We are all born learners

You were born to do this.

Our awareness of the world and our place in it is fueled by a natural sense of inquisitiveness and curiosity. When we encourage this motivation we discover that our capabilities extend far beyond the limits of school and work.

School does many things well, but it wasn’t built for today’s culture or technology. No one is at fault, but all of us are responsible. The one-to-many, textbook-based classroom broadcast is over. It’s our job to create new, innovative opportunities. Learners must solve problems, identify opportunities, and create value even as they face an increasingly complex and uncertain future.

This is an amazing moment in the history of learning.

So what can a teacher do to help students make real-world connections?

Put the student in charge.

Instead of building for students, build with them. When I meet a new class, I present a series of possibilities. I tell them how difficult consensus is to achieve. I quote Ben Franklin’s “We all hang together or we all hang separately.” Then I walk out of the room so they can come to agreement on one question: What do you really want out of this semester?

Focus on learning

We learn naturally, passionately, individually, and collaboratively. School reeks of bureaucracy, standardization, even incarceration. In order to help students refocus on learning, which ignites their motivation and self-expression, ask them to identify a Big Question they’d like to investigate. This doesn’t mean they’ll answer it. Sometimes they don’t even get around to investigating it. But it does give them the opportunity to frame the curriculum in a way they find valuable.

Learners benefit most when they find something that is so worth figuring out that they practice and fail repeatedly until they succeed. This requires trust. (Note: Trusting students is important, but it’s actually less important than giving them a reason to trust in their education and the people responsible for it.)

Say yes.

There’s a long list of people in every student’s life who can say “no.” Hardly anyone is willing and able to say “yes.”  Make no mistake — this is real power. And often it costs nothing. So when a student wants to invite U2’s keyboardist to class or learn to fly a plane or take our entire community to Yosemite or write a novel or become a chef or — you name it — let the answer be “yes.”

This is an amazing moment in the history of learning. I’m excited for the many learners and educators (whether they work in schools or not) who are practicing elements of what I call Open Source Learning. In this approach to learning, students use 2.0 tools to create their online identities, express themselves, and demonstrate what they can do.

I define Open Source Learning as “A guided learning process that combines timeless best practices with today’s tools in a way that empowers learners to create interdisciplinary paths of inquiry, communities of interest and critique, and a portfolio of knowledge capital that is directly transferable to the marketplace.”

Students use Open Source Learning to create a wild variety of personal goals, Big QuestionsCollaborative Working Groups, and online portfolios of work. They can leverage these artifacts as a competitive advantage in applying for jobs, scholarships, and admission to colleges and universities. You can see a sample course blog here and some personal member blogs here.

(Originally published 8.28.14 at https://www.commonsense.org/education/blog/we-are-born-learners)

[Header Image: My daughter Tara learning the cello with Laura Ritchie and friends. Image: David Preston]