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When we as teachers think of our work, we tend to focus on what we need to teach. When we plan we tend to look at the textbook, the content standards, the district pacing guide, or even last year’s lessons.  

And when we think of each lesson, each unit, and even the year, we become overwhelmed with what we need to cover. Deep down we know that we will not be able cover everything, but we don’t have a way to decide what to leave in and what to leave out.

Because when we start with what we need to cover, the focus is on the content and pacing. This approach begs the question: Where are the students in this?

The simple fact is that if we want them to take ownership of their learning, students need to come first.

This means flipping our typical approach to focus less on what we need to teach and more on what students need to learn—today, tomorrow, and for the rest of the year. True student ownership begins when the teacher looks at curriculum from the student’s point of view.

Developing Student Ownership in Curriculum

Learning Framework: Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment, Climate

© Elevated Achievement Group, Inc.

What does this mean? This means in the area of curriculum, every student needs to know and be able to articulate:

  • What they are learning,
  • Why they are learning it,
  • How they will demonstrate mastery of the learning,
  • How applying the learning in various ways (listening, speaking, reading, writing) supports mastery,
  • How the current learning relates to previous and subsequent learning,
  • How they can use the learning in the future,
  • What curriculum materials they are using,
  • How these materials support the learning,
  • What other materials they could use in the future to continue this learning, and
  • Why articulating these aspects of curriculum helps them own their learning.

Standards-Based vs. Content-Based Curriculum

Our focus as teachers needs to be on our students and how to help them what they are learning. How do we achieve this?

The best place to start is by assuring that all learning is driven by a standards-based curriculum with measurable and achievable outcomes that are accessible to all students.

This is different from a content-focused curriculum, in which teachers try to get through a certain amount of content (e.g., finish the book) by the end of the year.

Instead, a standards-based curriculum is student-focused, incorporating outcomes that define what a student should know (content) and be able to do (skills) by the end of a course, unit, or lesson.

How Backward Mapping Can Help

If we are going to implement a student-focused curriculum, we need to change our typical planning process from one that starts at the beginning (of the textbook, standards, or list of required content) to one that starts with the end in mind (what students are expected to know and be able to do as a result of the learning).

For students to be able to answer questions about what they are learning and why, they need to know the plan. And for us to be able to share that plan with students, we need to know where they’re heading.

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe describe this process in their book, Understanding by Design:

Plan with the end in mind by first clarifying the learning you seek—the learning results. Then, think about the assessment evidence needed to show that students have achieved that desired learning. Finally, plan the means to the end—the teaching and learning activities and resources to help them achieve the goals. We have found that backward design, whether applied by individual teachers or district curriculum committees, helps avoid the twin sins of activity-oriented and coverage-oriented curriculum planning.”

Teachers who backward plan have the ability to tell students:

  • What they are learning,
  • When they are learning it,
  • How they will apply the learning, and
  • How they will continue revisiting the learning to deepen their understanding.

Students who know the plan have the ability to articulate:

  • What they are learning,
  • When they are learning it,
  • How they will apply the learning, and
  • How they will continue revisiting the learning to deepen their understanding.

When we utilize backward mapping, we give students the opportunity to own their learning by first understanding—and eventually owning—their curriculum.

What Does Student Ownership Look Like and Sound Like?

Student ownership is a process. Once students have been told what they are learning, have discussed it, have shared it, and then begin to articulate it—this information will drive their taking control of their learning.

So, when asked, “What are you learning?” what does an answer that demonstrates ownership sound like, at the highest level?

From a first grader during English:

“We are learning to use details from the story to describe the characters. They help us understand the character better. When I write a story, I make sure to include details about my characters. And now, when I read other stories, I use details to help me understand them better. I get to practice this a lot because the teacher reads to us and we have a lot of books to choose from.”

From a third grader during Science:

“We are learning about the cause and effects of evolution. When changes happen in the environment, some organisms survive, some move, and some die. We are gathering examples of each. I will be writing an essay about a specific organism to show whether it would live, move, or die in different habitats. I have to use evidence to support my ideas.”

From a seventh grader during History:

“We are learning about the relationships between geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures in various civilizations. In two weeks, we will put together a slide presentation on one of the civilizations. Right now, we are learning how to cite textual evidence. My document is a map of the Arabian Peninsula. I will use Cornell notes to take notes. This will help me make sure I have accurate evidence.”

From a ninth grader during Algebra:

“We have been learning how to make approximations when we are solving problems. Right now, we are solving some problems that practice using units to solve problems. We will use our approximations and math solutions with units to justify our answers. I use the mathematical practice of approximations to make sure my thinking is robust and that the math makes sense.”

In each of these examples, the students clearly understand what they are learning, why they are learning, and how they will demonstrate their learning. In each of these examples, the students clearly had teachers who supported the ownership of learning.

The Strategic Learning Practices for Curriculum

What can teachers do so students can take ownership of their curriculum? We must model the thinking behind the ownership and explicitly teach those skills. This takes strategic planning to provide students with the support they need to answer those fundamental curriculum questions: “What am I learning?” “Why am I learning this?” and “How will I demonstrate this learning?”

Teacher working on lesson plans

© Shutterstock/Asia Images Group

In our work with teachers, Elevated Achievement focuses on the three practices that research shows increase the opportunities for learning—by increasing the opportunities for student ownership.

These strategic learning practices in the area of curriculum are the following:

  1. Each and every student is supported by relevant standards with measurable and achievable outcomes that are accessible and that drive all learning.
  2. Each and every student is supported by units and lessons that provide an integrated approach and that support conceptual redundancy of the learning outcomes.
  3. Each and every student is supported by access to curriculum materials that match the content and rigor of the learning outcomes.

These practices can easily be incorporated into everyday classroom routines, with the effect of increasing student ownership and elevating student achievement. But, we must strategically decide when and to what effect.

For now, it’s enough to recognize that we as teachers have it in our power to help students take ownership of what they are learning through the choices we make each day. By being strategic in our curriculum choices, we can help students own what they are learning and thereby elevate their academic achievement.

The Learning Brief

In this article you learned…
  • We as teachers need to flip the typical approach to curriculum planning on its head to focus less on what we need to teach and more on what students need to learn.
  • The best place to start developing ownership in curriculum is by assuring that all learning is driven by a standards-based curriculum with measurable and achievable outcomes that are accessible to all students.
  • Three strategic learning practices can greatly help students achieve ownership of the curriculum and thereby elevate their academic achievement.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Can you imagine building an environment full of motivated, engaged, and eager students who own their learning?
We can.

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