We are in a day and age where the learner in any situation is as knowledgeable as ever. Before the internet, the lead instructor (teacher, workshop leader, or whomever) in a formal or informal learning environment was the beholder of knowledge. The resident expert. The sage on the stage. Although learners were knowledgeable, the dynamics of learning environments before the digital age created a situation where the learners looked to the instructor for a world of knowledge.
While this is still true today to some extent, high-speed internet and multimedia communications has changed the dynamics drastically. Learners of all ages now have access to a world of knowledge at their fingertips. “Google” is 6 letters away (plus a .com). There are many, many free videos online where people are teaching you everything under the sun. Social media allows for local and world news to spread at the drop of a dime. Now it is very likely that the learner will enter a learning situation (be it formal or informal) with a bevy of knowledge and experience about the particular topic at hand. That knowledge may range from a rough idea that needs to be molded, to a thorough understanding that needs to be affirmed.
If we haven’t before, now is the time to trust the learner. Now is the time to create learning environments that empower the learner to use their wisdom and experiences to the benefit of the overall learning experience. In informal education settings, this is especially important; empowering the learner in an informal education environment could be one of the keys to enticing that learner to come back to subsequent sessions.
The question is, how do we do this? How do we trust the learner? First, I believe it starts with an acknowledgement that we are in a digital age, and the instructor/learner dynamic as a whole has changed. No longer is the instructor the absolute beholder of knowledge. Second, we must create learning environments that give learners the chance to show what they know and the chance to put that knowledge into practice. By giving learners a sense of empowered agency through the creation of a supportive learning environment, we are giving them the trust they need to contribute mightily to the learning experiences of this digital age.