Why We Must Learn From the Learners

This is an interesting time to be in the field of education. I follow the stories, the trends, and the developments, and it seems like there are nearly a million ideas about where we should take education. From new technologies in the classroom, to the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses), education is in an exciting, yet somewhat volatile place right now. For everyone in support of one way of forming or reforming current education (whether pre-K-12 or higher education), there is another person or group that is in support of a completely opposite direction.

This is not new. In our studies at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, we have learned that theories of education have always had opposition. There never seems to be a time where there is one absolute truth. Some may say that this is the beauty of education -- that there is no absolute truth. We're dealing with human beings, and because no two human beings are exactly alike, there's no way that a one-size-fits-all education can work. Therefore, there has to be different theories and different approaches. The major concern, however, is whether we as educators and administrators are so focused on the possible theories, angles, and perspectives of education, that we are not concentrating enough on the learner and the learning that takes place within education.

Learning is a phenomenon that is exclusive of education. Education is a social structure meant to foster and facilitate learning. When we hear stories of students who are having trouble learning (or trouble proving that they've learned something), I believe we are too quick to think about the problems with education. Perhaps the problem is not so much that we need, let's say, to turn a public school into a charter school, but rather that we have to reflect on whether our methods of connecting with the learners of today actually connects. Are we doing our best to really understand how today's student ("digital natives" as they are labeled, since they have grown up using the technology that is prominent today) receives and interprets information and knowledge? Are we talking to the digital natives to get an understanding of why they are so interested in that cell phone that we think is a distraction in the classroom? The answer may be deeper and more complex than "Oh, they just like to be on that silly Facebook."

More than ever, this is a time where we as educators and administrators need to get to know the students of today. All of the technology that has exploded onto the educational scene is fairly recent. It is possible that the students of today "know" as much or even more about how that technology should be used to teach them than we do, even with our extensive research backgrounds and educational experience. I believe it's important that, as we shape the world of education for the students of today and tomorrow, we consider these students almost like co-researchers and learn with them and from them about what works best to help them learn. Paulo Freire wrote a chapter in his book, Pedagogy of Freedom, titled, "There is No Teaching Without Learning." Are we spending enough time learning about -- and from -- our students of today so that we can put them in the best position to receive the knowledge we are trying to teach them?