The owner and the renter in education

Do our teaching practices encourage students to own what they learn, or just rent it?

The owner and the renter in education

Due to being gone for a speaking gig over the weekend and then celebrating Easter, I'm sharing a throwback post with you today. This article first appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education's blog network on January 30, 2012. It was in my first year at Grand Valley State University, which explains some of the context.

Since moving to west Michigan in July, my family and I have been living in an apartment while our house in Indiana sits on the market. This is the first time since 2001 that we’ve spent longer than six months in a rental property. Sunday morning, as we woke up to find that we’d been buried in snow overnight (as per usual in west Michigan), I realized that the home ownership habit runs pretty deep with me.

When I looked out the door and saw the image you see in the photo, I naturally grabbed the snow shovel, walked out the door, and started clearing off the walkway and the van. I got some curious looks from my neighbors, as if to say: What are you doing? We are paying rent not to have to do stuff like this. And it’s true: The apartment manager usually comes through shortly after a snowfall and clears off the walkways. Usually. But who knows? Maybe he won’t come today. And anyhow, even though I don’t technically own the apartment, I do have a sense of ownership about it, and it just seems the right thing to clear off not only my walkway but also my neighbor’s. Some of my neighbors, on the other hand, take the renters‘ approach and prefer to let the guy they’re paying do the job — whether or not it actually gets done.

The difference between an ownership and a rental mindset is one that we educators encounter all the time with our students. Students engage in one kind of mindset or the other in our classes. The rental mindset says, I am paying the rent, and as long as I pay, I expect the management to take care of my needs. The ownership mindset says, on the other hand, I am invested in this, and although some things are not my responsibility (like plowing the city streets or running the fire department), I choose to take responsibility for myself because it matters to me.

We want students to own, not rent, their education. Ultimately, which kind of mindset students adopt is a choice that only they can make. But while we can’t make students take ownership (just like you can’t make people move out of an apartment into a house), we can make the decision to choose ownership easier or harder through the choices we, as instructors, make when we design classes and learning experiences.

For example, rather than dictating what content students learn in a course, we can instead design courses around clearly-stated learning objectives and give students some latitude as to how they will show us they’ve mastered those objectives. For instance, in the computer workshop in Calculus 3 this past week, I wanted students to use Mathematica to investigate how parameter values affect the behavior of a curve in 3-space. I could have done this by giving students a single vector function with two parameters to study. But instead, I gave three options and had each working group choose one. By giving just a little bit of free choice, students gained a little bit of a stake in the process and thus a little bit of ownership. The object of the course is not to “cover material” — it’s to meet learning objectives, and by letting students choose how they want to do this, they are shoveling their own walkways in an educational sense.

We can also encourage ownership by moving away from instructional designs and methods that promote dependency on the “manager” for “services”. I’m thinking primarily of lecture. Lecture has its uses in certain cases, but it’s clear that a lecture-based course wants the learner-instructor relationship to be primarily one-way. The instructor is paid to produce, and the students consume — it’s a renter’s paradise. But it’s an unsustainable practice for students, who will all be moving into positions in life where they are supposed to be the producers. Some students come into a lecture course with an ownership mindset — like I came into my apartment — and so they naturally take ownership of their learning. But if the goal is to get all students incrementally closer to ownership, a model that disincentivizes ownership is not going to succeed. However, if we choose instructional models that promote student responsibility — like the inverted classroom, peer instruction, or project-based learning — even in small amounts, then we are moving in the right direction.