Can students self-organise their learning?

Sugata Mitra’s Self-Organised-Learning-Envrironments have recieved some press lately.  Sugata claims that internet learning boosts performance by seven years! However, Tom Bennett takes issue with such claims.  Any magic bullet claim is likely to be false. Sugata is one among others who advocate the idea that in a world with ubiquitous internet connected computers that testing for memory will become redundant.  David Price’s book ‘Open: How we’ll work, learn and live in the future‘ is a book that also advocates this approach but I do admire and appreciate that access to the internet can enhance learning and living.  The serendipidous nature of learning through online research can make teaching that even more enjoyable and I do think it can engage students curioisty and engender a sense of liberalism.  However, the idea from Sugata that students can learn more effectively than teacher instruction through Self-Organised-Learning-Environments is a lot more nuanced and is over-simplistic and fairytale like to be true.  Urban myth 4 (chapter 2) in De Bruyckere et al, ‘Urban Myths About Learning and Education’ suggests (through cited research studies) that the idea that we don’t need to use our pedagogical content knowledge to teach anymore because everything we need to know is ‘out there on the web’, is wrong.  What we already know determines what we see and understand.  It is our prior knowledge that determines how well we are able to successfully search for and process information on the web.  Students need prior knowledge to understand and remember text online. We can and it is important to teach students digital literacy skills such as how to search using google effectively, referencing sources and evaluating their reliability.  However, this is problematic for students because they need a pre-existing base of knowledge to effectively come up with search terms, select relevant websites and question their validity.  That being said, there is a time and place for internet research, usually to extend and further investigate concepts and problems that moves beyond teacher instruction and non-internet based resources.  Having dabbled with self-organised-learning-environments myself in the past, this lack of existing schemas probably explains the lack of quality in work produced (performance) by students. However, longer term learning could be enhanced by further investigation and  supporter by the use of internet-based research when used appropriately and in a scheme that also involves effective teaching.  There is also the inequity in self-organsied learning aproaches, where students who already have more sophisticated volcabulary, find it easier to access online research.  Therefore these students can have their learning further enhanced than students who have weaker vocabulary and pre existing knowledge.

An example here is where I do believe students can self-organise their own learning.  I recently set students in an A level lesson the challenge to answer the question ‘Can wolves change rivers?‘.  Students were able to perform well on the task and gain the intended knowledge and understanding because they were able to build upon pre-existing knowledge and understanding.  Students need existing experience and developed schemas to incorporate new knowledge and create a framework for future understanding through the question.


Students very quickly accessed their knowledge of ecosystems and in particular the different levels of food webs and food chains (tropic levels).  They were able to apply this knowledge to new knowledge found online about ‘trophic cascading’ and research around what wolves eat.  They were able to make the link to the reintroduction of wolves on an ecosytem.  By recalling learning from the previous year on rivers and erosion, students were ultimately able to make the link between the reintroduction of wolves, ‘trophic cascading’ and the impact of increased vegatation due to the control of deer populations to the stabalisation of river banks and decreased erosion, consequently leading to less meandering. This was a pleasurable experience to observe, where clearly a demonstration of pre-existing knowledge allows students to use online and self organised learning to be more effective.  This was a quick task that to a certain extent used ‘desirable difficulties‘ by students having to access existing schemas, some that was not ‘taught’ since the previous year.  The collaborative element, allowed students to use different schemas of knowledge to combine to great effect to solve the problem.  Using a self-organised question like above, can be carefully constructed thinking about spacing and interleaving of knowledge.  These tasks could be used to support the long term retention of knowledge and skills complimenting other techniques e.g. the testing effect.  It is hard to imagine giving a similar question to year 7 students, where the outcome maybe more random and likely to contain too much confusion and an inability to come to a sustained conclusion, although possibly more serendipidous in nature.  These students are unlikely to have pre existing knowledge to effectively search for the ‘desired’ answer.  Google research requires knowledge to be able to search for effective answers.  Any research and search for answers becomes superficial.  However, perhaps we don’t always have to want or expect the desired answer (e.g. when not teaching for the exam)?

In case you are intrigued about wolves and rivers…..

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