Systems theory tells us that when we optimize one part of a system, the system performance as a whole becomes suboptimal. We contend that in order to achieve breakthrough performance and disproportionate outcomes, it is necessary to manage to metrics that balance each other rather than to continue to optimize one metric to the exclusion of all others. In our schools, we propose using the metrics of academic achievement, workforce skills, and student agency.

However, in most educational institutions, teachers and students are merely expected to “exhibit agency” against the institution’s agenda. That is, they are expected to work independently on things that matter to the institution but may hold little engagement for them. This isn’t real ownership, it’s compliance. It is very difficult to motivate humans to comply without using rewards and punishments, an approach which leads to mediocre outcomes at best.

On the other hand, if students and teachers are expected to take ownership of learning and teaching, the outcomes are astounding. Once people take ownership they don’t need external motivation and the work itself becomes the reward. The quality of student work increases, test scores increase as a side effect, and the need for traditional classroom management is reduced.

Student Outcomes

There are many outcomes we seek for children. We want them to be happy, to be wise, to have friends, to have meaningful work and relationships, to be ethical, curious, thoughtful, kind, generous of spirit, collaborative, creative, tolerant, and any number of other characteristics.

The primary desired outcome of schooling is mastery of core content, but that outcome, as a single metric needs to be balanced so that it doesn’t drive out all other non-cognitive and social-emotional goals that school is charged with. We have chosen the metric of student ownership as a balancing trait to academic mastery.

The tension between these two metrics shows up in day-to-day decision making. Do we take the time to explore a topic deeply, or do we practice skills in the way they will be presented on standardized tests? Because these metrics are in some sense in opposition, the tension between them provides a guide that keeps the culture, and the student outcomes, from becoming too one-sided. And the outcome of student ownership of their learning brings along with it a host of other desirable outcomes.

In fact, the energy that comes from balancing these two metrics can drive disproportionate results. For example, these oppositional outcomes were found to be synergistic by many early implementations of mobile learning. These pioneering programs saw dramatic improvement in student work and/or test scores even as students increased ownership over their learning. These were the programs where teachers and students worked together to find ways to improve learning using technology and student ideas and approaches were respected as valid.

In other words, in these programs the teachers were able to give up some control (though never authority) making room for students to begin taking ownership. This happened in different ways in different programs, but in all cases:

  • Students used their devices for both personal and academic purposes
  • Students had Internet access at school, at home, and at places in between
  • Teachers embraced the messiness and uncertainty of giving up a certain level of control
  • Students felt a connection to each other and the teacher conducting the program
  • Students were encouraged to innovate in how they approached and presented their assignments
  • Teachers innovated in how they used technology for teaching, keeping what worked and discarding what didn’t.

For students in these environments, all the conditions for intrinsic motivation were in place:

  • They had a great deal of autonomy in choosing tools and content to learn and to demonstrate their knowledge
  • They experienced and recognized their own growth in mastery first over technology and then over academic content
  • They found meaning in relevant work and participating with their peers and with caring adults in discovering new ways to learn

Educator Outcomes

Once teachers experience teaching a class that has taken ownership, they say they could never go back to teaching the old way. Often the path to such a classroom comes through the introduction of technology to the school. When students have devices, teachers and kids are on a fairly level playing field when it comes to learning how to use them for personal and academic purposes. If a teacher can embrace this unsettling lack of control, they can take advantage of how students participate as partners with them, learning together. This is the first step toward turning some control over to students, seeing them increase their ownership and then giving them increasing autonomy.

When  a classroom has been transformed into one where students are self-directed, teachers often feel guilty because they feel as though they aren’t working hard and are instead enjoying themselves and their students. In practice, both they and their students are experiencing “hard fun” and it hardly feels like work at all even though they are achieving more than ever.

For educators to transform this way, they need autonomy to teach to where their students are, using agentic approaches. They need personal communities of learning and rigorous improvement processes to continually hone their craft. They need the opportunity to serve the mission that drives them: helping children.

These are difficult things to provide teachers in an atmosphere of rigid accountability. Even when they can be offered, it is often difficult for teachers, who have been conditioned to compliance by extrinsic rewards,  to make the shift to ownership and intrinsically motivated work.

To make this shift, there needs to be leadership that shelters teachers from counterproductive expectations even as more and more is expected of them. There needs to be support for teachers to be comfortable taking risks and acting in the best interest of kids without fear of losing their jobs. There needs to be coaching for teachers to learn how to use a process improvement mechanism to genuinely develop their mastery of teaching.

All of these mean that district and school leadership need to take their work to the next level to provide that freedom and safety to classroom teachers.

Achievement-Outcomes Framing

Students need academic skills and knowledge to be prepared for college.

Students need the skills of agency and ownership to be prepared for careers.

Advocates for academic skills fear that an emphasis on student agency will cause classrooms to lose academic rigor in favor of non-cognitive outcomes.

Advocates for student agency fear that an emphasis on academic achievement will leave students without the creativity, curiosity, or self-direction they need for real workplaces.

As though the two were mutually exclusive.

Consider the diagram below:

Resigners are students who have low academic achievement and little or no agency. Whether they are still physically in a classroom or not, they are disengaged and have, in effect, dropped out, finding their conditions intolerable.

Tinkerers are students who have agency, but apply it to non-academic areas. They have tremendous skill and interest in areas they are passionate about such as coding, on-line gaming, skateboarding, journalism, crafts, fan fiction or other narrow fields that don’t provide broad core academic content. However, through technology and ready access to communities of interest, these passions drive students to develop ownership of their learning, collaboration through networks, reputation management, rigorous argument construction and use of evidence, growth mindset (within this context), persuasive and informative writing skills and more.

Compliers are the “good” students who get good grades and follow the rules. They may be low in engagement and self-direction, but they comply with the expectations placed on them by teachers and parents to excel academically.

Scholars are students who apply the passion and self-direction of the hobbyist to academic learning, developing both content knowledge and career skills.

There are three paths to shifting students from Resigners to Scholars.

  • Add rigor to move first to the Complier quadrant, then activate agency to move to the right to the Scholar quadrant.
  • Balance increased rigor with activated agency to move diagonally straight to the Scholar quadrant.
  • Activate agency to move from the Resigner quadrant to the Hobbyist quadrant, and then add rigor to move to the scholar quadrant.

Although this framing is certainly oversimplified and only provides one slice of a complex issue, it is useful for discussing how to balance the need for cognitive and non-cognitive student outcomes.