Being Mobile | Blog

Students Owning Their Learning: A Tale of 2 Schools

Carpe Diem Schools versus New Tech Network Schools

Here's how to increase student learning: Increase student ownership of that learning:

"... the most successful students are those who feel real 'ownership' of their education. In all the best performing school systems ... 'students feel they personally can make a difference in their own outcomes and that education will make a difference for their future.'" (Quote from Thomas Freidman 2013, who is quoting Andreas Schleicher.)

Schleicher manages the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which compares "how well 15-year-olds in 65 cities and countries can apply math, science and reading skills to solve real-world problems" and his observation about student ownership is based on the results of the 2012 PISA findings.

Sounds good; but what does "ownership" mean? 

In the Carpe Diem Collegiate Charter High School and Middle School, the founding site of the Carpe Diem school community, there is a gymnasium-sized room that holds more than 200 cubicles:

"... Students spend more than half of each school day in their cubicles, headphones plugged in, learning from an online curriculum provided by the company [Edgenuity, formerly Education2020], which delivers all of the core content in math, language arts, science and social studies. Four times a day, small groups of students participate in subject-specific workshops with teachers, who lead lessons that build on the [Edgenuity] curriculum and who get students to think critically about what they're learning and apply it to class projects."


  • Edgenuity "does not build in adaptive mechanisms; it relies on students and teachers to monitor performance."
  • There are "five teachers and four teachers' aides" at the Yuma, AZ Carpe Diem campus. Nine adults and 226 students, e.g., one science teacher for 226 students, grades 6-12.

Tom Vander Ark, a proponent of "blended learning" — using computers to do significant portions of the instruction — of which Carpe Diem is an example, states that:

"The goal at Carpe Diem is to get students to take responsibility for their own learning and [Edgenuity] facilitates ownership and independence quite well."

Sitting in front of the computer, with its Edgenuity video-based curriculum, a student can:

  1. Decide to switch subjects in the Edgenuity curriculum (e.g., go from math to English)
  2. Decide to "control the pacing of the lesson and can watch whole or portions of video lectures as frequently as they choose"
  3. Decide to "track their work on a dashboard that measures their progress against a timeline-based plan. Color-coded flags let them know if they are lagging behind their target pace."
  4. Decide to not do the Edgenuity curriculum (e.g., decide not to take the 10 item multiple choice test — get seven right and move on to the next subject; decide not to even watch the video or read the text)

Please stop reading this blog now and look at the picture of the Carpe Diem students in their cubicles.

Let's now hear what John Dewey has to say about student ownership of their learning.

"Any conversation about student ownership in education would be incomplete without mention of John Dewey. It was his Democracy and Education (1916) that helped me [Adam Fletcher] see the connection between student involvement and student ownership. According to Dewey, the type of activities that stimulate real involvement 'give pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results....'" (Quote from Fletcher, 2008 who quotes Dewey, 1916)

What are those "somethings" that a student should be given? A definition of project-based learning, a type of learning-by-doing pedagogy that resonates with Dewey's notion of experiential learning provides a good list:

"Project-based learning [engages] students in investigation ... [in the pursuit of] solutions to nontrivial problems by asking and refining questions, debating ideas, making predictions, designing plans and/or experiments, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, communicating their ideas and findings to others, asking new questions, and creating artifacts."

Using project-based learning as their core pedagogy, the charter schools in the New Tech Network also claim that they promote student ownership:

"Each New Tech Network school develops and maintains a culture that promotes trust, respect, and responsibility. At New Tech Network schools, students and teachers alike have exceptional ownership of the learning experience and their school environment. Working on projects and in teams, students are accountable to their peers and acquire a level of responsibility similar to what they would experience in a professional work environment."

While New Tech Network schools have online curriculum, learners are not in cubicles, with headsets on, for half-the-day:

"The [online] courses are designed and facilitated by NTN teachers who bring a collaborative, tech-infused, project-based curriculum to life.... Students collaborate with students from other schools on projects that require critical thinking and communication, two key concepts found in the Common Core State Standards. Students also engage in cross-site collaboration, something that parallels the work experience of an increasing number of adults in our society."

New Tech Network schools look to be 180 degrees different than the Carpe Diem schools.

Both types of schools would certainly agree:  Ownership is bred when a learner is engaged — the more engagement, the more ownership. We pose this question then to the reader: Where is ownership more effectively bred: in a Carpe Diem type cubicle or in a New Tech Network, project-based classroom? 

Now, both the Carpe Diem schools and the New Tech Network schools claim success: Carpe Diem focuses on high standardized test scores, while New Tech Network focuses on high graduation rates and high success rates in college. Oh, and the cost of educating a student at Carpe Diem, where there are four teachers is  "$2,400 per student below what traditional public schools spend on instruction" or about "$5,300/student."  It appears that the costs at an NTN school are ... higher. No surprise; they have more than four teachers per school.

But, where would YOU send your child to learn — in a direct-instruction, cubicle school or in a project-based school? That is not a hypothetical situation: There is a not-so-quiet revolution going on in America's schools today. Indeed, "more Detroit students attend charter schools than traditional public schools."  If you don't have the cubicle-based school versus project-based school choice today — you may well have such a choice in the not too distant future!