Learning Without Us

A new article in Educational Leadership was brought to my attention: Preparing Students to Learn Without Us by Will Richardson. As I read it I thought, once again, here is an educator willing to entertain this thought as long as the teacher remains in charge of how the learning occurs, in this case by linking a student’s personal interest in something to the core curriculum in whatever convoluted way necessary to achieve the goal.  The main point that John Holt, Ivan Illich, and others make so often—learning is the result of the activity of learners, not necessarily a result of teaching—always seems to get quickly lost in all school reform discussions. Instead, how teachers and schools are altered by technology that can personalize learning becomes the issue, and we ignore the human disruptive innovation—people learning from situations and other people outside of conventional schooling—and focus on the machinery: how technology will make existing schools continue as they are, only better. The important insight provided by Jacques Ellul and later Illich, that schooling itself is a technology used to control a population, is glossed over or not even considered in the rush to claim the latest technology that will change schooling.

However, unschoolers and some alternative schools have, for decades, supported independent learning for children, without using any of the latest educational technology as their justification for doing so. They use people in their families and communities, classes, projects, volunteering, and other opportunities to live and learn; they aren’t being tracked and assessed dynamically through cookies and cameras, but rather engage and discuss their situation with those working with them in order to know how they are doing. Many homeschoolers do use online courses, but I think not nearly as much as they use offline courses and learning opportunities (I wish there were more research about homeschoolers and their use of distance learning compared to how school uses it now and proposes to use it in the future. Does anyone know of such studies?). It is interesting to me that trusting people to decide what, when, how, and from whom they will learn is palatable to most educators only when they can use technology to control and predict what learners are doing. Technology is truly, in this instance, a double-edge sword.

The few dissenters cited at the end of the article give me hope that some in the teaching profession feel they should not be in the people-shaping business—trying to mold individual students to fit into job slots determined by their performance in school—and have not lost sight of a student’s humanity, dignity, and unique powers to learn.

The article starts off, as many do today, by paying lip service to the idea that we are learning all the time and that school interrupts that process. Unschoolers, in particular, can use or take heart from the arguments being made in support of letting learners control more of their learning and, who knows? Perhaps among teachers who think as the dissenters in this article do, we have allies who want to help create a learning society built around democracy and free will rather than a regime of mandatory continuing education, built around the plans of others and controlled through technology. Here are some excerpts to give you the gist of what I’m trying to convey about this article, which can be read in its entirety: Preparing students to learn without us.

The ability to learn what we want, when we want, with whomever we want as long as we have access creates a huge push against a system of education steeped in time-and-place learning. Notes McLeod,


Between adaptive software that can present and assess mastery of content, video games and simulations that can engage kids on a different level, and mobile technologies and online environments that allow learning to happen on demand, we need to fundamentally rethink what we do in the classroom with kids. (personal communication, October 1, 2011)


That rethinking revolves around a fundamental question: When we have an easy connection to the people and resources we need to learn whatever and whenever we want, what fundamental changes need to happen in schools to provide students with the skills and experiences they need to do this type of learning well? Or, to put it more succinctly, are we preparing students to learn without us? How can we shift curriculum and pedagogy to more effectively help students form and answer their own questions, develop patience with uncertainty and ambiguity, appreciate and learn from failure, and develop the ability to go deeply into the subjects about which they have a passion to learn?

. . . ."It requires a totally different skill set on the teacher's part," Stutzman says. "We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because we don't know the exact direction that a class will go when we walk in. Depending on student questions, reflections, or activities, our plans could quickly morph into something we never dreamed would happen at the outset."

In other words, it's risk and reward. "It's scary not to know exactly where your students will go if their curriculums are potentially different, and it requires a lot of adjusting," Stutzman explains. "But the benefit is that students get to see our genuine reactions to new discoveries as well as to challenges, and they see us model the learning process together." Students understand that there is no one "right" answer that the teacher expects, that there are many answers, and that the teacher and students will likely discover many of these together.

. . . Assessment changes as well. Donhauser says that the emphasis moves to assessing in the moment rather than at the end of a book or unit. "Rather than having a defined product that I receive from 25 students," she says, "I receive 25 individual assignments with their own unique content, insights, and styles." Using Google Docs, students continually update their progress, and she provides regular feedback. Students also give one another feedback on their plans as they go. Everyone follows a rubric that covers such areas as standards, learning outcomes, artifact explanation, blog posts, learning activities, work ethic, and research.

. . . Despite the promise of personalizing learning and some teachers' best efforts to give their students more agency in the education process, many educators wonder whether the concept goes far enough in preparing students for the wide array of learning opportunities outside the classroom.

Many educators cite an important difference between "personalized" learning and "personal" learning—the latter connotes a deeper degree of autonomy for the learner. Some, like Stephen Downes, a senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada and a longtime education blogger, see that as an important distinction. "Autonomy is what distinguishes between personal learning, which we do for ourselves, and personalized learning, which is done for us," Downes (2011) tweeted last fall.

. . . It's a potential summed up nicely in the white paper The Right to Learn (Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation, 2011). The authors write,

We need to shift our thinking from a goal that focuses on the delivery of something—a primary education—to a goal that is about empowering our young people to leverage their innate and natural curiosity to learn whatever and whenever they need to. The goal is about eliminating obstacles to the exercise of this right—whether the obstacle is the structure and scheduling of the school day, the narrow divisions of subject, the arbitrary separation of learners by age, or others—rather than supplying or rearranging resources. (p. 6)