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Learner-driven learning

Education leader Fred Ende shares three ideas for shifting to student-driven learning.

5 min read




When it comes to learning, we all instinctively know who should be in the driver’s seat.

The learner.

Sure, we need to build the capacity of our youngest and our oldest to take the steering wheel and drive, but, we should be doing that in a way that is akin to how student-driver cars are built: with a fail-safe in the hands (or feet) of the instructor, and everything else in the hands of the student.

Getting to learner-driven learning is a multiple-pathway process, but here are three intersections where we can look to make the “right” turn when we arrive.

Question, rather than answer. In terms of putting learning in the hands of learners, it is much more powerful to know the questions, than to know the answers. The best educators aren’t the keepers of content. They are the sharers of questions, happy to know less about information and more about inquiry. Building a conversation, class or course around a series of questions helps to showcase that learning is about a process. Yes, it is a process of seeking answers, but also one of uncovering new questions to ask. Since a question, by its nature, is not an endpoint, educating through questioning puts the power in the hands of those who will be learning the new questions to ask. And that often allows the power to be shared by all. It took me a long time to realize the value of saying “I don’t know,” but once I discovered that I didn’t lose anything through this statement — and rather, gained more for myself, and my students — I felt confident saying it regularly, paired with a “let’s find out.”

Keep it interactive. While a quest built on questions serves as a great foundation, we need to make sure that if we want learners to do the driving, we keep the learning about “doing.” After all, we can’t do all our driving from the passenger seat — at least not with current technology; not yet anyway. We all need to feel engaged, and to do that, we need to feel as if we are a part of the learning experience. In other words, it is doing “with us,” rather than “to us.” When learners drive the learning, they are fully engaged in the thinking, doing and reflecting that occurs. For example, I recently had an opportunity to lead a webinar using a very different virtual tool. The tool, called Shindig, builds in much of what we need to feel in order for a webinar to happen with us, rather than to us. With avatars, integrated video, and opportunities to break up into small discussion groups, it is the most face-to-face virtual experience I have ever had. After that session, I finally realized why webinars had never worked for me before: I had previously felt like an audience member, rather than a participant. The same is the case for any learner-driven experience; learners must be participants.

Follow up. Even after learners are doing the actual driving, they can still run into trouble. The tank can be on empty, a tire can go flat, a battery can go bad. In all these situations, support is a necessity. Learner-driven learning can’t be just about the learner doing the driving 24/7. As skills build and/or problems develop, we need to provide follow-up to keep the vehicle — and the learner — headed in the right direction, and the right direction for the learner, not necessarily for us. In my book, “Professional Development That Sticks,” I talk about the necessity to provide future opportunities for learning and support so that all that has been learned so far doesn’t become deserted and overgrown, much like an abandoned road. One of the best things we can do to keep learning in the hands of the learner is to make it clear that we’re invested in them charting their own course, and that we’re there to help them find their way.

There are many potential drivers along the path of learning. But there is really only one subset of drivers who should be behind the wheel. Those are the ones with the licenses to learn, in other words, those who are currently occupying a learning frame. And that means that if we aren’t currently in that frame, we need to be comfortable sitting in the passenger seat and letting the learner take the wheel.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:


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