In 2010, I published a prose-poem called I Am Learner, which was an attempt to distil the fundamentals of my philosophy of education into as few words as I could manage. At its core, ‘I Am Learner’ tells us that the learner, even in the context of the classroom or the lecture hall, in a formal ‘taught’ environment of any kind, we will always in essence be a self-directed learner. Therefore, I would argue, even in an ostensibly teacher-led environment, the reality is that learners are not taught; they learn.
But even those who might wish to take issue with that philosophy, and I know there are many, will surely agree that we are now very much in the age of self-directed learning. Learning by and for yourself, whether that is carefully planned and executed learning or gloriously chaotic serendipitous learning, has never been easier than it is today. With information and content so freely available on a truly immense scale across the web, with a multiplicity of platforms and tools out there that we can use to access, manipulate, publish and display information of all kinds, and with increasing access to authority, expertise and knowledge from sources other than that of the teacher in front of the class or the book in our hand, the locus of control of learning has shifted irrevocably from teacher to learner.
You would not know that however to look at so much of what goes on still in formal educational settings.
One group that ought to be embracing the shift wholeheartedly is, of course, the teaching profession itself. If the relationship of the learner to information and content has shifted, then so too, as I have argued in the past, has the relationship between teacher and learner. The best teachers have always known that teaching is so much more than mere information transfer and have shaped their pedagogy to reflect that reality. Nonetheless, in practice, most teaching today, i believe, is still predicated on a pedagogical model that simply no longer stands up to close attention even for those who would not accept the core premiss of ‘I Am Learner’ in the first paragraph above.
That age-old draw for teachers of being the centre of attention, the fount of all wisdom, in the classroom or the lecture hall, the appeal of the performance aspects of teaching, the sense that they already know everything that the student needs to learn and so all they need to do is to somehow transfer that knowledge to the learners – such components of the role continue to trump any real appreciation of a model of learning that is vastly more complex than that which reduces learning to the simple absorption of data delivered by the teacher and received by the student. Many teachers seem unwilling, or unable, to see themselves in anything other than the traditional role at the centre of instruction. In similar vein, outside the classroom, those who administer and manage our education systems are too often not even aware that we are now in the age of self-directed learning; for too many education administrators, the concept of school and the structures built around that concept in practice are all still predicated on the reproduction and continuance of the traditional classroom relationship between teacher and student.
One critical causal element in the persistence of such simplistic, and anachronistic, models of teaching and learning, is to be found in the deep-rooted reality of the way that teachers are taught to teach, both in their pre-service training and in much of what passes for professional development beyond initial training. For too long, teachers have been trained not to be able to do for themselves what, by any logic you care to use, they should be able to do better than anyone else: to teach themselves! How many times have we heard teachers say, we are willing to change our practice but you can’t expect us to do so without training?
Teachers today, in this age of self-directed learning, need to take control of their own learning, their own professional development. They need to tell those who would, and who do, tell them what is best for them, to take a hike! Only when teachers begin to learn for themselves, only when they begin to appreciate the wealth of learning opportunities that now exist, the abundance of information they can access and make sense of and use, and the cornucipia of means by which they can direct their own learning, will they begin to see that their own practice in the classroom also needs to change.
When that starts to happen on a large scale, then perhaps we will begin to see a recognition in the formal educational settings that we are now in the age of self-directed learning!