by John Potter
Typically, when students enter The New School, they have had few, if any, conversations about what it means to take charge of one’s education. They understand “education,” they understand “ownership,” but educational ownership? How do you own something as intangible as education?
In these United States, where homeownership, car ownership – the mere notion of ownership – is so important, it’s puzzling why talk about educational ownership is so worryingly absent from our national discourse.
At The New School, we believe that educational ownership is the foundational habit of mind of a quality education; and after 25 years, we understand, too, that it’s challenging teaching students to self-advocate and approach their learning from the concept of ownership. They’re just not used to it.
A good case in point is incoming ninth graders. The majority of our new high schoolers have been steeped in an educational culture where the school does the owning – where the student’s curriculum is prescribed (English 9, Biology 9, etc.), where assessments are based on the memorization of facts and teachers’ opinions, where students are not even present at parent-teacher conferences. In contrast, our pedagogy and values make the student the center of his or her education. We allow students to choose their classes; we insist that students participate and add value to classroom learning through direct investigation and dialogue; and we require students to lead their academic conferences, with parents and teachers asking thoughtful questions.
Indeed, ownership is largely derived from dialogue. This is not to say that there are no other contributing factors, but active, ongoing respectful dialogue between students and teachers in the classroom is crucial. Equally crucial is that students feel their ideas are valued. The classroom must carry a sense of egalitarianism (notwithstanding the fact that the teacher is in charge). This is one reason why students here are on a first-name basis with the faculty: it’s an equalizer, and it’s a factor that makes students colleagues, rather than passive participants, and brings them closer to the notion of ownership.
If a woman owns a house, it’s safe to say that she chose that house; if a man owns a car, then it’s understood that he chose that car. It’s not hard to imagine how we would feel if the state dictated those kinds of ownership. We certainly would be far less invested in the state’s choice of car or house than if we made those choices ourselves. Translated into educational terms: giving students control, e.g., allowing them to choose their classes and giving them a space for their voices to be heard, results in them having a greater investment in their work. There’s nothing particularly radical about this idea; it’s the bread and butter of liberal arts college programs.
Clearly we have to take means into account. For an adult purchasing a car, it’s about money. For a student, whether in our program or that of a liberal arts college, it’s about motivation and acquired skills. Some may venture to say it’s about smarts as well. So in helping our students make choices about what they learn, we have to take their means into account. And that we do. The stage is then set for the student to develop his or her sense of ownership to a higher level. The higher it is, the easier the transition into college becomes.
In a broader context, this sense of ownership can be incredibly powerful and often leads to empowerment and improvement in other parts of a person’s life. Ownership is a key component of educating the whole person in addition to preparing them for college. Ownership for young people is about growing up and having agency in their own lives.