to figuring out their voice. Other times it may just be a misstep. Either way, teachers (and parents) must allow the child to make his or her own decision about it.

Teaching 17 and 18-year-olds are different in many ways from teaching elementary-aged children. I see this really clearly with my own son who is in 5th grade right now. Although many think they know everything at both ages, by the time they are 17, they are much more resistant to change. The system has shaped them and they have learned how not to have to take chances.

It is our job to make sure this changes by the time they leave high school and enter college or the workforce; the only way to be successful in life is fearlessly taking risks that can pay off big either in success or failure. We learn so much from failure.

Here are some tips for helping students to own their learning:

  1. Develop a good relationship with all students to truly understand their threshold. How far can you push them before the pressure becomes too great? We never want to get our students at this point. Productive struggle is necessary for great learning, but too much can be debilitating. We must know our kids.

  2. Scaffold the process so that in the beginning you give them supports with the intention of lessening those supports in the future. 

  3. Be transparent in the process of scaffolding always letting students know that the final intention is for them to work alone. Not that help won't be given if truly needed, but the goal is to get them to be more self-sufficient. 

  4. Give them a process to follow that can works for them. For example, teach other students in the class to provide specific feedback (as suggested in the video) and then the experts in the room can be another source of help as needed. The teacher's word and help CAN'T be the only way. It won't be there forever.

  5. Teach them to trust their own instincts. They are usually more spot-on than they want to give themselves credit for. Give them lots of opportunities to practice, being encouraging while they do.

  6. Always catch kids being awesome. When they do something on their own that is really good for their own learning, let them know you know - tell them. Be constructive and specific, but let them understand what is working so they can replicate the process. 

  7. Provide regular feedback on the work students are doing. Make sure the feedback is not only constructive but also strategic. They need to know how to move ahead in places. Try to avoid being too prescriptive in your advice where they can just cut and paste your ideas. This is their work, not yours.

  8. Build reflection into the process, so that the kids can track their journey. Being metacognitive is a huge part of learning to trust yourself. When we know how we work, we can better-set goals and accomplish them in our learning.

  9. If a student can do it on his/her own, don't do it for them. Provide a safe and encouraging environment to take risks and watch from afar to make sure they are on their way. 

  10. Celebrate student learning often. Whether sharing work on social media, doing a gallery walk, or giving the kids a high five, make sure kids see progress as a positive. It's an experience they will want to build upon for sure.

When students take responsibility for their own learning, they grow more and become accountable for what is in front of them. This experience is what builds into confident adults.

Let's support students instead of enabling them, realizing that too much help is often debilitating.

How do you encourage students to own their learning? Please share

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in October 2015


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