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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Who Owns the Patent on Learning?

By Peter DeWitt — January 26, 2013 4 min read
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Educators, as well as parents, have the opportunity to inspire students to want to gain ownership over their own learning.

It seems as though, given our social networking tools, educators debate, argue or talk about everything.

• Technology is bad...
• Technology is good...
• Data-driven instruction is good...
• Data-driven instruction is bad...

Perhaps these conversations always take place in person but they look different when they are Tweeted out. I know that sounds odd but things look different in print. It makes onlookers step back and say, “Did they just say that?”

Recently, I jumped on Twitter for a few minutes of passive entertainment at the same time some educators were arguing/discussing/debating where they learned to read. One person said teachers taught her how to read and another said teachers had nothing to do with it. It was an interesting conversation to watch take place because I think all of the parties involved were making valid points. Unfortunately, given the limitations of 140 characters prevented them from finding common ground.

Their conversation about reading made me think about the debate over student-centered and teacher-directed learning. Every educator has an opinion about how kids learn best and as the stakes get higher in education, everyone wants to show they have ownership in student learning. It makes sense. After all, if educators don’t show their importance in how students learn, they worry that they will be obsolete, or at least, left out of a conversation they never really feel apart of at the state and national level.

Too many people want ownership over someone else’s learning, when really, everyone has a part in it. Teachers, parents, principals, other peers, even relatives have the ability to teach children something. One of the criticisms of homework is that it is a way to extend a teacher’s reach to the home. There is a loss of balance between students having ownership over what they learn outside the confines of school walls and teachers taking ownership over what the student learns at home as well as school.

Part of the problem is when the desire to have ownership guides everything we do. Let’s face it, policymakers and politicians want that control over what schools teach. True teachable moments or opportunities to learn can be found all around us. Educators, as well as parents, have the opportunity to inspire students to want to gain ownership over their own learning.

Who Made Who?
In the end, no one owns the patent on learning. All children and adults learn from multiple pathways. We know that we learn when we try to fix something at home (which is when I learn to hire out...), and when we walk into a museum or have a great conversation with another person. The saddest, most difficult, as well as the mediocre and greatest moments can provide us with learning opportunities.

Tragedies - Even our darkest moments can teach us something about ourselves. We find courage when we stand up and move forward. We find ways to improve ourselves when we look inside and try to change what needs changing. We have the opportunity to find the leader within...

Failure- For me, failure has been the best teacher...or at least the most consistent. I have learned what not to do, and learned what to do differently. Let’s be honest...failure stinks. It doesn’t feel good to come in last or create something that people don’t like. It can feel devastating when we don’t feel “good enough.” However, there is nothing sweeter than when you find success again. Failure is a part of life and can be a great teaching tool (The Benefits of Failure).

Parents - Our parents can teach us a great deal. Whether they helped you learn to read or try to teach you right from wrong, our parents have the most profound impact on us...or at least they should. I lost my dad 31 years ago and still learn from the legacy he left behind. He was not a professional athlete or a famous coach. He was an electrician at General Electric and taught me that family comes first. Something that my staff knows I value. Our parents teach us a lot when they are here and long after they are gone...if we are open to it.

Sadly, many people don’t want to learn from their parents. They think they know better. They fault their parents for something, and I am not talking about neglectful or abusive parents. I am referring to our average everyday kind of parent. Our parents grew up differently, and we did not walk in their shoes but they always want to help guide us as we walk in ours.

Peers - Positive peers can teach us a great deal. When I was growing up, I surrounded myself with good people. It was the smartest thing I did. Whether we stayed friends for a few years before we moved on in different directions, the friends I had treated me very well, even at times when I didn’t treat myself well at all.

Teachers - Everyone had a mixture of teachers they will always remember and a few they would rather forget. Whether we allowed it at the moment or reflected on their impact long after they were gone, great teachers stay with us forever. I can remember every teacher I had from kindergarten through high school. I’m sure many of you can remember your teachers as well.

In the End
Owning someone else’s learning makes the task all about us instead of all about them. That’s not right. We, as educators, can inspire others and it is very much our job to provide learning opportunities. Overall we do not own it. We have a hand in it. So the next time you get in a debate about who taught you what, realize you are all right...everyone had a hand in your learning. But no one, not anyone, had a bigger hand in it...than you.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.