Ownership and Independence – The Keys to Learner Agency

by Jean Garrity, Associate Director

Two years ago, I was visiting an elementary classroom in an urban district in southeast Wisconsin. My attention was drawn to an eight year old boy named William. William was one of those busy, active, somewhat disruptive kids. He didn’t believe in “crisscross, applesauce” as his teacher led the morning meeting, and I was curious to see how he behaved when the class moved into their academics. When the time came for their literacy block, William very eagerly grabbed his writing materials and sat down at a table by himself. I asked if I could sit with him and talk about what he was learning. He was furiously checking his notepad, writing and illustrating. He told me that he was making informational books about people he met. When I asked him why he was making these books, he told me that he and his teacher decided that he wasn’t very good at understanding informational text, so they figured if William created his own informational text, he would be better able to understand other authors’ work. I was amazed at this young learner’s clarity of purpose and the ownership he clearly felt over his work.

As learners (like William, for example) move from teacher-directed activities to a position of ownership, they begin to see the real value of their work. The accompanying sense of accomplishment and control over their work gives learners reason to protect, care for and build learning. How can educators support learners like William and increase their sense of ownership?  One strategy is to treat learners more like co-workers and less like subordinates. This requires that educators loosen their grip, and begin to share control of learning with their learners. Scary?  Sometimes, but the results are well worth it.  In addition, encouraging learners to think creatively, to identify real-life connections, and to pursue topics of interest all add to overall ownership of learning.

Learners who own their learning and feel some control over their school lives quite naturally begin to develop the skills necessary to become independent learners. They begin to set goals, make decisions about what they need for their learning, and share responsibility for constructing a learning path. They start to monitor their own progress and assess outcomes of their learning. They collaborate with peers and can learn effectively both by themselves as well as in groups. Independent learners are driven by a sense of curiosity and a need to understand and make sense of the world. They are able to meet learning challenges by employing a variety of strategies, approaches and resources.  

How can educators help learners become more independent?  Start by tapping learner interest and curiosity. Give them meaningful choices – not just a choice over whether to use the blue crayon or the purple crayon to color a worksheet picture. Invite and support learners to set goals that are personally important and meaningful, such as the goal my young friend William set to increase his ability to understand informational text. Allow learners to struggle and experience setbacks by modeling a sense of “okayness” about disappointment and attempts that fall short of success.  Finally, this move toward independence occurs best in a “freedom within fences” frame. Some learners can move toward independence more easily than others. Remember, too, that kids are full of surprises, and sometimes those we believe cannot handle independence are the ones that need it the most and with support can handle it best.

Back to my friend William. When the time came that morning to finish up the literacy block, I thanked him for letting me visit with him. He made a book about me, so of course, he is my most favorite learner ever. I told him I was impressed with his work, to which he replied, “Oh yeah?  Well you should see me in math!” I know that we are going to see great things from William.

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Learner Agency Blog Series
#1: Learner Agency: The Missing Link
#2: Self-Efficacy: The Secret Sauce to Learning Success
#3: Discover the Learner in Every Child
#4: Learner Voice Demonstrates Commitment to Agency


Personalize Learning, LLC (@plearnchat) works with school districts and organizations to transform teaching and learning for all learners. Their model is based on transformation in three areas: changing teacher and learner roles, using Universal Design for Learning® as the lens to personalize learning, and developing a culture of learning based on a shared belief system. For more information, contact personalizelearn@gmail.com or connect with them via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

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