Who Owns the Learning in Your Classroom?

It took me years to transform my instruction toward a more student-centered approach. This is my story where I share my journey toward student ownership through student choice. 



Listen to the Podcast

Just click on the audio below to listen to this Creative Classroom podcast. You can also listen to it on the go by subscribing on iTunes (ideal for iPhone users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users)


My Journey Toward Student Choice

It was my first year of teaching and this was supposed to be my greatest lesson of the school year. I had planned it for hours, revising every element until it looked flawless. On paper. But now, in the third period of the day, the reality sunk in. My lesson sucked. Students weren’t engaged. They didn’t want to create Civil War newspapers. They didn’t want to follow scripted directions. They didn’t want to follow the prompts I had written. 

A few students looked engaged on the surface. They were listening, answering discussion questions, and participating. A few of them even got excited about drawing Civil War political cartoons. Still, I knew something was missing.

My students didn’t own the learning.

At the time, I viewed teaching as a content delivery system. I worked tirelessly to create content that would be meaningful, fun, and challenging. When students seemed disinterested, I would try and dress it up with more humor or a pop culture twist.

But still, it was always my content and I was always the person delivering it. Don’t get me wrong. Students completed projects. However, these were culminating projects at the end of a unit. And they weren’t really projects. They were more like crafts. Our classroom projects looked nothing like the kinds of projects people do outside of school. I had strict rules on everything from formatting to strategies to pace to style. I handed students project papers that were essentially paint-by-number instructions. It never occurred to me that students could paint their own pictures.

My Students Hadn’t Owned the Learning

Looking back at it, I realize that these projects had always been about me. Here’s what I mean:

  • I chose the resources
  • I chose the content
  • I asked the questions
  • I wrote the instructions
  • I managed the project progress
  • I chose the tasks
  • I wrote the objectives
  • I picked the standards
  • I decided on the format
  • I determined whether or not the work was any good

They were working for me.

Even though I wanted my students to have creative control, I was afraid. Questions swirled around my mind: What if they don’t choose the right thing? What if they check out and don’t care? What happens if they make too many decisions? Will I be a weak teacher? What will this look like for classroom management? What will the principal think of too many people are doing things differently from each other? Won’t students get lazy and selfish if they get to choose? How will I even know what’s going on? What about the ones who don’t know how to handle choice? What about the test? Will I be allowed to do this? What if I don’t have the right materials? What about the curriculum map?

The Tourist Trap (I Chose Entertainment Over Ownership)

Looking back on it, I was a tour guide leading my students through the content. Each lesson was a carefully packaged presentation, where I would entertain my students and point out areas of interest. A few students might ask questions and, on a good day, we would have a discussion.

But we never left the tour bus. We stuck tightly to the route spelled out by the curriculum map, stopping every few days to take on a new standard and tackle a new objective.

When students were bored, I doubled down on the entertainment factor. When they were confused, I simplified my explanations. But we were all going in the same direction at the same pace in the same way. And I was the one driving instruction.

Here’s a picture that illustrates my approach at the time:


We Lost the Map

Then everything changed.

It was a “lame duck” week during state testing. I had one social studies class for 3 hours each day and we didn’t have a curriculum map.

So, I asked my students a simple question, “What do you want to make?”

After a short class discussion, we landed on a documentary project about immigration. Students formed small groups and began researching the topic. What happened next was a mess. I gave mini-lessons on how to conduct interviews, how to shoot video, and how to tell a non-fiction story. I met with students one-on-one to go over how to find more credible sources. We shared scripts back and forth on a shared document.

But things didn’t go smoothly. A few students didn’t finish their parts. We never launched it to a real audience. Some of my “highest performing students” were more frustrated and more afraid than ever before. They had never faced failure before. A few kids were in tears when they couldn’t get something to work.

Still, something emerged from the mess.

My students were different. Students who had never turned in homework before began voluntarily shooting videos on their free time. They were interviewing immigrants in their families and in their neighborhoods. Suddenly, students who had never asked questions in class were asking hard-hitting interview questions. Students who had once told me, “I’m not very creative” were setting up storyboards and editing videos.

They were making history — literally, by recording interviews, adding their own scripts, finding visuals, and then working collaboratively with other teams to create one larger documentary.

They were also empowered. They were excited. They were passionate. They were makers.

But the secret ingredient wasn’t a new maker space or a fancy studio (my students shot the videos on their cell phones). It wasn’t a new program or a district initiative. No, the secret ingredient was ownership. Without the curriculum map, we were forced to go off-road. And, although the road was rocky (hmm . . . rocky road) it was also an epic adventure.

Going Off-Road (The Power of Student Choice)

I spent the next summer analyzing every part of my classroom with a single, driving question:

What decisions am I making for students that they could make for themselves?

It was humbling. I realized that I was working like crazy while my students were bored — or, at best, entertained. That’s when I revamped everything — my class rules, procedures, instructional strategies, lesson plans, projects, and assessments.


I decided we would go off-road.

  • Students decide on the destination: Instead of sticking to the same rigid routes, I would let students explore the content. They would decide on the topics the sub-topics based upon their own geeky interests. 
  • Students asked the questions: Instead of answering a set of predetermined questions, students would ask their own questions based on their own curiosity. Sometimes they would go out on their own and chase a question. Other times, they would ask questions of one another and explore ideas as a group. But they would own the inquiry process. 
  • Students set the pace: The tourist approach requires everyone to stay together in a group. But off-road, students can work at their own pace. Some blaze a trail quickly. Others take their time as they learn the new terrain. But nobody has to be “left behind.” It’s not a race or a contest. It’s an epic adventure. 
  • Students select the tools: Instead of requiring students to finish specific activities, they would have the option of using whatever tools they find helpful. So, maybe one student needs notecards. Another prefers a spreadsheet. They would own the tools and decide on the strategies as they engage in the projects.
  • Students decide when they need help: All scaffolding would be optional and students would have to self-select it. I realized that I had created more and more scaffolding not realizing that I was really creating a cage and boxing in my students. 

I was terrified.

I was afraid that students would be lazy. Instead, they worked harder, because they cared about their work. I was afraid they would get confused and give up. Instead, they took more creative risks. I was worried we wouldn’t get to all the standards. Instead, students spent more time on the skills they needed to hone and less on the ones they needed to master. I was terrified of the test but we always remained in the top half of the test scores.

It didn’t always work perfectly. I had projects that tanked. I had moments when I over-edited and acted like one of those parents who gives too much help in a project. We had moments when students were rushed and didn’t finish at all. We had too much structure and then not enough structure. And, even on the best days, there were some students who were feeling unmotivated.

Even now, I’m still on this journey of student choice. I still talk too much in class. I still make too many decisions. I still have a hard time letting students self-manage.

But I’m convinced that the answer is to empower students with more voice and choice in their learning. When that happens, they become the creative, life-long learners we know they can be.


Empower (my new book) will be released soon!

Get my email updates and be notified when Empower is released (and get your free bonuses)!

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

2 responses

  1. […] Who Owns the Learning in Your Classroom? – John Spencer […]

    1. Hi John
      I had the class you were referring to above this year. No one looked up at me and for the most part all were on their social media networks. I
      Although I understand self-directed learning, you still have to cover subject content and if they at not interested how do you change that approach? I teach in GE and many times it is a means to an end. I do not know how to reverse this mentality. Any suggestions?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *