31 January 2014

Ownership of Learning - What does that actually look like?

"Students as owners of their own learning"

Leading teachers through the 'key strategies of formative assessment' (Wiliam, 2011) the one I wrestle with the most is the last one:

  1. Clarifying learning intentions
  2. Eliciting evidence
  3. Feedback that moves learning forward
  4. Students as learning resources for one another (peer assessment)
  5. Students as owners of their own learning (self assessment)

Only because, in a 'traditional' learning environment, such as that I commonly observe in Cambodia, one things that really stands out is the fact that it is commonplace for every single child in the class to work on 

exactly. the. same. thing.

In desperation I searched for a basis to question the validity of this, and the ownership element struck me as an obvious candidate.. except that no matter how much I read I just couldn't find a way to get the literature to say what I wanted it to say, that ownership requires autonomy.

The nearest I could get was that ownership involves, "metacognition, motivation, interest, attribution, self-assessment" (Wiliam & Thompson, 2007)

So ownership is interpreted as meaning self assessment, but what is less clear is the extent to which this is even possible unless the students are able to produce outcomes which are 'unique'.

It is my contention that a situation where every student is engaged in the creation of an outcome which is completely identical to the one next to them, is not one where 'ownership' can really be said to be present. A common practice in Cambodia is to give all students identical tasks to complete, like recreating a document on screen based on an identical hard copy, the goal being for all students to produce something is close to that as possible.

Based on this kind of model, students can self assess, the success criteria are clear, as is the learning intention etc, but my contention is that there can't really be 'ownership' if the outcome is not unique to them in some way.

So does 'ownership' relate to unique outcomes, or not ... in desperation I contacted Mr Wiliam himself, and he kindly responded with,

"... all learning outcomes are personal, since the only way one can learn anything is to make it one's own. 
However, it seems that you are asking something slightly different, which is can the learning of imposed goals ever be truly "owned". And I think the answer to this question is yes. The account of the work of Deci and Ryan in the attached chapter (p. 1081) provides some insight here. As they say, extrinsically motivated learning can still be autonomous..."

So off I went and read the kindly attached article thoroughly, not just the bit he referenced but the whole thing:

Wiliam, D. (2007). Keeping learning on track. Second handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning, 1053-1098.

And what I found was intriguing, you see the very study Dylan cites in defence of the importance of self assessment, actually places as much (if not more) emphasis on autonomy...  Reading further back in the article, to the beginning of section about which this conversation focuses. Reading the study described on p 1078 I can't see how the results could be attributed to self-assessment alone, the clear emphasis on increasing student autonomy has to have been as influential, if not more so. It's strange that the effect is automatically assumed to be solely due to self assessment, without any attempt to differentiate between the influence of those two distinct elements.

"The scores of the students taught by the teachers developing self-assessment improved by 15 points—almost twice as big an improvement." p 1081

Surely they were developing student autonomy to at least as great an extent as their abilities to self assess? In fact it seem to me that the two are synergetic; autonomy facilitates self assessment:

"Finally, in the last 10 weeks, students were allowed to set their own learning objectives, to construct relevant mathematical problems, to select appropriate manipulatives, and to identify suitable self-assessments."

And I'm pleased to report that things are already changing, check out the CHANGE, last week:

So, my respectful apologies Mr Wiliam, but I just can't encourage our teachers to keep managing classes of automatons mindlessly churning out identical outcomes, like a production line.

I think it's a particularly important distinction in the context of Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), as in contexts where teaching is dominated by traditional technologies like the photocopier (class worksheets), there is clearly a lack of autonomy (even if there is motivation, for whatever reason) ... Set them free!


  1. I'd like to know how you're planning to facilitate #4

    1. It's already begun ... The last lesson I FOCUSed on had kids who had completed the first set of instructions getting up and helping each other ... but I guess realistically the plan is to focus on the first 3, then the 2nd two...