Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Building block – Learner Ownership

by Robin Schmidt & Bridget Watson

Walking into my first class in China, I was struck by the reality that there were a lot of people in that class. How was I going to make any of this stuff meaningful and helpful? What was I going to do to ensure that these little people (for they were third graders after all) had the opportunities in class to practice and grow in their learning? (Robin)

One thing I notice both as I teach and as I observe others, is the sense of deep responsibility that teachers put upon themselves to be the Native Speaker who must be a part of all interactions in the classroom. You cannot be the center of your classroom.  You shouldn’t be the center of your classroom. (Bridget)

As we look at the building blocks of teaching, we want everything we do to be intentional. As we seek to empower the students, we also want to give them tools that will allow them to continue to grow in their language development beyond the time they sit under our care. In other words, we are preparing them for real world learning by enabling them, with systematic instruction and guidance, to take responsibility and ownership of their learning.

Whether our classes have 80 students or 8, we should ask ourselves:

  • What purpose does my pair or group work serve?
  • In light of fostering learner autonomy, how should I group my students for each portion of my lesson?
  • Do my students really need me for this task?  Can they work with each other, negotiating any difficulties without me?

Many lesson plans are made up of a series of tasks, building up to some kind of production. As we evaluate each element of our lesson, it is wise to ask ourselves how the students could tackle the task rather than the teacher being the source of all knowledge.  Each type of grouping can serve a few purposes.


  • Giving an individual student some time to think and process can lead to more fruitful follow-up.  This follow-up may be in pairs or groups or as a teacher elicits with the whole class.
  • Homework cannot be ignored.  This can be a time for the individual to work with a structure or concept before heading into class and using it.


  • Pairing ensures more time for students to practice.  It can also be a safe situation where just two people work on a task.  Changing partners can also be useful to give individuals further chances to practice within a safe “community” and benefit from classmates’ strengths.
  • Nurture self- and peer-editors by creating checklists and reflection sheets for students to use as they analyze their own and each other’s work.  (See an example of a checklist and reflection sheet.)


  • If a task or text is big, dividing the load among group members makes it much more manageable.
  • Assigning a role to each group member further promotes student ownership over their learning.
  • If students have had time to think individually or in pairs, group time can serve to further hone ideas.

Whole Class

Often smaller groupings lead into a whole class time.  There are other significant times when whole class time is better:

  • presenting material
  • modeling
  • giving instruction
  • clarifying

Ideally, every student buys into this idea of working with their classmates to build their house of bricks. Perhaps if a teacher uses intentional groupings in order to prod students in the direction of owning their learning experience, then students will buy into group work with much more enthusiasm.

Further Exploration

What’s your perspective?

  • Every teacher and learner carries around their own set of beliefs. If students aren’t sold on the concept of learner ownership, they will not be as willing to utilize group time in the way you wish. What do we need to communicate to our students in order for them to understand our purpose of empowering them?
  • Are we forming groups and pairs simply because it is nice to “shake things up a bit” in the lesson, or are we using it as a means of helping the learners hone their skills of working in community by valuing each othersinput and cooperation?
  • How important do you think it is to the Master Teacher that we, as language teachers, take ourselves out of the center of the classroom? Which passages may support that view?

Post Authors

ba58f-robinRobin Schmidt has been teaching in China since 2000, Bridget Watson s2b662-bridgetince 2001. Both received their M.A. TESOL through Azusa Pacific University and completed a certificate in TESOL Teacher Mentoring in cooperation with Wheaton College. Both currently live with their families in Harbin, China where they combine their expertise and experiences to serve as Co-Teaching Specialists.

Photo Credit: Ben Watson

One comment on “Building block – Learner Ownership

  1. Melissa K. Smith
    November 13, 2014

    Next week in my Practicum in TESOL course, we'll be talking about managing classroom participation. I'm planning to approach it from the perspective of learner autonomy like you have. I'm really interested to see if that makes a deeper impression on the teachers in my class than other ways I've approached group work or participation in the past. Thanks for the idea. 🙂


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