Responsible learners

Most students in classrooms are like migrant workers getting transported on the back of a truck. The driver cannot be responsible for the bumps in the road that send a few workers flying off the truck. The driver cannot slow down or take time to listen to a worker's questions, concerns and worries. The truck gets where it's going regardless of how many workers stayed on board.

This becomes a stalemate. If the classroom instructor cannot be responsible for each student's experience, then the students will not be responsible either. Everyone is acting irresponsible for each other and for what could be learned from their mutual torment. This lesson of irresponsibility gets ignored repeatedly, even when the lesson is extremely tragic like Columbine High School eight years ago and Virginia Tech this week.

I expect most classroom learning will vanish in the coming decade. The web is an ideal technology to support responsible learners and mentors. Returning to the analogy of the truck of migrant workers, here's what will be different when classrooms get replaced by the next generation of online learning. Each migrant worker will have:

  • a steering wheel to turn the truck where they want to go immediately, to spend some time or to explore for the first time

  • a gear shift to back up and go over the same ground, to cover familiar ground quickly or to proceed cautiously

  • a brake pedal to slow down, stop and park while going off somewhere else

  • a gas tank that gets refilled with fuel for the progress they are making
Imagine if each student would not receive any instruction unless she or he asked a question, made a request or sought guidance. Nothing would happen until the student took responsibility for the next learning experience. No question -- no instruction, no forced feeding, no passive consumption. Once the student's request was handled, everything would ground to a halt until the student asked again.

Classroom educators pale at this thought. They assume (correctly IMHO) that students would quickly evacuate their classrooms. By taking responsibility for what they learn, how quickly and when, students would have no further use for classroom delivery systems. Why turn over the truck to an irresponsible driver when the freedom to take responsibility is supported by eLearning systems? Why be bored when learning can feel like an adventure? Why stand around in the back of the truck when every learner belongs behind the wheel?

Technorati tags: , ,


  1. Sounds like an interactive game - the gamers get no feed back unless they ask a question, make a request or seek guidance. I think that many in the upcoming generation are ready for the same rules in education.

  2. Thanks for adding that thought Harold. I think you're right about that.

  3. I think students would need to weaned from the old dis-empowered learner model to the new responsible learner model...It would be shock for them to do this without a transition period. We wouldn't release domestic pets into the wild without some intermediate step.

    This is a great metaphor.


  4. Thanks Pete. I agree students need to be weaned from being irresponsible, dependent and controlled. I've been exploring models of initiation and psychological transitions with this in mind. I'm finding that the "shock of the unfamiliar" is part of the process, but it's quite acceptable in the context of a ritualized transition. Unlike abandonment, rude awakenings or betrayals of trust, a support system can ease the student's anxiety and disorientation. The difference is made by the story told about the weaning more than the precise fit of the process to each learner.

    I suspect the faculty will need a similar reorientation to deal with the onslaught of responsible learners and all those requests.

  5. I love this idea, but I also think that students would have to be re-introduced to their own curiosity in order to formulate questions to get answered. Something I've observed is that schools and traditional training seem to teach people to really stop being curious. They not only wait to be fed content, they wait to be fed questions. I'm always amazed at how many people in the trainings I do have never been even a little curious about the topics of training until I start asking some questions.

  6. Thanks Michelle. I agree we've taught students to stop being curious and there needs to be a transition to restore their curiosity. Pete Reilly"s metaphor of "reintroducing domesticated wolves into the wild" -- captures that challenge superbly.

    I've encountered the same situation as you -- where my audience has no questions. One way I diagnose that breakdown: sees the topic as too important and the learners as not important enough. I then reframe the significance of the learners by introducing a different aspect of the exploration, like wondering out loud about:
    -- uses (is this useful to know? what are you going to do with this topic? how could this be put to use?)
    -- difficulties (how do get people get hung up on this? what are the stumbling blocks to getting this? which facets get misunderstood and why?)
    -- limitations (when does this not work? what can go wrong with this? how to be careful when applying this?)

    Your approach of asking questions works great too. That way you are a living example the learners can imitate, "modeling the desired behavior" instead of criticizing, blaming or pointing fingers.

    Thanks for your insights, Michelle!

  7. Just because someone "upstairs" has decided that training is important doesn't mean that participants will be interested nor motivated. One way to ensure that learners are more interested is by letting them walk away if it's of no use to them. It happens online all the time, it's just not as visible ;-)

  8. And not letting them walk away is like taking away the keys or siphoning the gas tank. Giving permission to leave is a show of respect. When I've done that with my college students, the respect was turned to me. It works!
    Thanks for the comment Harold!