6 ways to support kids who don’t take ownership of their learning

You know the exact problem I’m talking about: you’re patiently showing a student how to solve a problem or figure out a process, and the student responds by saying, “Can’t you just tell me the answer?”

Or you’re responding to a student’s question with questions of your own to try to prompt him or her to figure out a solution independently, and the child says, “Can’t you just tell me what to do?”

When kids are unmotivated, the solution is natural: give them more ownership. In more traditional schools, that might mean homework menus where students have a choice about which type of assignment to complete, or other small ways in which kids get to make decisions about their learning. In more progressive schools, we’re seeing an increased focus on project-based learning, Genius Hour, 20% Time, makerspaces, passion projects, and all these wonderful opportunities for students to take charge of their own learning.

These approaches are all designed to make learning more authentic and empower kids to decide what they want to learn about, determine how to learn about it, and choose how they’ll demonstrate their learning. Theoretically, it sounds like the solution: if you make the learning meaningful, kids will be naturally engaged and jump at the opportunity to take ownership.

If your students don’t want to do the work or aren’t doing high-quality work, the problem “must” be that you’re doubting your students and just need to believe in them a little more, and should try entrusting your students with more freedom.

Tips for supporting kids who don't take ownership of their learning

But the reality of what I’m hearing from teachers and what I’m seeing myself in schools doesn’t always quite match that. Even for those of us who believe deeply in helping kids uncover their passions and ask and pursue answering their own questions, the actual implementation of these principles has been a bumpy ride.

It can be tough to get the KIDS on board with student-directed learning. In fact, giving kids more freedom when they’re struggling with the freedom they have is often the worst thing you can do.

Can we get real about the fact that project-based and student-directed learning requires a lot of work not only for teachers, but for KIDS?

Kids don’t always want to do that work. And they don’t always have the skills needed to be successful with that work. If you see that students are resistant to or unsuccessful at directing their own learning, in my opinion, the last thing you should do is throw even more projects at them.

I think we need to back up and consider that it takes an incredible amount of drive, focus, and higher level thinking skills for a child to design and carry out a project or participate in Genius Hour or 20% time. Many of our students are used to being spoon-fed the answers, or only asked to do simpler rote memory tasks. Transitioning from fill-in-the-blank worksheets completed as a class to project-based learning is very daunting for many kids.

6 ways to support kids who don’t take ownership of their learning

Often we’re expecting kids to transition seamlessly between the two learning styles: one minute we’re cramming multiple choice test prep down their throats and the next, we’re asking them to design a project to showcase their research. These tasks require two completely different skill sets, and they foster two completely different attitudes toward learning. It can be very jarring for students when they’re expected to shift seamlessly between the two approaches.

And if the student is working below grade level, this is all the more true. Simple multiple choice questions feel difficult to them: imagine how impossible and frustrating a project must be!

So what are the solutions here? We can’t return to our old teacher-centric ways of doing school. We have to support students in being independent and self-motivated. How do we get kids to go from saying “Just tell me what to do!” to truly taking ownership over their learning?

Here are 6 strategies to consider:

1) Explicitly teach and practice the skills needed for student-directed learning.

Kids need to be taught how to manage their time, persevere when things get hard, problem solve when their plan isn’t working, and organize their thoughts and materials. Pay attention to where kids are hitting the proverbial brick wall and then develop mini-lessons to reinforce those skills. Don’t waste your energy bemoaning that students “should” already have these life skills: be prepared to teach to the students you actually have and support them in developing higher-level thinking abilities.

Growth Mindset Unit: 10 complete lessons, interactive journal for students, growth mindset bulletin board, and printable posters.

This growth mindset unit can help teach students that it’s possible for them learn things that are hard and teaches grit and perseverance.

2)  Give students more choice in little things so they know how to make decisions about big things.

We can’t micromanage our students for one set of tasks and then step back and expect them to work independently on another. We have to allow students freedom in the smaller tasks, too. When they’re asked to do things in a very precise way–such as bubbling in standardized tests–we need to acknowledge the mindset shift that’s required of our kids in this situation. Start by giving kids more choice just in your classroom routines: choosing where to sit, which assignment to complete first, and so on. Ask yourself Alan November’s famous question: what am I doing in my classroom right now that I could theoretically turn over to students to do themselves?

3) Give additional structure to the kids who need it.

Some children thrive under open-ended directions: others are terrified of making a mistake or have no idea what to do next. Give the kids in that latter group a little more support: help them create a checklist of steps, and provide them a partner they can check in with if they feel like they’re losing their way. It’s okay to provide more guidance than you’d like for certain kids who need it: scaffold their learning and slowly increase their capacity so that with each successive project, they’re able to be more independent.

How to support kids who don’t take ownership of their learning

4) Explore topics you’re not the expert in and questions that you don’t know the answer to.

Kids get frustrated and beg us to tell them the answers because they know we already know. They see that there’s a clear, right answer that we are dangling over their heads and saying, “Just a little higher! You can do it! Come on!” How frustrating that is for kids, and no wonder they want us to make that answer a little easier for them to reach. But what if we sometimes explored questions together? What if we said to our kids, “I don’t know the answer; how do you think can we find out?” Show kids that we are ALL learners and model for them how to pursue answers.

5) Pose essential questions which have no right or wrong answer.

In addition to the basic recall questions, there must be some greater, overarching question that compels kids to dig more deeply. “What is the capital of our state?” is important to know (come on, you shouldn’t always be Googling basic facts!) but there are bigger questions that are truly worth answering, too. “How does geography affect destiny? How would your life be different if you were born in the state capital instead of in our small town?” These are questions that students can’t beg you to reveal the answer to because each person has to uncover the answer for him or herself. The responses will be be unique to each individual, which takes some of the pressure off of kids and makes the question more compelling.

6) Let kids help design the learning outcome.

Often students resist creating their own projects or directing their own learning because they know that the teacher already has a set goal in mind, whether we state it outright or try to pretend that kids are in control. They know that we have already envisioned what an A+ project will look like and it’s overwhelming for them to play the guessing game of not only trying to meet that expectation but to also design the learning process to get them there.

So, try creating the outcome together. Ask, “How will we know whether you have achieved your goal? What would it look like to show mastery of this topic? How should we assess your learning? What criteria should go into the rubric?” Then if students try to get you to take over their project or ask “Is this right?” you can say, “This is something you designed. You determined what the outcome would be, so you are capable of determining if you are on the right path. Let’s look at the rubric you created and see how we can get you to the top level.”

No time to read and just skimmed through the post? Listen instead!

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!

Next week: 5 things I learned from quitting my teaching job twice

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go!  A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lorrie January 18, 2016 at 4:11 pm

OH my Goodness!! Did I need to hear this message today. I have been blessed by finding you and your blogs in August as I was beginning my 1st year teaching!! Now I have joined the 40 HTW-Secondary Education FB group and I am thrilled about that too, but today’s message answered so may concerns I have!
As a new Science Teacher, I have read so much about Project Based Learning and I have spent so much time learning about this subject and lessons for it.
I have began with baby steps–POGILS for Biology~I spent an entire weekend printing and reading up on how to do these lessons in a class but I had decided that my kids were not capable of taking ownership of their own learning, so I backed up and I have started by having them do the 1st section of questions on their own and I will not give them the answers–and yes, I’ve been asked to just give them the answers, often.
This last week, we did another one as an assessment as opposed to a traditional quiz. I began by telling the students that some questions did have a specific answer but if it asked what they thought, they were to write it, with some thought, and there would be no wrong answers. If they attempted to answer the questions, then they would get credit. We then went over them with colored pens and they were to write in correct answers. On the “thinking” questions, I asked several people for their answers and they were wide-ranging and a few were even thought-provoking. These do not have answer keys, so I admitted that I didn’t have all of the answers and that our discussion and thinking was what was critical–not a pat answer. This was more by chance than plan and then I hear your post this morning and teachers have come to the same conclusion!!! We will work up to project based learning but 1st we have to learn how to think critically and be bold with our answers! The students will whisper or mumble answers and I am encouraging them to speak up and own their thoughts!! Thinking is more important than Mitosis!!
I will continue following you and all of your many ventures to make my job more enjoyable and rewarding!! I love my kids and I loved seeing them begin to speak up and start discussions!!

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2 Angela Watson January 30, 2016 at 7:23 pm

Hi, Lorrie! How cool to read about these successes. Thanks for taking the time to share them! Looking forward to connecting with you more in the club.

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3 Nicole January 18, 2016 at 8:49 pm

I love and agree with all of the things you’ve said here. What I need help with is mini-lessons that explicitly teach the skills described. It’s hard for me to break it down when those skills are so automatic for me. This would be a great TPT product!

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4 Angela Watson January 30, 2016 at 7:24 pm

That’s something I’ve been wanting to create for years, and never got further than the Growth Mindset lessons. It’s on the long term plan! :)

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5 Esperanza Lopez January 19, 2016 at 10:51 pm

Thank you for this post! I have two thoughts about my own practice.

“Many of our students are used to being spoon-fed the answers…” resonates with me. It is such a struggle to get my students to think for themselves and work through a tough problem. Many are very comfortable waiting until I start to review the content, before answering. It’s not something I allow, and I encourage them to at least try, but there are still those that slip by and only write when I write.

I recently had a mother confess that at the beginning of the year, her daughter would tell her that she didn’t understand the math. Her mom, as any would, advised her to ask me for help. Her daughter replied that she does ask me but that I, “make her try it on her own.” At first, her mom didn’t care for this and wondered why I wouldn’t help her. To both mom and daughter, I wasn’t helping. Now, she admitted that she understands what I am doing. That I am trying to teach her daughter how to work through a tough problem. I truly am helping her by coaching her through with questions to get her moving along. I am helping her by having her analyze her responses to see if they make sense, or are valid. I am helping her by celebrating her successes, no mater how small. I realized that to this family, “helping” translated to giving the answer. I thanked this mom for being honest and thanked her for understanding that I am helping her daughter because if she fails, I fail. I now wonder how many other families have this same idea of “helping.”

“Transitioning from fill-in-the-blank worksheets completed as a class to project-based learning is very daunting for many kids.” That is very true and I had to hear it on your podcast in order for it to make sense to me. I came into this year wanting to do more PBL, however, I found and struggled with the obstacle of my students pushing themselves through the projects. I didn’t realize that the obstacle isn’t because they didn’t want to do the projects, it’s because they truly don’t know how. Thank you for your advice about giving students more choice in the little things so that they can learn how to make the bigger choices. I model making choices and thinking through problems, but I think my kids might need a little more explicit modeling and discussion about it. I now know to take a step back and give them a little more structure and guidance.

Sorry this was so long!

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6 Angela Watson January 30, 2016 at 6:56 pm

Thanks for taking the time to share this! I’m so glad it was helpful for you. I think our first instinct is to assume that resistance means the kids don’t want to do something, but when we dig deeper, their resistance is often because they don’t know how to start or just feel overwhelmed. How wonderful that your students have a teacher who considers that!

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7 Jamie Tallent January 23, 2016 at 4:31 pm

Very helpful! Many children are struggling transitioning to project based learning (PBL). A few school districts are switching to PBL and it would be helpful to add in a transtion period for those students new PBL.

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8 Laura January 28, 2016 at 11:20 am

It’s frustrating, but one thing that has helped with teaching the skills of problem-solving and self-directed thinking and learning is that when I start my small group lesson time each day, the rest of the kids are doing literature centers on their own. While I am working with my small group, the other kids work with a partner on little centers where they must read and follow the directions to complete the assignment. I had to model this over and over and by now at this point in the year, it’s working (almost) seamlessly.

I went from 6th graders in September who would stand forever by their desks and say, “I don’t have a chair” (with a stack of chairs three feet away!) to what we are able to do now. So I know that consistent practice is the key. Stay with it! There is hope and there is progress, even if it’s small and slow!

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9 Angela Watson January 30, 2016 at 7:24 pm

Yes! Consistent practice really does pay off.

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10 Laura January 28, 2016 at 11:24 am

The district I’m in has been doing PBL for three years now, and at the start of each school year it takes us about three weeks to model, support, and then release our students to take charge of their own learning. We do PBL Monday-Thursday for one hour, and yes, it has required consistent practice and modeling when first starting out. In fact, it’s necessary to model it again after every school break! Kids seem to forget basic procedures after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break!

Don’t give up! It really does take consistent, intentional practice!

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11 Lorrie January 28, 2016 at 10:20 pm

Do you have some specifics as to how you prepare and model the PBL for your students? I’m a 1st year teacher who imagined I could handle this but I don’t know where to begin~

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12 Laura January 29, 2016 at 10:00 am

Hi, Lorrie!
Ok, here’s what I do, week-by-week for the 1st 3 weeks:

Week 1
* Group your students yourself (don’t let them pick)
* Make sure each group has the exact same project (in my school, each group has a different project which is insane because it’s total chaos in the beginning, so I break away from that and just have each group doing the same thing for the first 3 weeks. I’ve never gotten “in trouble” for this). I also help them plan out what they can get done each day of the PBL activity, as in “See how we have 8 things that have to be done? Let’s estimate how long each one might take, and whether or not we can divide up the tasks between the group members to make it go faster. Let’s write all this down and then we’ll use that as a checklist for each day.”
* I model with the class exactly how to approach the PBL each day of that first week. So I basically do the project with them, reading aloud the instructions and whatever passages or booklets go with it. I think aloud with them to show that you have to actively read, stop, think, etc. I get feedback and ideas from the kids and write them on the board (I have them also record ideas on a clipboard I give each group so they get in the habit of listening to each other and writing things down).
* I model each aspect each day, making sure I read aloud, think aloud, and listen because that’s what I want them to do once they start working on their own.
* I also talk with the kids about how there are different aspects of the PBL activity that might be better for some kids to do than others and to use that to their advantage. For instance, I’m good at drawing (so I’ll draw the things that have to be drawn). You have the best handwriting, so you write these parts of the project. This person is really good at building things and making new things out of old things, so that’s who will be in charge of, say, putting things together and then we’ll help (One of our PBL’s was building a model of the Great Wall of China, so in a 3-person group had one kid writing and labeling everything, one kid took over the drawing/coloring aspects, and the other kid found cardboard pieces and used them to literally start building the wall). So we talk a lot about our personal strengths and weaknesses and how to use them when dividing up the work.

I do this for 3 weeks!!! But once that’s done, the rest of the year goes much smoother.

And I gradually release them from me holding their hands, like this:

Week 1: I do everything with them (even though they’re in groups, I still treat it as a whole-class activity)
Week 2: Keep the groups the same just to eliminate throwing in another new concept. This time, I back off a little. For instance, I’ll do the reading aloud to continue modeling how important it is to read everything first. They have a tendency to skip the reading and try to go right to creating the product. So I’ll read aloud but then release the “think aloud” part to the groups. I move around the room to ensure that they are using the clipboards to record their “think aloud” ideas.
Week 3: I back off even further. Together, we go over what is in the PBL “toolbox”. Like, here are all the things we have to read first, here’s the actual product we have to create… Ok, now work with your group to figure out what you can get done each day. Who is going to do what? What can you do together, and what can you split up / divide up to lessen the work load? Then I move from group to group, checking to make sure that they have written down what they are each doing each day. I talk a lot about how it’s flexible and that what they write down is not written in stone. It’s ok to make changes if, say, by Wednesday they realize that something they’re working on is going a lot faster than they originally thought and so it’s ok to deviate a little from what they originally planned.
Week 4: They’re pretty much on their own.

One important thing to consider is that I really have to “remind” them of these routines and expectations after each long school break. I’ve found that in general, kids want to slack off and say “I forgot” after Thanksgiving or Christmas or Spring Break.

Hope that helps, Lorrie!

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13 Laura January 29, 2016 at 10:33 am

I have a planning chart I use with my students to help THEM take control of their PBL.

Email me at contact@languageartsteachers.com and I’ll send it to you. I don’t know how/if I can attach anything here!

Week 1
* I group my students myself and we use the planning chart to plan/organize who will do what tasks throughout the week (our PBLs are designed to be one week long, each. Students have one hour each day just for PBLs) The point is to show my students that they must read everything first and then plan out what supplies they’ll need, who will do which tasks, estimate how long each task will take, etc. All that is on the chart I have them use.
* I model EVERYTHING! I pull out all the materials in front of them (they pull out theirs). I read aloud, stop and think, write down ideas (and they do the same). Then I continue reading aloud a little more, stop and think aloud, let them think aloud… I write down ideas and they write down ideas. I keep doing this until I’m done reading through the project requirements. It’s important to model for them that you HAVE to read everything FIRST and plan/estimate what will need to be done each day to get it all done by Friday.
* Also talk with them about how we all have strengths and weaknesses. How can we use those strengths to make the best project possible? For instance (the PBL we had one time was to build a model of the Great Wall of China): In one group, John is the best at drawing/coloring so he will draw/color the wall and the surrounding scenery. Amy is really good at making things fit together and building stuff, so she brought in cardboard scraps and starting literally building it. Gracia had the best handwriting, so she took on the job of labeling and writing everything.
Week 2: I step back a little by still doing read-alouds of all the instructions and any and all booklets along with think-alouds (If you don’t get this down, the kids will tend to skip the reading parts and immediately try to start creating the project. So then they’re “done” by the second day and it’s not even correct because they ignored the background reading and most of the instructions!) I let them figure out the planning chart aspects and I roam around the room ensuring that they are really thinking logically about how long each day’s activities will take and who will be able to do what.
Week 3: I have students do the reading/thinking/planning on their own this week. I am totally active though, in that I sit down with each group a few minutes at a time and check their planning progress as well as ask questions about what they’ve read and how they’re dividing the tasks throughout the week.

By Week 4, they’re pretty much on their own and at the end of class I put a little stamp on the planning sheet if they accomplished their goal for the day. They’re in sixth grade, but they love getting my little stamps, so it makes it kind of fun that way!

I hope that helps. Just remember that it’s a really good idea to at least reinforce this process after any long school break (Christmas, Spring Break) because they do tend to “forget” what they’re supposed to do sometimes!

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14 Angela Watson January 30, 2016 at 6:44 pm

Thanks so much for sharing this!

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15 Andrea February 14, 2016 at 10:10 pm

Incredibly valuable information with something I have been struggling with. Do you have any specific information how to support transient students? We have many students coming and going throughout the year.
Thank you again everyone.

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16 Laura February 14, 2016 at 11:24 pm

I’ve been where you are as far as transient students. They come and go, sometimes more so around the beginning or end of the month when rent is due. No joke– this really happened at one school where I taught English. Anyway, I make sure to say something each day to those kids. “Hey, I’m glad you’re here today!” Or you notice a soccer shirt they’re wearing and you say “Do you play? What position? Got a game coming up?” Just say something each day and that makes a huuuuuge difference. Not all the time, but for some kids it does help.

As far as academics, figure out a way each day to mention something about how that skill or that piece of knowledge will be useful to them forever! It’s ok to even be silly or to use a sense of humor if that’s what it takes. “This vocabulary unit we’re about learn has $25 dollar words in it! You know what that means? It means that you are going to sound so smart, you’ll totally impress the dad of your next girlfriend. And then you’ll get to stay out later on you date! See, it’s all about impressing the dad, right? These vocabulary words will work for you!”

Ok, that’s kind of silly, but you’ll get the new / transient kids interested and at least willing to listen. It doesn’t hurt your other kids, either. It’s just that these transient students need to know you care about them and that you notice they are there.

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17 Andrea February 15, 2016 at 10:57 pm

Yes, I agree, building relationships is very important. I was wondering specifically about what to do when students transfer in without the skills or benefit of weeks of being taught the skills. It is disruptive when a new student shows up and students are in the middle of a project and we add someone new to their team. Maybe just have them shadow someone for a week or two?

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18 Andrea February 14, 2016 at 11:36 pm

Thank you Laura and I agree,building relationships is really important. I was thinking more along the lines of how to support them walking into a class where teams are in the middle of a project or we are deep into the semester. I feel like they are at such a disadvantage not having the weeks of being explicitly taught the student-directed learning skills. Many times a new student comes in and it can be very disruptive to the established teams/learning environment because they don’t have these skills. Maybe a student buddy could be assigned for them to shadow for a week or so?

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19 Kate March 17, 2016 at 4:54 pm

Maybe you may have a student with hidden disabilies but is also intelligent aka twice exceptional learner in your classrooms. These students are often accused of being unmotivated and lazy. Often these students know the answers but don’t like speaking up or drawing attention to themselves.

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20 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 9:13 am

Excellent point. There is not necessarily a correlation between motivation levels and ability.

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21 Ben DeBruin August 8, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Great topic and post Angela. We’re going feature this post in our upcoming newsletter (EdScoop). The mindshift students (and teachers, parents, etc) have to go through is a process, not the flip of a switch. If you’re not familiar with Project Foundry, check it out. We not only keep track of everything going on in this kind of learning, but also help people step into it at their own pace, to ensure the best chance of success.

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