Ownership, Control, and Purpose

It’s a Professional Development day, with “curriculum-focused sessions” in the morning and “school-based sessions” in the afternoon.  With the new semester starting tomorrow, Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y is anxious for time to “get my classroom ready” and, of course, to “get those copies made” for the first few days of new classes.  I was surprised to learn from some students on Friday that More Than One Ms. X had not handed out “her” syllabus and supply list when the second-semester classes “visited” on Friday afternoon.  Apparently she’d been “too busy,” and she’s planning to hand them out tomorrow, the first “real” day of the new semester.  I wonder what she did to pass the time on Friday, even though the time was only about 20 minutes with each new class, and I wonder if she thought about the message she was sending.  What will she do – and what will Unprepared Mr. Y do – if a second-semester student doesn’t have everything ready on schedule?

But then, when I woke up this morning and read Daniel’s G+ share and the underlying blog post about note-taking,  I realized something important.  If my students (or my own children) even hear the phrase “Cornell notes,” they roll their eyes in silent protest.  They’re all too familiar with the format, which Many A Ms. X has mandated – and probably “graded,” too, over the years.  But the purpose – of seeing connections for yourself, finding patterns, reducing the notes to their essence rather than trying to capture everything – is lost in a compliance-based process that, all too often, becomes a goal in itself.

Research shows, it seems, that Cornell notes work well when the learner needs “to synthesize and apply learned knowledge” – but that’s not what Ms. X uses them for.  She uses them because she was told to, or because she learned about them in a workshop, or because someone said they might raise test scores.  She uses them, in other words, without any ownership or purpose, and then, all too often, she’s surprised that she “has to” control the process with grades, candy, and other extrinsic incentives.  Dr. Firth, by contrast, discovered the Cornell system on her own, as an adult, in her work with Ph.D. students who were also struggling to synthesize and apply – and for her and those Ph.D. students, the method was liberating and life-changing.  Unlike Ms. X and her reluctant students, they all had a strong sense of ownership and purpose, and they were seeking effective tools to control what can seem like a completely overwhelming, endless process.

Ownership and purpose – or, in Daniel Pink’s terms, autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  They’re as important for the teachers I’ll work with this morning as they are for the students – new and returning – who will begin their second-semester classes with me tomorrow.  You can’t build a learning community on a foundation of external control and “because I said so.”  That can be a liberating, but frightening discovery for folks who succeeded, often brilliantly, in a compliance-based system, and who chose to work in it because they were “good at school” and liked being there.  Of course you could try to be like Ms. X, who tries her best to make compliance-based learning work … but even Ms. X is starting to have her doubts.  “What should I do about the low grades on This Test?” one Ms. X asked me.  “I was thinking I should look and see which questions they missed, and when I did, they were all about the same skill.”  In the course of our conversation, Ms. X decided to discard the questions and recalculate the scores, and I think she might have decided to pay closer attention to how she teaches that skill next semester.

You never know what will happen when there’s ownership and purpose!  Sometimes people take control of things they’ve never tried to control, but needed to, and sometimes we even cede control of things we never really controlled anyway.  On this transitional day, that’s an important lesson to remember, and in the days to come, as we begin building new, different forms of joyful learning community, it’s an important lesson to synthesize and apply – with or without Cornell Notes.

I wonder what other new lessons await!

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Published in: on January 21, 2014 at 12:01 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I remember when I went to college I tried the Cornell form of note taking and it just didn’t work for me. I eventually fell into my own pattern of taking notes that worked well enough for me to graduate with honors.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, thanks. You make excellent points about the importance of ownership. I think I might actually use your post in one of my classes this semester. I particularly like this point “You can’t build a learning community on a foundation of external control and “because I said so.”” – and all you say throughout your post about the almost uselessness of doing things in the classroom that we (as teachers or students) don’t truly “own” or understand the purpose of, or believe in. All too often institutions encourage certain practices without a view as to whether these practices make sense for each teacher’s context. It must feel suffocating.


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