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Subversive learning: We learn best when it’s OUR idea

3 min read


Overcoming my dad telling me that I could never amount to anything is what has made me the megalomaniac that you see today. —Bono

Sometimes bucking the system feels good, renegade or even revolutionary. When we throw away the status quo and typical extrinsic motivators, it’s amazing what we can do.

Consider Jimmy Wales, Michael Jordan and Dr. Seuss. While their accomplishments have been incredibly different, they all fought hard in the face of harsh critics.

Beyond anecdotal evidence, research also shows us that flat cooperation for a common goal often motivates us more than aimlessly following directives from a hierarchical superior.

According to the book “How People Learn,” “This devolution of authority and move toward cooperative participation results directly from, and contributes to, an intense cognitive motivation.”

In short, we’re more motivated when it’s OUR idea. The more we can exert control over our choices, the more likely we will persist when the going gets tough.

So, what does this mean for K-12 classrooms?

Quite simply, let students decide.

When we challenge students to design their own learning, we unlock an immense resource: students’ desire to exceed our wildest expectations and prove us wrong.

Let students choose:

  • Topics
  • Formats
  • Audiences

So, what does this mean for teacher professional development?

Quite simply, let the teachers decide.

Think about your personal experience. If you’re reading this post, it’s likely that you blog, tweet and read RSS feeds. No one is telling you to do these things. You do them because you believe they are helpful, and also because they offer you an opportunity to disprove all those who think that PD must be delivered. Clearly, a lot of learning happens in spite of authority’s well-intentioned plans.

Teachers should choose:

  • Collaborative members
  • Purpose
  • Time(s)

So, what does this mean for higher education?

Quite simply, let the students chart their own path.

Students should create their own degrees from interests and self-selected courses. Formats should be diverse, including online, face-to-face and hybrid options. Assessments should be authentic, and students should be challenged to solve problems that can make a difference in the community or the world.

Learners should choose:

  • Goals
  • Tasks
  • Pace

Are you starting to see a pattern here?

When learning is the learner’s idea, everyone wins.

Kristen Swanson (@kristenswanson) is a learner, leader and teacher. She is a consultant for Authentic Education and an Edcamp organizer. Swanson is also a Google Certified Teacher, a Twitter teacher, an Edublog Award nominee and author of the book “Professional Learning in the Digital Age.”