Is Learner Driven Education Dangerous?

Is learner-driven education dangerous? Yes!

I’m a champion of self-directed and learner-driven education. It is a compelling and important part of the larger education ecosystem. I support the rights of others to embrace different philosophies and models, and some of my most engaging conversations are with people who hold to other approaches of education.

I don’t simply support the value of diverse education approaches, I see and celebrate the beauty of them. Yet, it is still common for me to encounter people who challenge the value, sometimes even the ethics, of learner-driven education, at least as they understand it. I often hear arguments like the following.

“Students don’t know what they don’t know. If you ask students what they want and need to learn, how are they supposed to know? That is our job as teachers and professors. We know what they need and we give it to them. Leaving it up to the students is irresponsible if not downright dangerous. At a minimum, it will inevitably lead to subpar results.”

If learner driven education was only about learners not listening to or learning from other people, I might agree with much of that critique. The problem (or maybe the lack of a real problem) is that this is a misunderstanding of both self-directed learning and the philosophy of learner-driven education. Nothing in learner-driven education ignores the fact that we can and do develop important knowledge and skills from other people. Learner-driven education is not against the real and incredible power that comes from learning with and among other people, often people who have a greater level of insight or expertise.

After all, students in learner-driven communities watch videos, read books and articles, interview people, engage in formal and informal apprenticeships, observe others, have mentors, sometimes take traditional and teacher-led courses, and participate in many other activities that involve learning with and from others.

Here is what is fundamentally different about learner-driven education. A community that embraces such a philosophy seeks to recognize, affirm, and amplify the voice, choice, ownership, and agency of the learner. This means respecting the questions, life contexts, and curiosities of each person. It means leaving room for people to make choices, to practice and develop a personal voice, and to be a creator or co-creator of the learning agenda.

Learner-driven education strives to honor the voice of students where they are at a given moment. We resist the idea that a learner’s voice is not valuable until it begins to resemble the voice of the teacher or professor. We do not ignore the concept of expertise, but we do believe in the value of a context where learners have choice on when, if, and how they engage with and learn from experts. We question, challenge, guide, and support; but when it comes to the larger education environment that we strive to cultivate, we resist the temptation to dictate.

We do this because we are convinced that agency and ownership are best cultivated by being respected and nurtured. Our goal is not the creation of complacent and compliant conformists who follow and submit to the will and declared expertise of others. We believe that democratic societies are bolstered by a people who think for themselves, act upon their convictions, and cultivate the character and courage necessary to effect change in the world around them.

Learner-driven education is not about ignoring experts. It is about about nurturing a nation of people who are ready to pursue expertise over and over again in life.

Is learner-driven education dangerous? Yes, it is dangerous to anyone who benefits from the complacency and unquestioned compliance of others. It is dangerous to those who would have us simply follow their lead. It is dangerous to those who are threatened by people who learn to think for themselves, who know that their voices and choices can make a difference in their own lives and the world around them. It is dangerous to people who believe that the world should be directed by a select group of experts who are therefore entitled to tell others what to do, when to do it, and how to do it; without question or conversation. It is dangerous to people who are threatened by others who ask difficult questions and are not quick to follow the lead on a “because I said so” basis. Learner-driven education is dangerous. It is dangerous and beautiful and necessary.

“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.”