To Produce Independent Learners, Schools Must Change

Greg Walker, 9/18/13: Stephen Downes in, Connectivism and the Primal Scream states, “At a certain point, we want people to stop being novices, and to start being self-motivated and self-managing learners. The idea that we are treating university students and adults as ‘novices’ is, to my mind, appalling. If a grown adult still requires a teacher to provide encouragement and support, positive role models, to select resources and scaffold learning experiences, then that speaks to the substantial failure of the traditional system of education. To my mind, it is as astonishing a failure as it would be if adults expected their teachers to read the lessons aloud to them.” Thoughts? Agree, why? Disagree, why?

Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes


This is a touchy subject, and Downes gets an A for courage.

If we begin with the outcome, independent learners, and reverse engineer the school system to produce students who are able to learn independently with educators as guides and facilitators rather than teachers, I think we’d end up with a completely different system.

A system that’s cultivating students who become increasingly responsible for their own learning from P-12 would gradually replace the lockstep age groupings, standardized curricula, and teacher-led classrooms in the lower grades with open learning environments in the upper grades. The educator’s role changes, too, gradually shifting from teacher to guide, advisor, facilitator, coach, etc.

The open environments would cover a wide range of options, including blended and online, but the primary change would be toward anytime-anywhere learning, with students becoming increasingly skillful in managing their own schedules to complete learning projects on and off campus.

Students would learn from peer tutors and also serve as tutors for other classmates. They would also incorporate MOOCs into their individualized programs. (Yes, MOOCs will become a huge part of secondary education.) School program advisors would play a critical role in the upper grades, guiding students toward objectives that would facilitate transfer to postsecondary programs.

Throughout the model, the focus is on the student, not the school or teacher. The question is always What’s best for the student? and the school’s resources are geared toward guiding her/him toward her goals.

The measure of success for the school and its staff is the percentage of students who enter postsecondary programs prepared to learn independently.

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4 Responses to To Produce Independent Learners, Schools Must Change

  1. Ida Brandão says:

    The problem is that what is being defended by a few today in what regards learner-centred pedagogies was defended by a few others centuries ago, and it’s sad to realize that only a small percentage of schools (around the world) follow Modern School approaches and other alternative models. The traditional directive classroom remain mainstream, in spite of the potential of Internet bringing so much information and interaction and connectivity. The openness that digital technologies offers today was already a reality in face to face educational environments which nurtured the inquiry spirit of children, the peer learning and experimentation, not bound to the segmentation of subjects, the bell ringing and the class jail. «La classe promenade» and the «invariants pédagogiques» – – of Freinet date back to the 30’s of last century. Ferrer Guardia’s Escuela Moderna embedded a revolutionary vision for education in the beginning of the 20th century –
    Most of the alternative schools are private and a few exceptions are public (our taxes should be better invested). Malaguzzi’s initiative after World War II has resisted with the support of the municipality of Reggio Emilia – And I could remember other examples that should by now reached the 99%, instead of the 1%.

  2. What’s best for the student? Student(s) should have the choice to attend college when they’re ready for it. We’ve molded young adults to attend college with promises of attaining a “dream job’ after graduation. Is that really true these days? (It’s about now that I wished I wrote down the source that supports me on this.) Are we giving students the right message?

    I came back to college later in life–I definitely knew then what I wanted out of college. I prioritized, time-managed and sacrificed. I believe other students would do the same if they’re that passionate and motivated.

    Therefore, it’s not failure of the traditional system of education that Mr. Downes implies as the problem, but the lack of a student’s passionate and motivated decision to grasp the opportunities when, where and how the classes are available, whether it’s on campus or online.

    It may be that the old message ought to be revised.

  3. elearnbp says:

    Hi Jacqueline,
    Placing all the blame on the student is cruel in my opinion. I think teachers should be held accountable for crappy courses. The current traditional education system was developed in the early 20s to mass educate people just like the assembly lines popular at the time. The world doesn’t work like that anymore. If we begin by helping students learn to to solve problems, think for themselves and pursue their passions, they wouldn’t have to “get real life experiences” before they became passionate and motivated.

  4. JimS says:

    I sometimes have this nightmare that we, as a society, will one day wake up and find that the average graduate of U.S. colleges will be so lacking in knowledge, skills, and motivation that we’ll be forced to look to other countries for grads with the necessary qualifications.

    In quick order, we find the vast majority of top jobs with higher wages going to non-citizens and the vast majority of our own grads competing for and struggling to fill lower-paying jobs.

    Too late, we try to work quality back into our standards and find that most students simply can’t cope with the rigor and drop out.

    All fingers are pointing at us, educators, and we’re paralyzed and speechless . . .

    This is where I wake up — or where I should wake up.

    Pinch me, somebody.

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