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Classroom Management, Equity Resources, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Jan 17, 2016

6 ways to support kids who don’t take ownership of their learning

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

6 ways to support kids who don’t take ownership of their learning

By Angela Watson

You know the exact problem I’m talking about: You’re patiently showing a student how to solve a problem or figure out a process, and the student responds by saying, “Can’t you just tell me the answer?”

Or you’re responding to a student’s question with questions of your own to try to prompt him or her to figure out a solution independently, and the child says, “Can’t you just tell me what to do?”

When kids are unmotivated, the solution is natural: Give them more ownership. In more traditional schools, that might mean homework menus where students have a choice about which type of assignment to complete or other small ways in which kids get to make decisions about their learning. In more progressive schools, we’re seeing an increased focus on project-based learning, Genius Hour, 20% Time, makerspaces, passion projects, and all these wonderful opportunities for students to take charge of their own learning.

These approaches are all designed to make learning more authentic and empower kids to decide what they want to learn about, determine how to learn about it, and choose how they’ll demonstrate their learning. Theoretically, it sounds like the solution: If you make the learning meaningful, kids will be naturally engaged and jump at the opportunity to take ownership.

If your students don’t want to do the work or aren’t doing high-quality work, the problem “must” be that you’re doubting your students and just need to believe in them a little more, and should try entrusting your students with more freedom.

But the reality of what I’m hearing from teachers and what I’m seeing myself in schools doesn’t always quite match that. Even for those of us who believe deeply in helping kids uncover their passions and ask and pursue answering their own questions, the actual implementation of these principles has been a bumpy ride.

It can be tough to get the KIDS on board with student-directed learning. In fact, giving kids more freedom when they’re struggling with the freedom they have is often the worst thing you can do.

Can we get real about the fact that project-based and student-directed learning requires a lot of work not only for teachers but for KIDS?

Kids don’t always want to do that work. And they don’t always have the skills needed to be successful with that work. If you see that students are resistant to or unsuccessful at directing their own learning, in my opinion, the last thing you should do is throw even more projects at them.

I think we need to back up and consider that it takes an incredible amount of drive, focus, and higher level thinking skills for a child to design and carry out a project or participate in Genius Hour or 20% time. Many of our students are used to being spoon-fed the answers or only asked to do simpler rote memory tasks. Transitioning from fill-in-the-blank worksheets completed as a class to project-based learning is very daunting for many kids.


Often we’re expecting kids to transition seamlessly between the two learning styles: One minute we’re cramming multiple choice test prep down their throats and the next, we’re asking them to design a project to showcase their research. These tasks require two completely different skill sets, and they foster two completely different attitudes toward learning. It can be very jarring for students when they’re expected to shift seamlessly between the two approaches.

And if the student is working below grade level, this is all the more true. Simple multiple choice questions feel difficult to them: Imagine how impossible and frustrating a project must be!

So what are the solutions here? We can’t return to our old teacher-centric ways of doing school. We have to support students in being independent and self-motivated. How do we get kids to go from saying “Just tell me what to do!” to truly taking ownership over their learning?

Here are 6 strategies to consider:

1) Explicitly teach and practice the skills needed for student-directed learning.

Kids need to be taught how to manage their time, persevere when things get hard, problem solve when their plan isn’t working, and organize their thoughts and materials. Pay attention to where kids are hitting the proverbial brick wall and then develop mini-lessons to reinforce those skills. Don’t waste your energy bemoaning that students “should” already have these life skills: Be prepared to teach to the students you actually have and support them in developing higher-level thinking abilities.

This growth mindset unit can help teach students that it’s possible for them to learn things that are hard and teaches grit and perseverance.

This growth mindset unit can help teach students that it’s possible for them to learn things that are hard and teaches grit and perseverance.

2)  Give students more choice in little things so they know how to make decisions about big things.

We can’t micromanage our students for one set of tasks and then step back and expect them to work independently on another. We have to allow students freedom in the smaller tasks, too. When they’re asked to do things in a very precise way — such as bubbling in standardized tests — we need to acknowledge the mindset shift that’s required of our kids in this situation. Start by giving kids more choice just in your classroom routines: Choosing where to sit, which assignment to complete first, and so on. Ask yourself Alan November’s famous question: What am I doing in my classroom right now that I could theoretically turn over to students to do themselves?

3) Give additional structure to the kids who need it.

Some children thrive under open-ended directions: Others are terrified of making a mistake or have no idea what to do next. Give the kids in that latter group a little more support: Help them create a checklist of steps, and provide them a partner they can check in with if they feel like they’re losing their way. It’s okay to provide more guidance than you’d like for certain kids who need it: Scaffold their learning and slowly increase their capacity so that with each successive project, they’re able to be more independent.


The best teachers are the ones who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see. Click To Tweet

4) Explore topics you’re not the expert in and questions that you don’t know the answer to.

Kids get frustrated and beg us to tell them the answers because they know we already know. They see that there’s a clear, right answer that we are dangling over their heads and saying, “Just a little higher! You can do it! Come on!” How frustrating that is for kids, and no wonder they want us to make that answer a little easier for them to reach. But what if we sometimes explored questions together? What if we said to our kids, “I don’t know the answer; how do you think can we find out?” Show kids that we are ALL learners and model for them how to pursue answers.

5) Pose essential questions which have no right or wrong answer.

In addition to the basic recall questions, there must be some greater, overarching question that compels kids to dig more deeply. “What is the capital of our state?” is important to know (come on, you shouldn’t always be Googling basic facts!) but there are bigger questions that are truly worth answering, too. “How does geography affect destiny? How would your life be different if you were born in the state capital instead of in our small town?” These are questions that students can’t beg you to reveal the answer to because each person has to uncover the answer for him or herself. The responses will be unique to each individual, which takes some of the pressure off of kids and makes the question more compelling.

6) Let kids help design the learning outcome.

Often students resist creating their own projects or directing their own learning because they know that the teacher already has a set goal in mind, whether we state it outright or try to pretend that kids are in control. They know that we have already envisioned what an A+ project will look like and it’s overwhelming for them to play the guessing game of not only trying to meet that expectation but to also design the learning process to get them there.

So, try creating the outcome together. Ask, “How will we know whether you have achieved your goal? What would it look like to show mastery of this topic? How should we assess your learning? What criteria should go into the rubric?” Then if students try to get you to take over their project or ask “Is this right?” you can say, “This is something you designed. You determined what the outcome would be, so you are capable of determining if you are on the right path. Let’s look at the rubric you created and see how we can get you to the top level.”

No time to read and just skimmed through the post? Listen instead!

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go! A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.See blog posts/transcripts for all episodes

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. OH my Goodness!! Did I need to hear this message today. I have been blessed by finding you and your blogs in August as I was beginning my 1st year teaching!! Now I have joined the 40 HTW-Secondary Education FB group and I am thrilled about that too, but today’s message answered so may concerns I have!
    As a new Science Teacher, I have read so much about Project Based Learning and I have spent so much time learning about this subject and lessons for it.
    I have began with baby steps–POGILS for Biology~I spent an entire weekend printing and reading up on how to do these lessons in a class but I had decided that my kids were not capable of taking ownership of their own learning, so I backed up and I have started by having them do the 1st section of questions on their own and I will not give them the answers–and yes, I’ve been asked to just give them the answers, often.
    This last week, we did another one as an assessment as opposed to a traditional quiz. I began by telling the students that some questions did have a specific answer but if it asked what they thought, they were to write it, with some thought, and there would be no wrong answers. If they attempted to answer the questions, then they would get credit. We then went over them with colored pens and they were to write in correct answers. On the “thinking” questions, I asked several people for their answers and they were wide-ranging and a few were even thought-provoking. These do not have answer keys, so I admitted that I didn’t have all of the answers and that our discussion and thinking was what was critical–not a pat answer. This was more by chance than plan and then I hear your post this morning and teachers have come to the same conclusion!!! We will work up to project based learning but 1st we have to learn how to think critically and be bold with our answers! The students will whisper or mumble answers and I am encouraging them to speak up and own their thoughts!! Thinking is more important than Mitosis!!
    I will continue following you and all of your many ventures to make my job more enjoyable and rewarding!! I love my kids and I loved seeing them begin to speak up and start discussions!!

  2. I love and agree with all of the things you’ve said here. What I need help with is mini-lessons that explicitly teach the skills described. It’s hard for me to break it down when those skills are so automatic for me. This would be a great TPT product!

  3. Thank you for this post! I have two thoughts about my own practice.

    “Many of our students are used to being spoon-fed the answers…” resonates with me. It is such a struggle to get my students to think for themselves and work through a tough problem. Many are very comfortable waiting until I start to review the content, before answering. It’s not something I allow, and I encourage them to at least try, but there are still those that slip by and only write when I write.

    I recently had a mother confess that at the beginning of the year, her daughter would tell her that she didn’t understand the math. Her mom, as any would, advised her to ask me for help. Her daughter replied that she does ask me but that I, “make her try it on her own.” At first, her mom didn’t care for this and wondered why I wouldn’t help her. To both mom and daughter, I wasn’t helping. Now, she admitted that she understands what I am doing. That I am trying to teach her daughter how to work through a tough problem. I truly am helping her by coaching her through with questions to get her moving along. I am helping her by having her analyze her responses to see if they make sense, or are valid. I am helping her by celebrating her successes, no mater how small. I realized that to this family, “helping” translated to giving the answer. I thanked this mom for being honest and thanked her for understanding that I am helping her daughter because if she fails, I fail. I now wonder how many other families have this same idea of “helping.”

    “Transitioning from fill-in-the-blank worksheets completed as a class to project-based learning is very daunting for many kids.” That is very true and I had to hear it on your podcast in order for it to make sense to me. I came into this year wanting to do more PBL, however, I found and struggled with the obstacle of my students pushing themselves through the projects. I didn’t realize that the obstacle isn’t because they didn’t want to do the projects, it’s because they truly don’t know how. Thank you for your advice about giving students more choice in the little things so that they can learn how to make the bigger choices. I model making choices and thinking through problems, but I think my kids might need a little more explicit modeling and discussion about it. I now know to take a step back and give them a little more structure and guidance.

    Sorry this was so long!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share this! I’m so glad it was helpful for you. I think our first instinct is to assume that resistance means the kids don’t want to do something, but when we dig deeper, their resistance is often because they don’t know how to start or just feel overwhelmed. How wonderful that your students have a teacher who considers that!

  4. Very helpful! Many children are struggling transitioning to project based learning (PBL). A few school districts are switching to PBL and it would be helpful to add in a transtion period for those students new PBL.

  5. It’s frustrating, but one thing that has helped with teaching the skills of problem-solving and self-directed thinking and learning is that when I start my small group lesson time each day, the rest of the kids are doing literature centers on their own. While I am working with my small group, the other kids work with a partner on little centers where they must read and follow the directions to complete the assignment. I had to model this over and over and by now at this point in the year, it’s working (almost) seamlessly.

    I went from 6th graders in September who would stand forever by their desks and say, “I don’t have a chair” (with a stack of chairs three feet away!) to what we are able to do now. So I know that consistent practice is the key. Stay with it! There is hope and there is progress, even if it’s small and slow!

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