At its core, learner-driven education takes the power from the adults and gives it to the students. It believes in students’ abilities to take responsibility for their learning, advocate for themselves when they need help, and pursue passions and excellence. Every child is motivated and wants to succeed. By giving them the tools and freedom to guide their own learning process we set them up for lifelong success. More importantly, as a result they believe in themselves and know they can accomplish hard things.

There are many reasons to pursue a learner-driven education for our children. Here are a few:

We all learn in different ways. My husband loves to read and discuss. He fondly recalls his secondary education at a classical school where Socratic discussions were the focus of many courses. I learn best through doing. I love simulations, creative projects, and tinkering with things. Our daughter is an observer. She loves to watch others – kids, teachers, characters in books, etc. – and then contemplate their actions. We are convinced that she taught herself to read through watching Rachel (from Signing Time) fingerspell words. In What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith, he writes that,

“Everything changes if school is about projects, big ideas, and curiosity. Students get good at making things, coming up with creative ideas, asking thoughtful questions. Accomplishment is reflected by what is produced. No one cares how long it takes a student to read material or if they learn from a YouTube video or a classmate…We all learn in different ways.”

We all learn at different speeds. Maybe your child learns mathematics rapidly but the conventions of writing are slow-going. Maybe your child can create an intricate, moving story in a day but takes several weeks to create a science project. Salman Khan writes in his book The One-World Schoolhouse,What should be fixed is a high level of comprehension and what should be variable is the amount of time students have to understand a concept.Why do we force very different children to learn the same things at the same speed, and then get discouraged when only a third of them actually master the concepts?

We all learn to different extents. Each individual has a different passion and gift. We are created uniquely, with the strengths and interests the Lord gave us. I am not a high-level mathematician. In fact, I struggled with math growing up because formulas and theoretical problems just didn’t speak to me. But as an improvisational quilter, I regularly use fractions, measurement, graphing, and geometry to create beautiful and useful things out of scraps of fabric. And there are times that I get it wrong and choose to persevere through my frustrations to learn from my mistakes. Of course foundational skills are important – I couldn’t manipulate fractions if no one taught me number sense as a young child. I am thankful, however, that my parents did not force me to take advanced science and math courses in high school because those weren’t my strengths. Instead, I focused on what I was good at and what would help me in my future career: literature, language, history, and creative arts. Why do we expect children to be “jacks of all trades” instead of giving them the foundational skills they need and then helping them zoom in on the strengths they have that they could master?

Learner-driven education is not a free-for-all where kids get to do whatever they want. It is giving students voice and choice in all aspects of their work, collaborating with them as they set goals for their learning, and following their lead. We have to place trust in our children so they can build their confidence and experience small failures from a young age. In a learner-driven environment, teachers are learning guides that partner with students to help them reach success. They follow the child, not the curriculum. Learning guides do not have to have all the answers, but are lifelong learners themselves and are eager to connect students with experts that can help. This is an area where technology can be harnessed for good by utilizing the interconnectedness it provides to bring the best resources and people to learners.

At Ascend Micro School, this philosophy extends beyond students getting to pick the project they want to do or deciding what level they want to reach in math for a particular semester. We also place the governance of the day-to-day school environment in their hands through a democratic process of establishing norms, expectations, and procedures. By giving students control of their learning environment, they are more motivated to contribute to its success. We also choose community partnerships by connecting student passions with local needs. This helps students become aware of problems in their local community and provides the opportunity to actually do something about it with their team.

If you think about what makes any organization run smoothly and effectively, it will typically come down to motivated individuals who feel respected and respect others while overall enjoying the work they do. Why can’t we seek to create this environment in a school setting? As the world changes and technology progresses, the kids we are raising and educating today will have to be more innovative, creative, and collaborative in order to thrive and make a difference. Learner-driven education helps foster those skills and, I believe, sets them up for a successful and fulfilling future.

Next week we will discuss what “mastery-based” means and why it is a beneficial approach.

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