Is Learner Driven Education Dangerous?

Is learner-driven education dangerous? Yes!

I’m a champion of self-directed and learner-driven education. It is a compelling and important part of the larger education ecosystem. I support the rights of others to embrace different philosophies and models, and some of my most engaging conversations are with people who hold to other approaches of education.

I don’t simply support the value of diverse education approaches, I see and celebrate the beauty of them. Yet, it is still common for me to encounter people who challenge the value, sometimes even the ethics, of learner-driven education, at least as they understand it. I often hear arguments like the following.

“Students don’t know what they don’t know. If you ask students what they want and need to learn, how are they supposed to know? That is our job as teachers and professors. We know what they need and we give it to them. Leaving it up to the students is irresponsible if not downright dangerous. At a minimum, it will inevitably lead to subpar results.”

If learner driven education was only about learners not listening to or learning from other people, I might agree with much of that critique. The problem (or maybe the lack of a real problem) is that this is a misunderstanding of both self-directed learning and the philosophy of learner-driven education. Nothing in learner-driven education ignores the fact that we can and do develop important knowledge and skills from other people. Learner-driven education is not against the real and incredible power that comes from learning with and among other people, often people who have a greater level of insight or expertise.

After all, students in learner-driven communities watch videos, read books and articles, interview people, engage in formal and informal apprenticeships, observe others, have mentors, sometimes take traditional and teacher-led courses, and participate in many other activities that involve learning with and from others.

Here is what is fundamentally different about learner-driven education. A community that embraces such a philosophy seeks to recognize, affirm, and amplify the voice, choice, ownership, and agency of the learner. This means respecting the questions, life contexts, and curiosities of each person. It means leaving room for people to make choices, to practice and develop a personal voice, and to be a creator or co-creator of the learning agenda.

Learner-driven education strives to honor the voice of students where they are at a given moment. We resist the idea that a learner’s voice is not valuable until it begins to resemble the voice of the teacher or professor. We do not ignore the concept of expertise, but we do believe in the value of a context where learners have choice on when, if, and how they engage with and learn from experts. We question, challenge, guide, and support; but when it comes to the larger education environment that we strive to cultivate, we resist the temptation to dictate.

We do this because we are convinced that agency and ownership are best cultivated by being respected and nurtured. Our goal is not the creation of complacent and compliant conformists who follow and submit to the will and declared expertise of others. We believe that democratic societies are bolstered by a people who think for themselves, act upon their convictions, and cultivate the character and courage necessary to effect change in the world around them.

Learner-driven education is not about ignoring experts. It is about about nurturing a nation of people who are ready to pursue expertise over and over again in life.

Is learner-driven education dangerous? Yes, it is dangerous to anyone who benefits from the complacency and unquestioned compliance of others. It is dangerous to those who would have us simply follow their lead. It is dangerous to those who are threatened by people who learn to think for themselves, who know that their voices and choices can make a difference in their own lives and the world around them. It is dangerous to people who believe that the world should be directed by a select group of experts who are therefore entitled to tell others what to do, when to do it, and how to do it; without question or conversation. It is dangerous to people who are threatened by others who ask difficult questions and are not quick to follow the lead on a “because I said so” basis. Learner-driven education is dangerous. It is dangerous and beautiful and necessary.

“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.”

Montesquieu

Oxygen-Deficient Schools & a 12-Year Personal Strategic Plan to Co-Create the Future of Education

A couple days ago I had the pleasure of joining a group of colleagues at the University of Nebraska Lincoln to discuss the future of education, and how to better prepare teachers to thrive in innovative learning environments. At one point, each of us were invited to share some of our current work in two minute lightning sessions.

I decided to test out my thinking about the need to shift from the 7 dominant industrial age priorities that shape so much of what we are doing in education. These include standardization & uniformity, mass production & scale, efficiency & order, quantification & measurement, centralized power & authoritarianism, mechanization & automation, as well as technology (applied scientific knowledge). I explained that these are all good and important aspects of modern society. They bring about countless benefits and innovations for humankind. They are not, however, an effective foundation upon which to build schools, learning communities, and classrooms.

Why don’t they work? It is because humans were not designed to crave these things? Design environments with these industrial / digital age priorities as the drivers and you get measured, orderly (sometimes), high-tech environments, but they lack humanity. They are incapable of breathing life into people. They cannot produce a contexts in which students are experiencing engaged, deep, lasting learning.

Again, these are all valuable, but not as the foundation. If these 7 priorities represented the air that we breath, it would be oxygen deficient air. When there is not enough oxygen in the air, it starts with subtle physiological changes, perhaps not even noticeable to most people. Then we start to see impaired thinking and attention. People have to work harder to accomplish tasks that were otherwise easy. From there we get to poor judgment, decreased coordination, fatigue, and an inability to manage emotions. Lower the oxygen enough and people might even fall asleep or eventually die. Perhaps that last step sounds a bit drastic, but do any of the others sound familiar? We see these same symptoms in schools and classrooms all over the world when they are built upon the industrial age priorities.

Instead, I proposed that we re-imagine an education system with a completely different set of priorities, ones that are so deeply embedded in the human experience that it is hard to deny their importance and relevance. Some might call this radical, but only if you consider the human experience radical. They are supported by both ancient wisdom and modern research. These priorities are so central to some of our most fundamental human yearnings, that most people can probably figure them out without access to research or ancient texts. They include adventures & quests, agency & action, compassion & connectedness, experimentation & play, mastery & growth, meaning & purpose, as well as wonder & mystery.

Now these are oxygen to human learning. Pump a classroom or learning environment with these priorities and people come to life. They are motivated, focused, curious, driven, alive, even inspired. These are not niceties to consider if we have extra time. They are not just useful tools for a good hook or introduction before you get to the main part of the lesson. When they are at the core of a learning experience, we see inspired human learning and flourishing.

If we are serious about improving and enriching schools and classrooms, then we must revisit our priorities. These 7 human-centered priorities work because they are in line with human nature. When we align our lessons and environments with how humans are designed, amazing things begin to happen.

Put a fish on the desert sand and it might flop around for awhile, but it eventually dies. Put it in water, and that same flopping, dying creature becomes full of life and movement. We can insist that deserts are better than ponds. We can demand that fish must learn to live in the harsh realities of sand. We can call for different types of sand or blame the providers of the sand. We can put fish in a glass for an hour a day while making them spend the rest of the time in the sand. We can hire people to walk around with spray bottles to keep the fish moist while still slowly dying…in the sand. None of this will change the fact that our environment is not aligned with the fish.

This is what we are doing in too much of our education system. People need oxygen to breath because that is how they are designed. In the same way, learners need certain human-centered fundamentals to grow and thrive. These fundamentals are like oxygen to the learning self.

Yet, we’ve been living in oxygen deficient schools for so long that we’ve come to think it normal, necessary, even good. If we are going to transform the system, then we need to rebuild on this new foundation of human-centered priorities that are so central to the human experience that they largely transcend time and culture.

Here are 10 ways for us to get started:

  1. Create new resources and experiences to reconnect teachers and school leaders with the 8 human-centered priorities in their own lives. Remind them what it is like to breath deeply from an oxygen rich environment.
  2. Create and share guides and templates for human-centered lesson planning. This means a lesson plan that emphasizes the 7 human-centered priorities over the industrial age priorities.
  3. Create and share guides and templates for human-centered curriculum development.
  4. Design & offer online and/or in-person training for launching new schools and programs focused upon the 7 human-centered design priorities.
  5. Build a consortium of schools committed to supporting one another in human-centered learning experience design.
  6. Create & share a collection of lesson, classroom, and school exemplars.
  7. Design & offer focused online webinars, workshops, and unconventional training experiences focused upon each of the 7 human-centered priorities.
  8. Design & host X-Prize -like competitions that celebrate, reward, and encourage the design of innovations focused upon the 7-human centered design priorities.
  9. Offer training and consulting for schools, groups of schools, publishers, and education companies seeking to build research and development (R&D) teams that produce the next generation of resources that celebrate the 7 human-centered design priorities.
  10. Create tours and opportunities for people to visit and witness the wonder and power of schools that are truly built upon the foundation of the 7 human-centered design priorities.

I’ve been writing, designing, and thinking about so much of this for decades. What I just shared with you is the draft of a framework, a sort of personal strategic plan that I intend to use as a way to focus my effort and influence. I’ve decided to turn this into a template for my independent writing, designing, and speaking from 2019 to 2031. It is a systematic, slow, steady, 12-year personal strategic plan. My mission is to inject as much oxygen as possible into the modern educational ecosystem.

In November I joined a higher education community that embraces so many of these priorities. Now look for my personal writing and passion projects to focus on these areas as well.

10 Education Trends to Watch: What is on the Horizon in 2019?

We are two months into 2019, and I’m finally ready to share my education predictions. As many of my regular readers know, this is not a random list that I throw together at the last minute. It is based upon an ongoing, relentless analysis of what has been in development over years (or sometimes decades); consideration of the current conditions; and an examination of the various levers that often lead to a trend being amplified or muzzled in a given moment.

I am not trying to create a list of buzz words that peak interest. I’m happy to use concepts that have been known and used for the last century, but only if there is something new to consider or watch. As I review my list for this year, there are ideas that have been around for millennia. I include them this year because I anticipate an important change or turning point.

I make no claims of a neutral or objective assessment. There is a measure of activism in my predictions. I am predicting what my ongoing analysis leads me to believe is likely, but I candidly use this to highlight that which interests me (because of potential positive implications, negative implications, or a mix of the two). And because I’m a researcher/practitioner, I’m already actively engaged in trying to co-create the future in many of these areas.

Finally, note that these are “trends to watch.” I use this language because I believe that these are worthy of our attention, sometimes because of the direct impact of a trend, but also because of the indirect impact or the important lessons that we can learn…even when/if some of these fail to deliver on their promises.

With these important caveats, here is my list for 2019.

Humanizing Education

I’ve been using the word “humanize” in reference to education for years, but I’m not the only one. For some, this is a word used to get at concerns about what people deem as the abuse or misuse of technology. I don’t use it that way. I’m using it to direct people’s attention to the fundamental notion that education is, at its core, a deeply human endeavor. This calls for shedding a narrowly mechanistic or reductionist approach to education design, learning experience design, education innovation, as well as education policy and practice.

As we see adaptive learning and AI find their ways into education, there is a parallel conversation about how we can embrace these technologies and innovations, but doing so in ways that honor, even celebrate, the lived human experience, learner voice and choice, the importance of individual and collective well-being, and a growing body of knowledge about human learning, agency, and motivation.

Positive Psychology in Education

Positive psychology continues to grow in general, but the applications for education will be amplified this year. Expect more research, frameworks, models, methods, and approaches to education that draw upon the rapidly growing body of knowledge that looks at the psychology of human flourishing.

It is difficult to find people in education who are not familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on fixed versus growth mindsets, or Angela Duckworth’s research on grit. Yet, there are hundreds of other researchers doing fascinating work in this larger field of positive psychology, and we can expect 2019 to be a year where more of these scholars (or their ideas) reach the same sort of mainstream conversation.

I’d keep my eye out for the fascinating research on the psychology of awe, wonder, gratitude, and mastery. While I’m personally intrigued by these four, I’m not sure if they are the ones to hit the education mainstream in 2019, but awareness will undoubtedly expand this year.

Education R&D

Yes, this is one of my primary areas of emphasis in education, and even while my time is focused on being president of a college these days, I do have a consulting business focused upon helping schools embrace education R&D. So, allow me to use this as a reminder that my predictions are not neutral.

Nonetheless, the idea of research and development in the corporate world is being explored and applied in higher education and education companies in intriguing ways. In 2019, we will see this grow, being increasingly common in the public discourse, and finding its way into more K-12 schools and school collaborative efforts.

More people recognize that innovation and differentiation are not optional for organizations today. They are and must become a core part of a thriving education organization’s strategy and culture.

Notice that I’m predicting a growing focus on R&D and not simply innovation. This is a critical distinction. R&D is more systematic, closely tied to the strategic goals and mission of an organization, and keenly focused on a desirable return on investment. Innovation has too often been framed as a value in itself. A shift to a R&D approach will help our discourse and mindset around innovation evolve into something far more mission-minded and ultimately more beneficial for everyone involved.

Academic Partnerships / New Expressions of Education in a Networked World

We are still figuring out what it means to live in a connected and networked world, and while many schools have embraced strategic partnerships and connections for decades, we are going to see several high profile announcements about new and different types of collaborations in 2019. Some of this will be driven by necessity. Some of it will come from what will later be revealed as moments of serendipity. Most often, however, it will come from a growing awareness of how to live and learn in a connected world. More leaders in education are seeing enough exemplars to finally understand how partnerships and collaborations can be mutually beneficial, perhaps even necessary for survival.

I expect 2019 to be a year of new experimentation in this regard, and I plan to be directly involved in that work.

Storytelling

Out of all of the items in my list, this might be the most ancient. I certainly cannot claim that storytelling is a new “trend”, and yet it is becoming a newly discovered one in education communities.

Many schools are not good at storytelling, not internally or externally. Yet, in an increasingly crowded marketplace of ideas, there is a craving to find methods to connect with people in deep, memorable, and meaningful ways. For many, they will find the answer in new, multi-modal, cross-platform approaches to storytelling. The smallest of learning organization will and can capture the attention of the larger world, even amid the multi-million dollar marketing investments of a small number of educational behemoths.

School Startups

Amid the talk about school closings on the higher education level, people have missed the more significant story, the massive growth of education and learning community startups. I’m defining learning community as broadly as possible, to include contexts as simple a Facebook group with a learning or education focus. This is necessary if we want to understand how education is evolving in our connected age. We can’t limit ourselves by narrow mental models or constructs about what constitutes a “school.”

Look for more informal or outsider learning communities in 2019, but I’m also stepping out and saying that we can expect plenty of new school startups (or startups in the works). 90% of the time, these will not be standard schools. They will have a niche, a distinct focus; what I’ve long referred to as unavoidable, undeniable, school-shaping concepts.

Even as some colleges are at risk of closure, you can expect to hear about as many as a dozen new college launches. They will not all launch this year, but look for them to announce their plans, oftentimes in conjunction with an understanding of trend #4 about partnerships and collaboration. This means that some will be standalone efforts, but others will be attached to an existing school or organization. I expect the same thing to occur on the K-12 level, although there has been a rapid emergence of new K-12 schools for the last two decades. What is different on that level is that it has never been easier for a person or group of people to launch a new K-12 micro-school. Plus, school founders don’t presume that their school startups will last for decades.

Talent Management in Education

In certain levels of higher education, the competition over top talent has been going on for a long time. This type of thinking is not common in K-12 and less competitive higher education institutions. What I’m predicting for 2019 is that more education leaders are going to discover new and improved ways to find and connect with the talent that they need. Some of this will be aided by new employment platforms and startups focused upon solving this problem. Other parts of it will be highlighted by a growing public conversation about the limitations of so many simplistic and transactional hiring practices that achieve subpar results. The science and art of true talent management is something that will capture the attention of more education leaders this year.

Challenges & Competitions

Foundations have a history of using challenges to find worthy recipients of their funding and support. Communities use them to gather engagement and interest around a valued goal or theme. Companies are using them to find talent or great ideas. Serious game designers are creating them to achieve any number of goals around learning or awareness of a valued cause.

We are reaching a point where challenges and competitions are just about to show up as the next MOOC-like trend in education. I’m not sure if competitions and challenges are packaged enough to garner the same viral media attention, but looking at what seems like a convergence of ideas and developments, 2019 might just be the year where we see this begin to happen. I expect it to start in 2019 with some high profile partnerships between education institutions and other organizations. In 10 years, I suspect that we will look back at 2019 as a turning point.

Experiential Education

First I included storytelling, and now I’m putting experiential education in a trend to watch in 2019? Any student of education knows that this is most certainly nothing new. Agreed. Here is what is new.

Technologies like augmented, virtual and mixed reality have reached a level of maturity that will help amplify and help us re-imagine what experiential education looks like.

Assessment innovation has evolved enough to give us ways to measure growth with experiential education.

Research on the power and importance of engagement and how knowledge transfer works is increasingly known.

Then there is a growing yearning for meaning and differentiation among schools.

There is more public interest in apprenticeships and experiential approaches to education.

More people are questioning the traditional sit and get methods of schooling.

Put all of these together and we have the conditions for a rapid increase in experiential education experimentation in 2019 and beyond.

Authentic and “Alternative” Assessment Goes Mainstream

The growth of alternative credentials along with the rapid increase in critics of the letter grade system leaves people looking for something better than what we’ve done in the past. The push for improved ways to help people find jobs and help companies find qualified people is also growing. Alongside both of these, we have decades of authentic assessment exemplars on every level of education, but we’ve not fully grown into understanding what this means, what opportunities it creates for organizations and communities. 2019 is a year of awakening in this regard. As outdated assessment and grading practices begin to lose their grip on the education ecosystem at large in 2019, we can expect it to launch us into a new era of educational innovation and experimentation.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my “predictions” each year are not neutral. They are informed by a mix of research and aspiration. They are also not simple trends. These come from a careful and ongoing assessment of what is happening in education and society over years and decades. As such, I’m looking forward to tracking and/or helping amplify the impact of these trends through and beyond this current year.

Visit www.etale.org often to follow developments in these and related areas.