Where are the learners?

I tend to browse around Flickr a lot, and came across this image:

Empty classroom

So what’s missing here? Well, it would seem obvious… except to many technical book authors. See, for most folks, the obvious answer here is, “There are no students!”

But for the average technical book author — and to be clear, I’m one of that crowd, so I’m speaking personally and from experience — we would all, loudly, cry out, “There’s no teacher!”

What a fundamental disconnect.

See, those of us who write do that writing alone (or, in some cases, relatively alone. That’s author-speak for, “at my local Starbucks with earphones”). And yet, we’ll quickly call ourselves “teachers.” But what other type of teacher functions without a group of people in front of them, or at least in mind?

Can you imagine a new math teacher walking into a classroom, and gaping at all the kids seated in the room? “What are all these kids doing in here?” We’d very politely usher that teacher back out into unemployment (or perhaps into further training).

Take a short step away from the empty classroom, and consider the dying technical book market. Yes, it’s dying. Sales are plummeting for traditional technical books. We’re having to examine other markets, other formats, other approaches…

And we’re back to the empty classroom. Right? Because we’re building screencasts with an anonymous teacher speaking into a microphone in an empty room. Or we’re writing iPhone apps that are beautiful… and do little more than highlight the teacher’s knowledge.

But what if… what if we looked at that picture above, and realized that what’s missing is the student. Better, the learner.

Socrates suggested that learning is remembering (I’m simplifying, I know, but I’ve already written longer than I should have). And the beautiful part of his picture of learning was suggesting that he was less a teacher than a midwife. He basically didn’t teach; he instead aided the learner in learning. He was a facilitator, little more.

So one of the things you’re going to see over these next few weeks — from me and from O’Reilly — is a renewed focus on the learner. We’re going to write and ask questions about how to facilitate, rather than lecture. We’re going to push out some new and engaging products and ideas (some for-pay, some for-free), and we’re going to put the focus on the learner.

I hate writing a declaratory piece like this, because it doesn’t encourage interaction as much as I’d prefer. In a sense, I’ve broken my own rules, and become lecturer instead of facilitator. I haven’t been a good midwife. I’m hoping you see that I’m trying to do a little stage-setting, for a lot of facilitation.

Maybe you’ve got comments, ideas, and thoughts. How do you do this? How do you keep your focus off your own “brilliance” and on your learner’s needs? What are you doing to keep the focus on where it belongs?