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Who is Responsible for Learning?

Every Teaching Interview. Ever.

If you’re an educator preparing for an interview, this question will come up: “Who is responsible for learning?” Instead of telling the committee what they want to hear (“Learning is 50/50.”), tell them the question is flawed. It assumes learning is something that will happen, or not. However, learning is not a switch that the educator, students, or both have to turn on. Learning is always on. 

What Do You Mean by Learning?

Though it’s the most complex process in the natural world, one-sentence definitions are plentiful. They usually

frame learning as the gain or acquisition of knowledge, skills, or behaviors through various experiences. Every person is capable of learning and does it constantly. It is a process that has evolved over millions of years. Learning happens naturally and does not require a conscious taking of responsibility. The issue in education is not simply learning, but learning what is taught. 

 “Who is responsible for learning?” is too simple. If students are expected to learn specific knowledge and skills and to a desired level, the question should be, “Who is responsible for providing the experiences to cause that learning?” The answer to that question is 100%, the educator. Done right, the student should need to bring nothing more than their natural ability to learn from experiences. Students are still responsible for other behaviors, as we’ll discuss, but it’s the educator’s role to create those experiences. Otherwise, the expectation would be for students to create their own experiences specific to subjects they do not know or choose, to levels of mastery they do not understand, using learning strategies they’ve never practiced, and for non-motivating reasons (grades).

Passive Learning Doesn’t Take Responsibility

A typical passive learning situation has three phases: 1) Delivery of content by the educator, 2) Learning of the content by the student, and 3) Evaluation of learning by the educator. In many cases, learning of the content is expected to happen while it is delivered by the educator. It’s easy to see why educators become frustrated when students do not learn in these environments, because, without a more careful look, it appears the educator is doing everything. The conclusion for failure is that students aren’t taking responsibility for learning, even though the educator spoon feeds them information. 

In passive learning environments, sometimes the educator only addresses the content. But, students need more. They need to engage with the content in ways that create learning experiences. Passive learning gambles that students will create their own learning experiences in their minds by following along, listening carefully, paying attention, or studying. Students are just students, and the best learning experiences they can muster usually involve short-term memorization—a common characteristic of passive learning.

Active Learning Takes All Responsibility

It’s frequently said that active learning involves students taking responsibility for their own learning, but that’s not the case. Responsibility is being confused for engagement, interest, and motivation. Those behaviors are a result of the learning experiences designed by the educator to engage, interest, and motivate their students. The experiences harness the natural ability of students to learn, but direct it toward specific topics and specific levels of achievement. Therefore, active learning is about the educator taking on the responsibility. Not for the responsibility of learning, neither the educator or student can really take responsibility for a natural behavior, but for every aspect of the learning experience and environment.

Compare the Two

Take an assigned reading, for example. In a passive learning situation, students would be expected to read and come out knowing main concepts, important terms, and applications. The educator might give a quiz on the reading or simply expect students to answer questions correctly during a discussion. That outcome would require students to create their own experiences while reading that lead to learning. Maybe the students would repeat lines in their heads, monitor their comprehension, practice metacognition, ask and answer questions, or create summaries. Whether you think students are proficient in these skills or not, the responsibility is ultimately left to them.

In active learning, the educator would take responsibility to ensure those experiences that lead to learning occur. They might create reading guides to fill out and design a small-group activity to compare and revise answers. The students could jigsaw the reading by creating a summary for their specific section and teaching it to classmates. The educator could introduce the relevancy of a reading beforehand and ask students to brainstorm questions about it. Small groups could narrow and refine the questions and students could write answers based on information from the reading. Think-pair-share could be used for reading in class where the educator would pose an interesting question for students to try answering before they read. Then students would read a short passage, pair with a classmate, share their original answers, and revise them based on the reading. Overall, the learning experience is drawn out by the educator, not left up to students.

What Do Students Do?

Students simply need to be students. Remember, they are students because they don’t yet know things. Because they need to learn. If students knew how to learn, they wouldn’t need educators. Educators need to give students opportunity, not just responsibility. In active learning, educators put together learning experiences to create an active learning environment. Students should just be expected to live in that environment.

Of course, students are still responsible for making choices. Should I do the assignment or not? Should I pay attention to my group members? Should I speak up and give my input or continue daydreaming? Should I spend ten minutes or two hours on this study guide I know will help me learn? For each choice, students will have to decide which option to take. Educators want students to make a responsible decision to support the learning experience, but they often don’t. The solution, which the educator should take responsibility for, is influencing their decision. Head students off at the pass. Positive influences like motivation, relevance, encouragement, fun, satisfaction, support, and caring can help students make the right choice when the time comes.

Summary: Who is responsible for learning?

  • Learning happens naturally, not after taking responsibility.
  • Learning is the result of experiences. 
  • In active learning, educators take responsibility for learning experiences.
  • Educators can influence students to make responsible choices.
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