Why does ownership matter in learning? – The elevator speech

So the million dollar question I get all the time from meeting new people is this:

“Oh so you are a doctoral student… Well tell me about what you are doing?”

In this frightening¬†moment, I have to explain basically my entire reason for research existence in under three minutes. We call this the dreaded “elevator speech” (ES).

The ES is probably one of the best gauges for a person’s dissertation. If you can’t convey what you are talking about in under three minutes to a total stranger or your grandma, you probably don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Sure, out there in “theory land” lies a huge amount of background knowledge, methods, and philosophical concerns. However, I think it’s always a good exercise to try to get that ES out there really as neat, concise, and easy to understand piece for everyone reading. So here’s my ES for my dissertation. I’m hoping to tighten it down better so that I can say something that is somewhat coherent at my presentation at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences in Sydney.

As a warning, if you ask me what my ES is tomorrow, or the next day, or in the next several months, I guarantee it’s going to change. Hey, it will probably change the day right before I give the final defense. But, I think it’s always good practice to get this out there and see if a general audience understands what I’m talking about.

So here goes nothing…

Why does ownership matter in learning?

So, for many of you, science (and learning for that matter) is super boring and dull. What you learn in school often doesn’t connect at all to anything you do at home or with your friends. For example, take the concept of chemical equilibrium. Did you know that equilibrium is established when the rate of reactant formation equal to the rate of product formation? I’m guessing that unless you are a chemist (or some Jeopardy geek) you probably didn’t know this. A lot of what you get from schooling is often disconnected from daily life. I’m going to also guess that when you go grocery shopping, the topic of chemical equilibrium doesn’t quite come up in conversation. Chemical equilibrium is hardly a topic you’d bring up to someone you are attracted to (unless they are a hot chemist).

So a lot of what we learn in school remains inert, barely making it to the surface of our personal lives. And you know what happens? Well a lot of really smart people in education have found out that students don’t learn very well this way (SHOCKER!!!). In fact, students have been telling educators for years that what they are learning is boring, not important for the real world, and that students don’t have much of a choice in what they want to learn. So this is a pretty big problem… On one hand, schools are here to help prepare learners to make really important choices and tasks. But often times, students aren’t able to make important choices in school that pertains to what they want to learn, how they want to learn, when they want to learn, and even if they want to learn.

In the research community, we call this lack of control for students learning, the idea of “ownership”. Again, lots of really smart and important education people have found out years ago that ownership is something that is really important for students. If students don’t have a sense in ownership of what they are learning, students tend to shut down. This is particularly a problem in science education, but I have a feeling it’s a problem throughout many fields of education. So, a lot of these researchers argue, “hey, our educational system really ought to help students develop a sense of ownership in their science learning!”

Wow, brilliant huh?!

Well there’s a problem. The big issue I’ve found is that, what exactly is this ownership thing we are talking about? So on one hand, people say, “hey students need ownership in learning.” However, no one really has quite figured out, well how do you do this and more importantly, how do you do this effectively? Specifically, people talk a lot about ownership having a connection to a person’s self-identity, power relations, communities, and personal goals. So when we talk about ownership, we can’t just say, “oh, students need to develop ownership in the learning process, that’ll get ’em going.” Instead, we need to be more specific about how we think ownership is evolving in students, what exactly students are owning, can ownership be sustained, and how do other people affect a student’s ownership.

So all of this probably sounds like what my friends called, “hippie teaching.” Can’t we just make students learn, get them to pass exams, and move on with life? Why do we have to think about all this ownership feelings and hugging and stuff? Well, somewhere down the line educators are going to have to address this topic. Even if students pass exams and force knowledge into their heads, guess what, students pretty much forget everything the next day. I remember times where I didn’t care about anything I learned; I needed the grade so I crammed in everything I could the night before an exam. I passed those exams and in some cases I aced them. But as predicted, I forgot everything the next day. I didn’t care much for the knowledge I saw in class, I just wanted the grade. And sadly, me (and I’m sure many others) walked away with very little from our classes. But the times I truly cared about the knowledge and felt I could have ownership and control over it, that’s the time I really walked away with something. I still remember the lessons on engineering and team work when I cared about making my balsa wood bridge in 8th grade.

So what I’m trying to figure out in my dissertation is if people say ownership is important in science learning, we ought to study it closely. To get a better idea of what’s going on, I’m examining four students in a place called Kitchen Chemistry (KC). KC is designed as a learning environment that encourages students to make choices and decisions about what they want to learn and how they want to learn science in the context of cooking. Using a case-studies analysis, I’m trying to find patterns and similarities in how these students act and what actions they take that helps us better understand ownership.

If we can better understand how ownership evolves, how it changes over time, and how to sustain it, we might be able to develop learning environments and technological tools that can help out with this issue. However, the big warning here is that I also think ownership is a double edge sword. My dissertation will cover the pros and cons of ownership; how ownership of learning helps and hinders learners. The big argument I’m trying to make is, ownership in science learning is really complex. Curriculum developers, researchers, and teachers need to be careful when they invoke the term ownership, but more importantly, they should think carefully about how to build learning innovations that could face these challenges.

Whew… Let’s see if I can do this…

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