How Can We Get Students To “Own Their Own Learning”?

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The release last week of international benchmark testing scores spurred the usual laments about where the United States stacked up, notes Maureen Downey of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

As always, Asian countries took the crown in math and science performance. Among the 60 countries that participated in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the United States ranked 11th in fourth-grade math, 9th in eighth-grade math, 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science.

American students still lack the math mastery of other nations. For example, 7 percent of U.S. eighth-graders scored at the advanced level in math, compared with 48 percent in Singapore and 47 percent in South Korea. So, what’s the answer? Two panels of experts tackled that issue at a Washington Post online forum last week.

‘It starts with a real recognition of the importance of education,’ said Anthony Wilder Miller, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

The economic downturn has underscored that importance, said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, noting that between 2009 and 2012, four out of five jobs lost were among people with a high school diploma or less. Today, 40 percent of Americans hold an associate degree or better. ‘Virtually all the new jobs being created are for people with associate degrees or college degrees,’ Merisotis said.

Panelists agreed that the goal was not simply creating more degree-holders, but more lifelong learners. ‘Shooting to have all students graduate from high school is nowhere near a high enough aspiration,’ said David Conley, CEO of the Education Policy Improvement Center. ‘And if we design high schools to get students to graduate, we have failed. We’ve got to get the schools to focus on students continuing on beyond high school, because learning is going to be a lifetime activity for our young people, and getting them to learn how to learn is just as important as what they’re learning.’

The experts concurred that personalized learning is vital to keeping students engaged and in school. They urged opportunities for learning outside school, such as practicums, internships and apprenticeships. ‘Right now, most learning is following directions,’ said Conley, advocating for a shift from compliance-based learning to an emphasis on teaching children to manage their time, to persist and not give up, and to take control of their own learning.
‘One of the great ironies is that we are headed into an age where students can get almost any piece of information off their phones,’ he said. ‘Yet, what we are doing is getting more and more information into their heads. The goal is to go beyond that and make them understand that they have to own their own learning.'”

There are some good insights here, but David Conley endorses a common misconception in his comments in the last paragraph. Getting a “piece of information” off one’s phone is not the same as building a broad base of factual knowledge, which is itself a prerequisite for developing cognitive skills. Acquiring both knowledge and skills is how people come to “own their own learning.”

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