The Responsibility to Learn

We have a tendency in our expert-driven culture to make the failures of our educational system (and they are many), the responsibility of a whole set of professionals.  We accuse teachers, and administrators, and politicians, and curriculum writers, and educational experts and countless others of creating a system where there is low teacher accountability,  poor educational funding, large class sizes, student bullying, and insufficient special education resources, just to mention the issues that I have heard raised by people I know in the past week.  Yet, at no point do we consider the possibility that the most pressing problem in education is perhaps the idea that learning is, in the end, the responsibility of the learner.

Let me be clear.  I am not suggesting that our students are at fault for the difficulties of our educational system.  What I am suggesting is that the biggest problem of the educational system is that it has created a culture of education that removes the student’s responsibility to learn and replaces it with the teacher’s responsibility to educate.  I am suggesting that we have created an educational system that in many ways actively discourages students from taking responsibility for their learning and then is frustrated by their seeming inability to learn.

The root problem is that we have grossly misunderstood the role of the teacher , assuming that it involves taking responsibility for the students’ education rather than in encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning.  We have made it a greater priority to have an expert cover all of the material than to have a learner actually be motivated to learn.

This is not to say that teachers are unnecessary, but it is to drastically reconceive the teacher’s role.  The teacher who encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning will be far more concerned about modeling the act of learning than about conveying information.  This kind of teacher will show students that learning occurs as much through failure as through success, as much through questioning as by answering, as much by passion as by discipline.  This kind of teacher will model an attitude and a posture toward learning that is not confined by the educational institution, with its classes and courses and marks and diplomas.  This kind of teacher will provide an example of learning that is questioning and critical and open to a variety of voices in the learning conversation.

I have written about these and other marks of the effective teacher before, of course, and I will not belabour them now, but the key to all of them is a reconsideration of where the responsibility for our educational problems actually lies, not with a failure to provide the right courses and curricula and resources, but with a failure to return to our students their responsibility to learn.

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