The Difference Between Learning and Being Taught

This distinction lies at the heart of school reform. In fact, it is a distinction important not only for the future of education but for the future of the society in general since it has to do with humans’ capacity to be creative and to make progress. In other words, it affects all of us. But how many of us have given it the attention it deserves?

Traditional education is build on the premise that students go to school to be taught. They go to school to acquire knowledge and skills that are deemed necessary for succeeding in life. But what is or isn’t necessary to be taught in school is the adults’ decision, not the students’. Are students themselves convinced they need to learn what they are being taught in school? In my experience, most students aren’t. And because the drive for attending school is not based on their intrinsic needs and interests, most students remain passive and disengaged.

What if students came to school to pursue something they themselves deemed interesting and necessary? What if education were redesigned around students’ curiosities and talents? Around real-world tasks, questions and problems the individual students felt compelled to tackle? Around needs and interests recognized and owned by the students? Wouldn’t that make it likely for students to actively engage in learning? I have no doubt it would! Having a personal goal would bring with it a sense of purpose and the conviction that one invests effort into something worthwhile. This would engage anybody’s mind, not just a student’s. And it would prime that mind for learning.

An education model centred on the individual learner, such as the model promoted by Inspiring Education, brings the distinction between learning and being taught to the fore. Its aim is to move away from the expectation and practice of being taught, and to cultivate instead the kind of active and self-directed learning that our modern world demands. To accomplish this, education must be redesigned around the individual learners’ interests and needs. It must allow for learners’ participation in real-world endeavours. And it must use real-world metrics to evaluate and reward. In brief, education must cease to take place in isolation and it must become part of the real world.

I know that all of this is easier said than done. I realize that we are all getting tired of talking and would like to start seeing some concrete changes. Although not many people dispute the need for change, putting innovative ideas into practice within the education realm turns out to be particularly tough. As Steve Hargadon says, most of us “live in a state of cognitive dissonance” with respect to this topic. We have a hard time to break free from the current model because it is the only one we know. “How do you tell a new story that involves people reclaiming their destinies, children not being defective, and learning not being owned by one organization?” Hargadon wonders. According to John Abbott, the answer lies in reimagining the whole society first, in its total upgrading to the Information Age. We need to expand the responsibility for learning from just the schools to whole communities, and to create an education environment where children and youth learn by doing useful and worthwhile work for which they feel genuinely valued. And for this to happen, we must make away with our society’s ingrained tendency to control and regulate schooling. A lot more flexibility and autonomy will be needed. We will need to let go!


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