Schools seldom have cultures that support student agency and ownership. The exceptions are schools such as the Free and Democratic schools that practice radical ownership and Montessori which promotes a more structured kind. All of these demonstrate trust of the student and provide the student with meaningful autonomy and opportunities to gain mastery. This is ingrained in the fabric of their culture. However, schools that focus on ownership may often (though not necessarily) have less focus on academic rigor.

Most school cultures, however, in the interest of academic achievement, are highly controlling, leaving little room for students to take ownership of their learning themselves. Even when a school sets student ownership as a goal, the pervasive culture will fight that goal at every turn.

There needs to be room for students to take ownership of their learning and teachers to take ownership of their teaching while maintaining academic rigor. This means no more scripted curriculum but rather agentic personalized learning environments. For nearly all schools, this will mean a shift from a controlling, standardized environment to one that offers increased autonomy to students. But changing the processes and goals will have little effect as long as a controlling culture is in place. First, changing the culture has to become the priority.

The now nearly ubiquitous industrial culture backfires when teachers don’t have the conditions to take ownership but are expected to somehow push kids toward narrow measures of success. In a counterproductive culture:

  • Teachers feel powerless to achieve their externally set goals
  • Teachers feel it’s dangerous to focus on any part of their job other than drilling students in facts and procedure to pass high stakes tests
  • Good teachers feel helpless to really help the kids they serve and often leave the profession
  • Great teaching is often not recognized because of the narrowness of the success metrics
  • Teachers experience tremendous stress and often drop into a state of learned helplessness

A more effective culture occurs when teachers have more autonomy and where excellence is measured in good part by the judgment of their fellow educators. Under a new culture:

  • The professional judgment of the educators in the building counts when it comes to recognizing excellent teaching.
  • Teachers are accountable to each other and their principal for continual, measurable improvement  in academic achievement, workforce skills, and increased student agency.
  • Teachers experiment with agentic pedagogies to make their classrooms more and more engaging and challenging.
  • Teachers and students are working harder than ever, but instead of grinding it feels like “hard fun.”