When Students Own Their Learning Experiences

TED inspires student passion projects

6 min readJan 14, 2021

By Breanna Morsadi

I felt the true power of learner-centered education for the first time around ten years ago. My students from THINK Global School had just presented their own TED style talks to a local community in Athens, Greece, and had brought the audience to laughter, tears, and critical thought. Initially born as a teacher-led project, our module Create your TED Talk evolved into something bigger and inherently student-led — a symposium which empowered students to chase their curiosities, initiate and take full ownership of what became an annual school ritual, and, most importantly, own their learning experiences.

In scaffolding such a school-wide endeavor, it was key to continually ask, as John Spencer and A.J. Juliani remind us in their book Empower, “What am I doing for my learners that they could be doing for themselves?” My response to this question back in 2010 might have been, “Everything.” But once students began to own their learning, Create your TED Talk gained momentum amongst the students and became an intellectual rite of passage, a part of our student-led learning culture for years to come.

Students build their own task boards

Advisers knew the TED project would require an interdisciplinary commitment, agile environment, and management system for project tracking. The notorious task boards became the biggest hurdle of all — How would students timetable their individual learning journeys over 8–12 weeks, and how would we manage it school wide? John Spencer and A.J. Juliani state, “A curriculum map is exactly that — a map. And maps should inspire possibilities rather than limit options.” When students own their learning, they also own the right to map their own curriculum through project task boards. In theory, this part is messy. In reality, when the right management tool is in place, students track their individual learning journeys and plug project milestones in their own calendars. At THINK Global School, we use Headrush, a learner-centric management system for transparent design and tracking of all project calendars and progress. This is what a student owned task board looks like in action.

Create a TED Talk Task Board in Headrush

Students choose their own learning targets

Students first considered their “ideas worth spreading” and worked with advisors to identify learning targets they would need to achieve mastery and develop skills in research, the design cycle, rhetoric, and visual presentation, as well as content area subjects. Pat Misterovich, co-founder of u.school, states, “What Headrush allows us to do on the front-end is, when students define their Learning Opportunity, they have to answer all the who, what, when, where, why, how questions. Why am I doing this? Who is involved? What is it? Both from an academic, subject area lens, but also, they can select any Learning Target relevant to that Learning Opportunity — which at that point, it is already valuable; Just them thinking of a Learning Opportunity and then defining it using the Learning Targets, (a combination of the What and How of their Learning Opportunity), I’m already winning as a teacher.”

A snapshot of custom learning targets in Headrush

Students identify their own mentors

When advising students through their TED projects, it was clear they would need to identify their own external mentors and experts from the local and global community. This critical skill is highly valuable in our current internet era where experts of all kinds are an email or tweet away. In the past, I had always organized speakers for my students without thinking of the opportunity missed when students seek out mentors for themselves. My students emailed New York Times best-selling author, Jay Heinrichs, and scheduled a virtual call with him as they were mastering rhetoric with his book, Thank You for Arguing. Student Ayesha K. planned a meet-up with local street artists when researching her TED topic, Street Art as a Political Statement. Student Gijs D. contacted viral videographers through social media when developing editing skills for his talk. My students would have never gained practical 21st century social skills, in taking initiative and communication, had I accessed these networks for them. As more and more community mentors make themselves available in this ever-connected world, students are empowered as practitioners in their respective fields of study.

THINK Global students virtually chat with author Jay Heinrichs

Students organize their final showcase

A true learner-centered community flourishes when learning experiences are shared among all. Because their new-found knowledge was valued enough to be shared on a TED-like stage, students understood learning to be more than a mark in a grade book. They were invested in their learning and shared ownership of their final showcase — they even organized the venue, invites, hosts, equipment, and presentation format for the event. This in itself helped students develop a host of additional 21st century learning competencies, like information, media, and technology literacy, as well as collaboration and creativity, to name a few.

Student Erica M. leads a TED Talk

Students lead their own learning reflection

After their TED presentations, students realized the real learning journey was the project process rather than the final presentation. Resulting in a celebration of learning, their final TED showcase proved to be much more than a summative assessment. Deep self-assessment occurred after the talks, when students de-briefed regarding their own set-backs and successes throughout the journey. Whether during parent-teacher conferences, end-of-year reports, or periodic advisory check-ins, student-led reflections capture introspection, self-awareness, and honest feedback of their process and progress. This involves reflecting on the meta-view project timeline below.

Meta-view project timeline

As educators, we all know the fine line between inspiring commitment vs. compliance in our classrooms. John Spencer and A.J. Juliani say, “Your legacy as an educator is always determined by what your students do. You change the world by empowering your students to do the same.” When students own their learning experiences, their commitment is clear — they commit to learn for a higher purpose, beyond themselves. What began as a teacher-led project evolved into a meaningful student-led journey. While our TED talks inspired student passion projects, there are multiple different projects and learning scenarios that can inspire the same. Regardless of who initiates, inspires, designs, and/or manages a project, each learning scenario is bound to take on a life of its own and allow learners to chase their curiosities and pursue their passions.

HEADRUSH facilitates project-based learning from START to FINISH allowing students to become self-empowered learners, teachers to focus on mentoring great work and schools to be future-ready. Our Heroes of PBL series highlights individuals and organizations that are brave enough to break the mold of traditional education and are making a difference in the world of project-based learning. Join our community as we enhance dialog to support deeper learning. For more, follow @headrushapp on Twitter or visit us at https://headrushlearning.com.




We facilitate project-based learning from START to FINISH. Join our community as we enhance dialogue to support deeper learning.