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Learner-driven learning: Part 2

Get tips from education leader Fred Ende to help set the stage for learner-driven learning.

6 min read

Voice of the Educator



A few months back — in November of 2016, to be exact–, I wrote a piece for SmartBrief titled “learner-driven learning” that seemed to resound for a number of readers. In it, I shared three “intersections” of learning:“Question, Rather Than Answer”, “Keep It Interactive” and “Follow-Up”, and how we can move through them and exit on the “right” side of the road, with the “right” side being the side where learners are taking the wheel. Read that piece.

So when the opportunity to write more about learner-driven learning arose, I jumped at the opportunity –well, not literally jumped, but I did do a few fist-pumps. One of the aspects that I wished I would have expanded on in that original piece was laying the groundwork for learners to actually take the wheel. The three “intersections” shared are great for when the student is already ready to drive. But how do we build the capacity to actually get in the driver’s seat?

With that in mind, here are three strategies we can use, or frames we can adopt, to first help our learners get behind the wheel.

Back off. It’s not easy. Whether we are approaching learning from a role of that of a teacher, a parent, a coach, or what have you, gradually turning responsibility of the learning over to the learner is something that can be a constant struggle for us. For instance, just today I was talking to one of our workshop facilitators about inventive spelling, and how as educators (and parents) we need to stop telling our youngest learners how to spell words, shifting instead to asking them to stretch words out and use the letters they “see” as they are spelling the word, in an effort to help them make meaning. This conversation led me to an epiphany about my own work as a parent. While I don’t tend to correct my daughter’s spelling, I’m constantly helping her spell words when she asks. And maybe I shouldn’t be. The fact is, we all need to take a few steps back, and let learners progress down their own pathways. While we always want to be “close” to the learner (whether it be because of love, time investment, need for affirmation, etc.), we need to start realizing that we’ll tend to be “closer” in the long run if we remove ourselves ever so slightly from the foreground of a learner’s path, and become more comfortable living a bit closer to the background. Once learners realize they can learn themselves, they are more likely to feel comfortable directing their own learning, and just as importantly, advocating for it, if the opportunity isn’t given directly.

Know those you serve. One of the most important ways to set the stage for learner-driven learning is to truly know those we serve. This doesn’t mean getting to know names or faces, but rather, what actually makes a student (of any age) “tick.” This takes time, effort and much work remembering and reflecting. This also means building a relationship deeper than the door; we can’t just care for the “classroom” or “workshop” learner. We have to know about their families, the districts they come to us from, their pasts, and who they aspire to be, or where they hope to “end up.” These are not questions that can only be asked through beginning of the year surveys, or via workshop enrollment forms. Rather, we need to continue to explore these with our learners, to get at what they truly need and who they truly are. This is yet another example of where a simple protocol like the “five whys?” can be so powerful. Questions that allow us to really know learners are questions that have to be asked multiple times and in multiple ways. Simply, the “five whys” involves someone asking another person, or a group, “why?” at least five times to get at the multiple layers of a challenge. A question asked once will always result in a less refined answer than one asked twice. And questions asked when relationships have been built will always be more helpful than questions asked when no relationship is yet present. This process of knowing also serves as good modeling, preparing our learners to truly “know” those they hope to learn from and, more importantly, to really “know” themselves.

Focus on fun. In the profession of education, fun seems to have taken a backseat to seriousness. For many reasons, this is rightly so, but I contend that without a focus on fun, there is simply little reason for any learner to want to take the wheel. If driving was never a pleasant experience; there was never an opportunity to roll down the windows and feel the air on our face, or to turn up the radio and sing at the top of our lungs, then I believe we wouldn’t want to do it. Certainly, there are some taxing parts of driving (anyone ever drive the Long Island Expressway, or D.C. Beltway, or Los Angeles freeway system?), but these are balanced by the bliss that comes with a great ride in a car. Learning should be the same, right? We need the fun factor to be always within reach, so it helps balance out the portions of learning that are more taxing, and in fairness, there will always be a bunch of these. We need to help learners see that fun is always a focus, and even when we aren’t having it while we are learning, we can see that it will be back in the picture soon enough.

We can’t make learner-driven learning happen for others. But, as I mentioned in November, we can help them make the right turns to keep the learning in their seat once they are behind the wheel. Even more instrumental? We can take a step back, truly know our future drivers, and keep fun on the radio dial so that when our learners are ready to take the wheel they know what to do.

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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