Ode to Ownership

salvēte, omnēs lectōrēs! On this Feast of St. Stephen, I hope no one feels too much like a martyr! 🙂 And on this Boxing Day, I hope it feels more like “boxes to give away” than “boxes of trash that need to be thrown away” in your home! As I thought about these two calendar events, I realized that both are, oddly enough, related to a theme I wanted to explore today. According to the Book of Acts, Stephen was executed because he refused to stop believing or proclaiming the message his listeners found intolerable. He knew what would happen to him, but he persisted boldly. He took ownership of his actions – and their consequences. In a different way, our friends in the Commonwealth take ownership of their relationships with others when they distribute Christmas boxes to those who have served them during the year. And lots of people in the United States are taking ownership of their excess stuff as they box it up to give to charities, in advance of the December 31 tax deadline! 🙂

So today’s theme is Ownership, and specifically Taking Ownership. In several contexts over the past few months, I’ve heard myself telling people to “Take ownership of your life!” What did I mean? Why would anybody need to say, hear, or do this? And what are the implications for Tres Columnae?

In working with students face to face, I tend to use this phrase when students fall into the blame game. The work is too hard, the teacher is too demanding, the parents are too mean, the students themselves are too stressed or too busy, or it’s just a lot more fun to sit and talk with a friend (or surreptitiously send a text message) than to engage in the task at hand (which means it’s my fault for making the task insufficiently engaging). I do take these concerns seriously – except, perhaps, for the texting one 🙂 – but I also want my face-to-face students to realize something critically important: In the end, even if you have hard work, or a demanding teacher, or mean parents, or lots of stress, or too much work, how you respond is up to you. (Stephen Covey refers to the “gap between stimulus and response” in this context, implying that unlike other living creatures, we humans do get to choose how we respond to a given stimulus.)

What I hope to convey is that in the end, your life belongs to you.  If you consistently choose stress and negativity, you’ll have a stressful, negative life, but if you choose to respond in a positive way, you’ll have a more positive life. By no means am I advocating a “Pollyanna” approach or a “head-in-the-sand” view that dismisses the dark, painful side of life. Bad things happen, and when they do, we need to acknowledge them. Sometimes you need to cry, or to pound on something and scream for a while! But even then, you can choose to pound a pillow (better idea) rather than a wall (bad idea; you might break your hand)! 🙂

As I think about the Tres Columnae project, this idea of taking ownership has a lot of implications. First, if you choose to participate, you’re taking ownership of your learning of Latin, and you’re taking ownership of your part in a Joyful Learning Community. Second, as you participate, you will be creating some content – you might make illustrations for a story, you might record some audio, you might make a video version of a story, or you might even create your own original story and submit it. Who should own the content that you submit? I would argue that you should! Of course, you need to give us permission to use it – and you need to give permission to other participants to create derivative works based on it – but if you made it, it should be yours. Similarly, if I made it (for example, if it’s a self-correcting exercise I built), it should belong to me. Again, I’ll obviously need to give you permission to use it, and to create derivative works based on it, but in the end, it’s mine because I made it. I’m not sure how to handle the legal, contractual aspect of ownership in this sense, but the philosophical basis is pretty clear to me. Dear readers, what do you think?

As I reflect on ownership, I also wonder how many of the problems with “work completion” in factory model schools stem from the lack of clarity about ownership there. Picture a “typical” public school Latin classroom: the students are (theoretically) working with their teacher to read a passage in the textbook, and their homework tonight will be a textbook exercise. Lots of students are disengaged, and the rate of homework completion is low. What caused the disengagement? There are many causes, of course, but I believe that ownership issues are a key part.

For example, who owns that textbook? It was issued to the students, either by the teacher or by someone “in charge of textbooks,” but it doesn’t belong to them. They can’t write in it, they can’t modify things in it, and they’ll be charged for damage when they return it.  It doesn’t “belong” to the teacher, either. She didn’t write it, she didn’t purchase it, and she’ll also be held accountable in some way if a textbook disappears. Even the “person in charge” doesn’t own the textbooks, and she will also be held accountable for any shortages. “The taxpayers” may have purchased the books, but an individual taxpayer could hardly march into the school office and demand “his” or “her” copy! “The board of education” may assert ownership, but if there are seven board members and one leaves office, will he or she get 14.285% of the district’s textbooks on leaving office? Obviously not! So who owns the books??

On a deeper level, the book itself was developed by a committee of editors and authors, then manufactured by a publisher. To what extent does anyone in that group own the content? Obviously the copyright holder has legal ownership, but that person (or company) is so far removed from the students in the classroom that they probably feel as though no one owns the content, either. Certainly no one’s name is directly associated with either the story or the exercise!

If you’ve ever lived in (or owned) a rental property – or driven a rental car – you know how differently people treat things when they own and when they don’t!  No wonder the students feel disengaged from the book! Not only do they personally not own it; apparently nobody does! Imagine how badly you would treat something that doesn’t belong to you, and seems to  belong to nobody in particular! And if you can’t imagine, just visit a restroom in any publicly-owned building, sadly including many schools! 😦 Compare that sad picture with the feeling that Wikipedians have about their articles, or authors about their books!

Not only do  Tres Columnae participants legally own the content they create; they also own their learning process. You own the choice to learn Latin with us; you own your subscription; and you own the pace and depth of your learning. If you submit a high-quality product, you own the feeling of accomplishment, and you also own a story, image, audio clip, or video that others will use and enjoy. If you submit a low-quality product, you own the feeling of disappointment, and you also own the opportunity to fix it, or to let it be used as a correctable exercise, or to forget about it and try again.

I believe – and am eager to find out if it’s true – that greater ownership leads to greater achievement, happier learners, happier teachers, and deeper learning. If so, there may be implications from the Tres Columnae project that extend far beyond our little Joyful Learning Community for Latin. What do you think, dear readers? I invite your thoughts and responses about wider implications, and about ownership issues in general.

Tune in tomorrow for more about ownership – and connections to a fascinating book that every educator should read even if you choose not to own it yourself! 🙂

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Published in: on December 26, 2009 at 5:06 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. Hi Justin! What you say here about ownership really resonates with me – in fact, “decentering” the classroom, and making the students (not the teacher) responsible for the learning that goes on has been, for me, the biggest advantage of online teaching. In the classroom, the teacher is understandably put into the center of things – not so online! And teachers who try to maintain that control in an online course are going to find it very difficult to build a successful online course – it’s like swimming against the tide. And decentering the course, making the students their own centers, and giving them responsibility and ownership (with ownership comes responsibility…), seems like a great thing to do for pedagogy. That’s why I use project-based learning, emphasize student choice, and make student work public: all of that allows students to gladly taken ownership of their work, realizing that it is their chance to learn something that matters to them and to share the results of that learning with others.

    At the end of my courses, the results are so clear, dramatically so, compared to what I experienced in a regular classroom class: students who worked hard are incredibly proud of what they did, understandably so… and the students who don’t have a lot to show for their semester realize that they made some poor choices – and that those choices had consequences. That’s a good lesson to learn, too – so that when they are next given a chance to take ownership of something, they will know that what they do really DOES matter. I think this is a hard lesson for some students to learn, because so much of their schooling did not really depend on individual effort or ownership – the school, the teacher, the textbook companies “own” the tools of learning… and you, the student, are just filling an empty space; traditional schooling teaches a lot of conformity and passivity, so students are often surprised to find out that their individual effort and commitment is an essential ingredient in learning, real learning that is. 🙂

    And, just as you say here, one of the best things about creating your own stuff is that you can then choose to share it with others… and get a big boost from the sheer pleasure of doing so. Pretty much every day I get some kind of email or comment from the stuff I have put on the web – and that feels great! Even the old stuff is out there, waiting for an audience – and when you connect with an audience online, it gives your work a new layer of meaning: you learned something in the process of creating the thing yourself, and then you get the bonus of knowing it was useful to someone else in their learning, too! Ownership, responsibility, sharing – those are great elements of a rich learning process and the online world makes those things possible on scales of space and time that were not really possible in the hermetically sealed environment of the traditional classroom!

    HAPPY HOLIDAYS! :-

    • Laura,
      I’m glad to know that someone agrees with me about ownership! What you say about your students’ surprise “to find out that their individual efort and commitment is an essential ingredient in learning, real learning that is” really resonates with me. One of my absolutely central goals for Tres Columnae is to provide ownership to participants. It’s so critical to realize that, in the end, it’s up to you – especially in this increasingly globalized and interconnected world where several million other people do realize this, and are taking action accordingly. 🙂
      I think you’re absolutely right about project-based learning, student choice, and publication to an external audience. My friends at Paideia have done a lot of work in that direction with the Coached Project. Unfortunately, factory-model schools have a well-developed ability to “implement” the surface features of the Coached Project – or, for that matter, other reforms that could fundamentally change the factory model – while avoiding the deep changes that the “new thing” is supposed to bring about. That’s not intended as a criticism of factory-model schools; it’s just an observation – and for that matter, it’s a characteristic of factory-model businesses in every industry.
      In any case, I applaud and absolutely agree with your last sentence. And I want to make sure that these features are central to participants’ experience with Tres Columnae.
      Happy Holidays to you as well! 🙂

  2. […] Columnae and other learning methods is our emphasis on Ownership of Learning, which we explored in this post and this […]

  3. […] paradigm where ownership is often unclear.  ”Who owns the school?” I asked in an early blog post, and “Who owns That Textbook or Those Worksheets?”  From one perspective, All of Us […]


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