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Re-Inventing The Learning Process: Really?

Not too long ago, filmmaker George Lucas tried to add a positive spirit to the storm of controversy resulting from the release of Waiting for Superman. In a guest blog entry on his own foundation’s Edutopia website, Lucas encouraged readers to consider what was right with public schools—an important shift of focus at a moment when the conversation around “fixing schools” was at the highest point that it had been in years.

But there was one part of the Lucas’ entry that immediately caught my attention and continues to unsettle me some weeks later. It’s the idea that those teachers who are providing high quality, technology-driven, 21st century learning for their students are actually beginning to re-invent the learning process. While I respect the effort to recognize the many successful teachers and schools that exist in the United States and around the world, I think that its rather specious to claim that anyone, no matter how inventive, innovative or creative they are, can actually re-invent something as natural and as powerful as the learning process.

And here’s my main point:

We’re never going to get the project of schooling right by trying to re-invent the learning process. We will only get it right by, first, fully understanding the learning process and, second, developing environments that honor and respect that understanding. (It’s really the ultimate culminating task, isn’t it.)

I believe that one of the reasons that many new educational “reforms”  have not gained a strong foothold in public schools is owing to the fact that they begin with teaching and not learning. Most are presented in terms of what the teacher needs to do in order to get the student to learn. Most appear to be more centered on the life and work of the teacher, and not the life and work of the learner. We talk of instructional strategies, tactics and even instructional intelligence. Well, here’s my definition of instructional intelligence: a deep awareness of how human beings learn, and the creation of places where this very natural process can occur!

As others here and elsewhere have suggested, we need to spend less time in our offices, kitchens and bedrooms designing elaborate programs, units and lesson plans, and more time sitting beside our learners and discovering what they’re all about. And then we need to provide them with the space, guidance and inspiration to let them learn.

The most authentic educational theories and school-based practices don’t begin with an effort to come up with new ways of learning. Instead, they start with a desire to understand what happens when people are engaged in deep and transformational learning. A subtle, but important shift.

I agree with Chad who recently suggested that we closely “follow students”. I was reminded of the concept of teacher as researcher. I think that our transformation efforts need to adopt a serious research path, but I think that its important that we begin to move outside of the schoolhouse in order to conduct that research. We need to move to those places where kids are engaged when they’re not with us: the basketball courts, the hockey arenas, the woods, the backyard, the games room–all of those places where authentic learning takes place in conditions that are so unlike school.

There is much to uncover here…young people can help us to do that!

No, its not about re-inventing learning. Its about understanding it!

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


9 thoughts on “Re-Inventing The Learning Process: Really?

  1. Yes! We need to understand better how learning works. I feel like, aside from possibly a few experts, we really don’t completely understand the learning process. We understand a large part of it, but often we aren’t using this understanding as much as we should be to guide our teaching.

    Posted by dwees | November 22, 2010, 10:29 am
  2. I definitely agree. If I learned anything in college education classes, it was teaching strategies, but we didn’t really talk about the students. Once I started teaching in my own classroom, I tried to learn about my students: their strengths, their weaknesses, their interests. I was only able to reach many of them by connecting with them. I didn’t radically reinvent teaching U.S. History, but allowed my students to see themselves as a part of the process with input power.

    Posted by Tobe | November 22, 2010, 12:03 pm
  3. spot on Stephen.
    in following students for several years now.. check out the learning process as we are seeing it and trying to understand it.
    we are experimenting with learner as researcher.. via this documentation… reflection… sharing.

    Posted by monika hardy | November 22, 2010, 12:34 pm
  4. I love this post. Rooting our practice in how people learn is perhaps the most important thing we can do as teachers. We do have a common set of understandings regarding how people learn and beyond. I wrote some on it here:

    Posted by jerridkruse | November 22, 2010, 2:38 pm
    • It was great meeting up with you here Jerrid. I have subscribed to your blog, and I’m sure that we’ll find other points of resonance. I look forward to reading the “Why Education Cannot Move Forward” piece in greater depth this evening!

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 22, 2010, 2:50 pm


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