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Alan November: How Teachers and Tech Can Let Students Take Control

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For many educators, helping students direct their own learning is a priority. Educator and author Alan November, who has been talking about ways to get students to own their learning for years, draws on his experiences as a teacher, principal and education consultant to tell stories about some of the ideas he sees as integral to education.

November joined Steve Hargadon in a discussion of his new book Who Owns the Learning: Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age, stressing the importance of global collaboration and the role of technology in making it all possible. Here are a few highlights from their discussion.


School often means rules and regulations that can seem unrelated to the broader goals of education. Students are told to sit down, be still, show up at specific times, and demonstrate knowledge in ways that have nothing to do with the real world. As a case in point, November talked about when he started his teaching career at a reform school for boys where the administration took rules seriously. He discovered that one of his students had been breaking into his classroom to practice coding at night. The student showed a rare passion for a subject that wasn’t even being taught at that time, stayed focused on the task and was self-directed – qualities normally valued by educators. At a time when few people knew even how to use a computer, this boy was teaching himself to code. But none of it mattered to an administration more concerned that he’d broken the rules.

November pointed out the similarities between learning to code and the movement toward instant feedback with some of the newest ed tech tools: engineers can test a string of code to see if it works, retrace steps to figure out where it went wrong if it doesn’t. In the same way, many blended learning methods provide the same kind of instant feedback into the classroom, allowing both the learner and the instructor to understand where to shift direction to gain understanding. November says that instant feedback trend should be embraced as a powerful learning tool.


The lesson from this, he said, is to “teach students how to solve any problem, a general problem solving approach. And teach them to do it in community.” That’s what’s really going to serve them as they go through life. The benefit of technology is that is has opened the door on the scope of global problems that students can involve themselves with, making their problem solving skills immediately relevant and encouraging self-direction.


“We might have robbed kids’ natural ability to take control of defining their own problems by spoon-feeding them little tiny problems one at a time, which ended up with students not being able to take the initiative to define their own,” November said. He illustrated this point by describing a class where he asked students to identify a community problem and then work to come up with a solution. He told them he’d be there to offer tools and to support them through the process. A student raised her hand and told him that it was his job as the teacher to come up with the problems and their job as students to give answers.

Students and teachers alike have been brought up in an educational system that mimics an antiquated job market. The teacher is the boss, managing the work of his student workers who have to produce goods that meet approval, he said. But many people fear that system no longer serves students headed toward a less certain future, one that could necessitate that a student be able to define and create her own job.

“What concerns me is that school is way out of balance,” November said. “We are under an assumption in school that all these kids are going to apply to a job and have a boss that manages their work.” He thinks schools are drastically underestimating children’s capabilities to invent and own their work and by extension the contributions they can make to the world.


As antiquated as it might seem in a world of iPads, mobile devices and 3D printers, November thinks schools should try to embody some of what worked about the one-room schoolhouse. Teachers taught all students regardless of age or level -- by definition there had to be differentiation in learning.

“The reality of a one-room classroom is that the older kids are teaching the younger kids,” November said. “And it turns out that to teach, students really have to learn the material well. And the students also take more ownership of the school.” One way to replicate that ownership now is to give students classroom jobs, allowing them to contribute something powerful to the classroom dynamic. “From that beginning I think we can have deeper conversations about children taking more control of defining their roles,” November said.

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He thinks technology has the power to bring the one-room schoolhouse back. Students can help one another, connect and collaborate globally. They can contribute meaningful work that can matter to real-world situations. “The real revolution is information and global communication, not technology,” November said. Technology is merely the means to access the information and share it in community.


November gave an example of a middle school teacher who had his students contribute to a wiki that supplemented the textbook. They wrote and diagrammed material that would be passed on to students following them. One of the teacher’s former students contacted him while in high school asking to revise the part of the wiki he’d worked on three years previously. He said he’d learned more now and felt a sense of responsibility for what he’d produced. Getting students to care on that level and to be responsible for one another is exactly the kind of shared exploration in community that education should encourage, he said.