Who has the greatest influence on whether students will learn? Some say it is the teacher. This statement recognizes the powerful impact educators can have on the conditions, direction, and focus of learning. Teachers bring knowledge, experience, and strategies crucial to learning. Teachers create the environment, design activities, monitor progress, provide feedback, and offer many other supports for learning.
However, close examination reveals that it is not accurate to say that teachers have the greatest influence on learning in the classroom. It is learners who hold the most powerful influence. They choose whether learning will occur. A simple test of this premise can be made by considering who must be present for learning to happen. If learners are not present in the classroom, learning cannot occur. If the teacher is not present, learners may still choose to learn. Although, the learning may be less intentional, less focused, and even lead in undesirable directions.
To be clear, this is not an argument intended to discount the influence and status of teachers in this crucial process. Rather, it recognizes that learning is an autonomous act. It is intentional and self-constructed. It is a personal process. As educators, we can have significant influence on students’ choices to learn and provide crucial guidance and support to the process, but learning is the work of students. We might say that while learners are the most important resource for learning, teachers can be the most powerful stimulators of learning.
We know that learning begins with what students know and are ready to learn. Learning grows when students make connections and integrate new understanding with past knowledge and experience. Learning tends to stick best when it is driven by purpose and students understand the usefulness of what they are learning.
Unfortunately, the traditional approach to formal learning has been to develop curriculum, plan lessons, and present instruction based on what we believe students should know and be ready to learn, rather than what students are ready to learn. The system often features pacing guides based on the assumption that learners will learn at a predetermined rate. Meanwhile, instruction is often delivered to groups of students with varied states of readiness. Some may already know what is being presented. Others may not have the background knowledge and skills to benefit fully. Still others may be ready to engage and learn from the experience. This is a serious system design problem with which educators constantly struggle as they attempt to engage and support the learning of individual students.
So, how can we activate this too often underutilized classroom resource? How can we significantly increase the level of learning and ensure that a much larger portion of students learn at high levels? We can start by rethinking the traditional approach that is driven almost exclusively by instruction and prioritize learning as the core and driving activity. This shift invites us to ask a new set of questions and consider learning conditions that will activate students as key influencers of their learning:
- Rather than starting by asking what I am ready to teach, we can ask what our learners are ready to learn.
- Rather than focusing on whether students are complying with our directions, we can ask whether we are building their commitment and capacity to learn.
- Rather than expecting all students to progress at the same learning rate, we can design approaches that respond to student readiness to learn and their optimal pace for doing so.
- Rather than expecting students to depend on predetermined paths for learning, we can nurture in students the skills and inclination to become increasingly independent learners.
Admittedly, making such a change is not easy for many of us. The shift asks us to let go of much of what we have assumed about teaching and learning. On the other hand, unlocking the unlimited learning potential of students is more than worth the effort. The result can be strong, capable learners prepared for a future that will ask much of them as learners and expect them to serve as driving influencers as they build a path to success.