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Focus on Producing Learners (Not Just Those Who Know A Lot!)

This is a most exciting and challenging time to be an educator.

Over the past fifteen years there has been a revolution in the availability of information for billions of people from all around the world. The growth of the world-wide web has placed the sum of all human knowledge so readily within the grasp of anyone with a quick internet connection, through a computer or even the hand-held devices that are so common today in our pockets and the pockets of our students. The new-found availability of information is a real and significant difference from the past, in which teachers and other gate-keepers possessed all the information and dispensed it into the minds of [hopefully] receptive students on their own terms.

Suddenly, the world is very different.

Policy-makers, sensing that all has not been well with the outcomes our system has generated, have pushed for more accountability. This has resulted in the adoption of a system in which we have chosen to evaluate our schools by measuring aggregate “progress” by increased testing and examination of test scores. I fear that this response takes us in the wrong direction. Instead of mobilizing technology in service of individualized learning, we have fallen for the pursuit of standardized experiences, experiences that do not move us away from the 125-year-old model (based on the assembly line metaphor), experiences that have brought us more of a “one-size-fits-all” approach designed to deliver strong test scores. Test scores have become the goal in a way that makes me very uncomfortable.

Almost all educators know that test prep is very different from genuine, productive learning, which attempts more than anything else to create in each student an intense desire to learn more. A school culture of test prep results in excessive focus on the mastery of academic content instead of using the process of individualized inquiry to develop in each student (1) a strong desire to learn; (2) the skills to be self-directed and resilient learners; and ultimately (3) confidence. It also tends to squelch creativity and true engagement in solving meaningful problems.


The development of technology has presented us with some truly amazing things. Our kids already know how to learn about things they care about by accessing experts (teachers) on the web. As Mimi Ito from the MacArthur Foundation describes it: “Kids learn on the internet in a self-directed way, by looking around for information they are interested in, or connecting to others who can help them. This is a big departure from how they are asked to learn in most schools, where the teacher is the expert and there is a fixed set of content to master.”

This was brought home to me this summer when my son caught a bass in a local pond and wanted to filet it for his dinner. Because I was completely ill-equipped to teach him the proper way to accomplish his goal, he went right to the internet and within a minute or two, he had downloaded an excellent video that taught him exactly what he needed to know. How can schools harness this type of energy and skill to serve the goal of creating life-long learners, learners who will have the creativity and the resourcefulness to solve problems we cannot even envision today?

Teach Information Literacy

Information is now everywhere. This is not without its dangers, as there is plenty of unreliable or even dangerous information that is also available. But we’re not about to turn back the clock – that availability is here to stay. Thus, we must work extra hard to instill in our students the ability to discern good information from bad. They have to learn to be good information detectives.

Learners, Not the Learned

In conclusion, the words of Eric Hoffer are very instructive about the moment we find ourselves in. Hoffer claims that “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Rather than preparing our children to succeed on tests, we need to focus on preparing them to be learners. The world they face both today and tomorrow will require them to be able to seek, access, analyze, and re-combine information in ways that will be relevant to their circumstances. The pace of change will be so fast that we cannot afford to do anything but work today toward producing citizens comfortable with being learners. They (and we) deserve no less.

Mark Heller is Head of School at Academy at the Lakes, a Pre-K3 – 12th grade independent school in Land O’Lakes that serves students from Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hernando Counties.

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