Let Children Lead

The more you hand over to the children, the more they feel in control of their learning. By giving them ownership, I find children buy into the classroom ethos and develop a love for learning. It is empowering for children to see their brilliant ideas come to fruition. For this simple reason, I have always tried to involve the children in designing their learning as much as possible. However, there is a deeper reason to hand over ownership to your students:

“In traditional schools, all the learning design – the topics to be studied, the activities to be done, the layout of the furniture, the displays on the walls – is done by the teacher. That is efficient, but if we do it completely, all the time, we are depriving our students of opportunities to learn how to design their own learning for themselves. And they will need to be able to do that for the simple reason that they will not be followed around for the rest of their lives by an obliging teacher, telling them what to learn and how.”

Professor Guy Claxton, The Learning Power Approach, 2017

The image below shows children planning and writing their own non-fiction pages. They were given the choice of using a writing frame or creating their own. Perhaps not surprisingly, the whole class wanted to design their own frames. We mimicked ideas from other non-fiction books and talked about "being graphic designers". Just by giving the children ownership over the design AND teaching them about spacing, the children were absorbed for hours in their writing and didn't want the project to end!

 
 

This, of course, means bravery on your part – letting go of the reigns a little! It’s absolutely worth it though! The best ideas often come from the children and they are much more likely to come out with those little gems if you create a safe, welcoming and open classroom ethos.

Below, I have set out three examples of “tweaks” you can make to hand over more ownership to your students. The first one is the least “risky” if you like. These examples will allow you to give the children some ownership whilst you have a certain amount of control. The last one is the most “risky” – completely handing over to the children and seeing what they come up with. I would use all levels of ownership in my classroom, choosing which were most appropriate at which time.

Levels of ownership and challenge

Level 1

One simple way you can hand over ownership to children is by giving them a choice about how they present their learning. If you would like to keep some control over this to begin with, you could present them with a “menu” of options – much like you would find in a restaurant. For example, in the photos below, the children are noticing onomatopoeic words in poems. The first set of children are collaborating to record their ideas on a large whiteboard. The other group has used pictures and sugar paper to record their ideas. Giving the children a simple choice of how they could record and who they were going to learn with, resulted in much more buy-in and motivation during the lesson. The children excitedly shared ideas and roles within their group. Of course, as part of this, there would need to be an underlying understanding that the children should choose learning partners who will help them learn. I would highlight to the children that good learning partners are not necessarily their closest friends. Ideas about how to build up this understanding and trust are on the collaboration page.

You can also give the children the option of learning by themselves or with others. This is teaching the children to begin to understand themselves as learner – and it might be different for different children at different times. The point is, the children should sometimes be the ones who decide how they going to learn, not the teacher. It might take a bit of teaching/coaching to help the children understand this.

 

Level 2

Begin to find opportunities to open up discussion with the children about what they think they need to learn next and how they could go about it. I might open up these discussions during fruit and milk, at the end of the day, during a plenary, as the children are going out of the door to play … The idea is, you are letting the children know their ideas are valued and that they have a say over their learning experiences in the classroom.

Once you start to put their ideas into action, the children will begin to understand that their ideas are valued. Then, they will begin to come up with the real learning gems! For example, when learning about ordering numbers to 10, one girl came up with the idea of making hop scotches outside. We used this idea to plan a lesson for the class. Many of them extended themselves to write numbers in words, count in 2’s or count backwards. The lesson was more meaningful to the children because the idea had come from one of them, not the teacher. This also “loosens up” the idea of learning being top-down, from teacher to student – children become the creators of their own learning. Again, see the mixed attainment page for a useful diagram showing this shift in roles.

Combine giving children ownership with a relish of challenge and you then have learning dynamite! One example from my classroom was when we were investigating properties of 2D shapes. We opened with the lesson with the question, “How many 2D shapes can you discover?” One child said, “I’ve come up with a 5 chilli challenge (we only have up to 3!). I’m going to investigate how many shapes I can find with a right angle!” And off she went to discover a rhombus, right-angled triangle and other shapes using geoboards. It’s worth mentioning that this girl is 7-years-old. She hadn’t heard of a right angle until that lesson, let alone any of the many shapes she discovered. She was excited to discover shapes with names her teachers had to clarify and, sometimes, double check with Google!

Level 3

You can also hand over ownership to children with larger scale projects. At Christchurch Infants we centred our learning around a project or end of unit outcome. For example, during our Space topic, an alien spaceship landed and the children had to find a way to return the alien to space; during our “Down the Rabbit Hole” topic, the children worked towards planning a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. I would share this aims of each topic with the children. Then, we would spend the term planning towards the outcome with the children by opening up discussions with them. We’ve had some very animated and creative discussion because we let our imaginations run wild!

We had a Planning Board in the classroom, where we showed the journey of our ideas, which gave each step of our learning real purpose. For example, for the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the children wanted to design and make their own Mad Hatter hats, which led to a lesson about 3D shape. They also wanted to make unusual food and one child had heard of Heston Blumenthal, so we did a capacity lesson through making chocolate soup. They wanted to invite their friends, so we learnt about writing a good invitation. You can imagine how much fun the children had doing this! And we couldn’t have imagined the outcome at the beginning of the topic. This is my favourite kind of learning because the children have true ownership over what they are doing and can direct their learning. This is when the children truly become inspired and you never know where the learning is going to end up!

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