We Are Born Learners

August 28, 2014
David Preston
Classroom teacher
Ernest Righetti High School
Santa Maria, CA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

Our awareness of the world and our place in it is fueled by a natural sense of inquisitiveness and curiosity. When we encourage this motivation in ourselves and in others, we discover that our capabilities extend far beyond the limits of school and work.

School does many things well, but it wasn't built for today's culture or technology. No one is at fault, but all of us are responsible; the one-to-many, textbook-based classroom broadcast is over. It's our job to create new, innovative opportunities for learners to solve problems, identify opportunities, and create value even as they face an increasingly complex and uncertain future. 

So what can a teacher do to help students make real-world connections?

Put the student in charge. Instead of building for students, build with them. Last week I met another five new classes. I presented a series of possibilities. I told them how difficult consensus is to achieve. I quoted Ben Franklin's "We all hang together or we all hang separately." And I walked out of the room so they could come to agreement on one question: What do you really want out of this semester?

Focus on learning. There is a world of difference between learning -- which we do naturally, passionately, individually, and collaboratively -- and schooling or education, which can connote bureaucracy, standardization, even incarceration. In order to help students refocus on learning, which ignites their motivation and self-expression, I ask them to identify a Big Question they'd like to investigate. This doesn't mean they'll answer it -- sometimes they don't even get around to investigating it -- but it gives them the opportunity to frame the curriculum in a way they find valuable.

Don’t tell the student what to do. The fact of the matter is that students benefit most when they practice the ultimate learning skill: identifying something that is so worth figuring out that they become willing to connect the dots, learn the requisite information and skills, and practice and fail repeatedly until they succeed. Allowing them this opportunity requires trust. (Note: Trusting students is important, but it's actually less important than giving them a reason to trust in their education and the people responsible for it.)

Say yes. There's a long list of people in every student's life who can say "no." Hardly anyone is willing and able to say "yes."  Make no mistake -- this is real power. And often it costs nothing. So when a student wants to invite U2's keyboardist to class or learn to fly a plane or take our entire community to Yosemite or write a novel or become a chef or -- you name it -- let the answer be "yes."

This is an amazing moment in the history of learning, and I'm excited for the many learners and educators (whether they work in schools or not) who are practicing elements of what I call Open Source Learning. In this approach to learning, students use 2.0 tools to create their online identities, express themselves, and demonstrate what they can do.  

I define Open Source Learning as "A guided learning process that combines timeless best practices with today's tools in a way that empowers learners to create interdisciplinary paths of inquiry, communities of interest and critique, and a portfolio of knowledge capital that is directly transferable to the marketplace."

Students use Open Source Learning to create a wild variety of personal goals, Big QuestionsCollaborative Working Groups, and online portfolios of work that they can use for personal curiosity, self-improvement, or as a competitive advantage in applying for jobs, scholarships, and admission to colleges and universities. You can see a sample course blog here and some personal member blogs here.

For more information, please email or connect with me on Twitter: @prestonlearning.


"Fossil Rock" by Dawn Ellner. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.


Lisa Swaboda
Former classroom teacher/homeschool mom/ educational consultant


I love your ideas and you are totally on mark! Education is evolving (thank goodness); but it is doing it ever-so slowly.

Unfortunately, in TN because we are in transition teachers are forced to do double duty by teaching to a traditional memorization type test (TCAP) with one set of standards while they also work on conceptual skills for Common Core type testing. As you can imagine, it's overwhelming to everyone involved.

I don't know a single teacher who is excited to be teaching anymore. Many love the ideas of Common Core, but when faced with opposing goals and a rush to meet almost monthly benchmarks there's no time to slow down and dig deep. Love of learning needs to return to education. We're on the right path, but dragging people along the path isn't the best way and education is burning out teachers who would still love to love teaching instead (myself included).