Students Co-authoring Their Own Learning
Moving beyond personalization to put learners in the driver’s seat to build skills and dispositions
BY TOM VANDER ARK/School Administrator, March 2022

Student-driven projects are at the core of the Innovation Academy at Basehor-Linwood High School in Kansas City, Kan.
High school senior Delaney Friesen received physical therapy for a knee injury and turned it into a physics project full of hypotheses, prototypes and pivots. Worried about pandemic-caused stresses on teens, senior Olivia Vanderweide and sophomore Prisha Patel developed a peer mentoring program and won a grant to scale their efforts.

Senior Abby Otten worked with Geeks for Kids to improve mobility vehicles for students with disabilities. Landon Bever developed a business to solve two problems: hauling junk and recycling valuable materials.

All four of these student-led projects were co-authored with the five teachers of the Innovation Academy at Basehor-Linwood High School in suburban Kansas City, Kan.

The Innovation Academy creates opportunities for learners to pick problems worth solving, develop a plan, conduct a project and present a public product. Teachers help learners build project plans that will develop and demonstrate important skills and share rubrics that describe a quality work product.

Launched in 2020 as an upper-division opportunity to support student-driven projects, the Innovation Academy expanded to include freshmen this school year. Forty-three eager students had the opportunity to work with representatives in their city to develop and name a public park. The students learned about community engagement, land-use policies, trade-off analysis, as well as capital and operating budgets. They probably will never again drive by a recreational park without thinking about the opportunity they had to shape their com-munity — and the multidisciplinary challenges it posed.

A Flexible Model

Jared Jackson, director of innovative programs for Basehor-Linwood, recognizes the benefits of a flexible à la carte model within the high school schedule and facility by enabling students to co-author projects and earn core and elective credit with the help of industry and community experts to fill in knowledge gaps.

Innovation Academy students have the opportunity to jointly pursue projects important to them and their community. Launched as part of the Kauffman Foundation-supported Real World Learning initiative, the mission of the modular program is “cultivating 21st-century problem solving and initiative through the design thinking process.”

The Real World Learning initiative mobilized learning opportunities that include client-connected projects, entrepreneurial experiences and internships at 75 high schools in 31 systems in metropolitan Kansas City (covering three Missouri counties and four Kansas counties) with the support of more than 600 business and civic partners.

Beyond Personalization

Personalized learning is an attempt to meet students where they are and challenge them productively. But it can become a narrowly focused, teacher-directed series of small problems focused on basic skills. Co-authored learning invites students, at least occasionally, to help define the topic, task and product.

Co-authored learning puts students in the driver’s seat — or at least the co-pilot seat. It has the potential to increase engagement and motivation while developing agency and problem-solving skills. It builds initiative and promotes goal setting and risk taking. Co-authored learning allows students to explore areas of interest and audition for possible futures. 

Co-authored projects can be incorporated into traditional courses but because they often are interdisciplinary and extended in nature, they are well-suited for blocks (e.g., English and social studies or math and science). Learning targets often include traditional content standards as well as essential skills such as collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.

Why Co-authoring Matters

For the first time, human beings are simultaneously experiencing global phenomena — media, disease, climate crisis and economic shocks — with unprecedented novelty and complexity. Every aspect of life is growing more complex as the rate of change ratchets up. Man-made systems are interacting with the natural world in ways that make the unimaginable a monthly occurrence.

John Kay and Mervyn King call it “radical uncertainty” and define it as “for which historical data provide no useful guidance to future outcomes.” Work is increasingly conducted by diverse teams addressing new problems using smart tools. 

Young people are the first generation to be experiencing the impact of dramatic climate change — terrible storms, oppressive heat and drought, violent fires and rising sea levels — and perhaps the last generation with a chance to effect a sustainable change. Fortunately, young people also have more opportunities to make a difference — to launch a campaign, to code an application, to use open smart tools to attack a problem or to start an impact organization and access startup capital, which is more widely available than ever.

Marketing guru Seth Godin has wisely said that young people need to learn two things: leadership and how to solve interesting problems. An employer survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed demand for leadership, problem solving, communication and a big uptick in initiative taking. Self-direction, curiosity, agency and civic identity are the top skills in the Building Blocks for Learning from Turnaround for Children.

Thousands of communities around the world are adopting new learning goals that reflect these new priorities, and they are beginning to address the two learning design implications:

(1)Developing leadership and problem-solving skills requires more complex problems without known solutions not just a sequence of small problems with right answers; and

(2) Young people need more voice and choice in what problems to address and how to share solutions.

“In our ever-changing and unpredictable world, learners need to master the skill of knowing what to do when they do not immediately know what to do. Doing this effectively involves the development of agency and executive function skills, which is made possible through learners’ active engagement in experiences they typically do not encounter in today’s schools,” explains AASA’s Learning 2025 report. “In order for learners to develop these skills, they must be empowered, proactive agents — or co-authors — of their learning journey.”

What Science Says

Learning Policy Institute and Turnaround for Children recently published “Design Principles for Schools” based on a growing body of research about the conditions for learning that can help every student learn and thrive.

The five principles include positive relationships; environments filled with safety and belonging; integrated supports; the development of skills, habits and mindsets; and rich learning experiences and knowledge development. 
Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, works with schools and districts to grow programs enabling students to co-author their own learning. PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM VANDER ARK

Many school districts made progress on several of these design principles in the last decade by implementing models of personalized learning to accelerate skill development and by strengthening multi-tiered systems of support. The last two years of pandemic education focused efforts in these areas as well as in creating environments of safety and belonging.

On the fifth design principle, rich learning experiences, the report identifies key findings that should inform educational practice:

»Children actively construct knowledge based on their experiences, relationships and social contexts.

»Variability in learning is the norm, not the exception.

»Motivation and performance are shaped by the nature of learning tasks and contexts.

»Transferable learning requires application of knowledge to authentic tasks.

»Students’ beliefs about themselves, their abilities and their supports shape learning.

Personalized learning efforts aimed at accelerated skill building in safe environments have sometimes come at the expense of rich learning experiences. Personalized learning often is delivered with a teacher (or algorithm) acting as the instrumental agent. Remote learning during the pandemic further reduced access to rich learning experiences for many students. And, as schools reopened, some efforts to address learning loss by doubling down on basic skills continued to restrict access to rich learning experiences.

The Design Principles report calls for developmental relationships where “children increasingly use their own agency to develop their curiosity and capacities for self-direction.” Thinking of K-12 as a continuum of increasingly co-authored learning provides “a pathway to motivation, self-efficacy, learning, and further growth.”

If learners understand learning targets — and even have a chance to help shape learning goals — they are better equipped to co-create learning experiences and make pathway choices toward postsecondary success.

Co-authored Experiences

Students in California’s Lindsay Unified School District develop a personalized learning plan that includes short-term goals that are specific and achievable and build toward long-term goals that are meaningful. They can describe how their current work or learning has relevance and meaning to their goals and their personal lives.

Students should have the opportunity, at least periodically, to work with a teacher to select and shape a project plan. In elementary schools, classes may work together to shape driving questions and project plans. By high school, students ought to have chances to pick topics of interest, shape projects and present them to public audiences.

Several national networks support schools with co-authored learning. The 200 schools in the New Tech Network (about 90 percent of them in school districts) feature wall-to-wall team-taught integrated projects. They share grade-span rubrics that guide the incorporation of agency, collaboration and communication into co-constructed projects. ConnectED supports high school career academies with a commitment to co-design, co-plan and co-facilitation learning with students. Based on the Center for Advanced Professional Studies in Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kan., the CAPS Network is a collaboration of 123 school districts promoting real world learning and entrepreneurial experiences.

“It can be difficult for educators to hand over the keys and allow students to sit in the driver’s seat,” says Innovation Academy leader Jayme Breault. “It’s messy and often takes time to understand the rules of the road.

Eventually, something clicks and not only are the students motivated to drive the projects, but they are empowered to be the navigators of their learning. Engagement and motivation are fostered by learner agency.”

Learning Journeys

Helping learners weave together learner-chosen and co-authored experiences into coherent pathways is the new learning design challenge — blending standards-based and interest-based learning into engaging and meaningful units of study.

At Cajon Valley Unified School District, in diverse east San Diego County, elementary and middle school students reflect on strengths, interests and values after each of the 54 immersive career exploration units that include projects and connections with professionals.

A strong secondary advisory program with a sustained advisory relationship is critical to creating coherent learning journeys. We Are Crew: A Teamwork Approach to School Culture, a recent book from EL Education, and its associated resources are a useful guide to building student voice and agency. The Elements of Crew toolkit includes resources to build student-owned learning targets and a culture where learners support each other.

In high school, a personalized learning plan can include short-term goals as well as career objectives. Washington state requires every learner to have a high school and beyond plan that guides course selection, work-based learning and postsecondary preparation.

Next in co-authoring are curated digital records that help learners tell their story. They will include secure transcripts and digital credentials (from schools and other providers), employment records and links to artifacts of learning. The best early example of learner-curated digital records is the partnership of Greenlight Credentials and the 100 high schools participating in Dallas County Promise. Learners can customize versions of their record and share it with employers, colleges and scholarship providers to gain access to opportunity.

By inviting learners to co-author learning experiences, journeys and records, we help them build the most important skills and dispositions they’ll need to succeed in a changing world.

TOM VANDER ARK, a former superintendent, is CEO of Getting Smart in Seattle, Wash. Twitter: @tvanderark