Self-organized Learning Environment Stimulates Real Learning

Students learning in this way may sound outlandish to many teachers. Image source: Flickr
Students learning in this way may sound outlandish to many teachers. Image source: Flickr
Masum Billah
Written by Masum Billah

How does it sound when we hear that in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other if they are motivated by curiosity and peer interest? Many of us may get astonished to hear it. We have schools, teachers, rules and regulations, extra care and extra classes or coaching for the students, even then they are not learning.

Therefore, how is it possible that learners can learn when they are not guided, supervised and there is no teacher to teach them? It is possible. It is practical when we see the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment conducted by Dr. Sugata Mitra who is now a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, United Kingdom. He has given the name to this experiment ‘minimally invasive education’. Let us see what happened there. In 1999, Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected PC, and left it there with a hidden camera filming the area. What they saw was kids from the slum playing around with the computer and in the process learning how to use it and how to go online, and then teaching each other. What does the project say? It demonstrates that even in the absence of any direct input from a teacher, an environment that stimulates curiosity can cause learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge.

According to Linux Journal, “Education-as-usual assumes that kids are empty vessels who need to be sat down in a room and filled with curricular content. Dr. Mitra’s experiments prove that wrong”. Students learning in this way may sound outlandish to many teachers. Whereas many teachers say they learn from their students, they learn even from the children. Mr. Joe Jamison, a teacher of Lawrence International School in central New Jersey, USA says, “I learn from my kids”. The computer had online access and a number of programs that could be used, but no instructions were given for its use. Children came running out of the nearest slum and glued themselves to the computer.

They began to click and explore as the computer was a strange thing to them and within six months the children of the neighbourhood had learned all the mouse operations, could open and close programs and were going online to download games, music and videos. When the observers ask them how they have learned it, they answer that they have taught themselves. Their curiosity, free environment, no supervision drove them to learn the computer. If we consider this computer in a classroom and an instructor who is supposed to teach computing the students, what would happen? Obviously, all students did not learn it. Some straightforward students who occupy the front seats in the school would learn it. However, in this situation, all the children who heard about this strange thing namely the computer learned it.

It gives us a clear signal that the present role of teachers should change. They should facilitate learning. This can mean setting up computers for students to use or helping children find stories the children actually find interesting to read and then being available to help any child who asks about a word he or she is stuck on or playing counting games with them, and a number of other activities where teachers work with children instead of trying to force-feed them. We use the same textbook for all sorts of learners, we hardly think how this book would attract the students or how much students are satisfied with the information and materials the textbook contains. Then we fully control their activities, monitor their works and check lots of homework.

What is the result, most students don’t learn actually what they are supposed to learn. If we consider this situation in teaching the English language, what is the result? Students follow EFT, teachers use it in the classroom, guide them, give them activities from the text, give them homework. Still, students read and do the practice again with private tutors and coaching centres. What is the result? They cannot use English in their practical life in most of the cases and it goes with most of the students. If we allowed them to practice English naturally, definitely they could acquire the language more practically for serving their practical purpose. But sadly enough, it doesn’t happen. So, the time has come to rethink the approach of teaching language and the approach of teaching other subjects as well.

Dr. Sugata repeated the same experiment in two other locations. One in the city of Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh and another one in a village called Madantusi in Uttar Pradesh. Both of these experiments showed the same result as the Kalkaji, New Delhi experiment. Without any assistance, the children learned the computer. Here language and education did not matter. Among the children who used to go to school started showing better performance in examinations, developing vocabularies, giving more concentration in the class and developing problem-solving skills. Their tendency to work cooperatively in other areas also developed along with their self-regulation practice. So, there lies a correlation between unsupervised learning and developing other necessary skills which affect real learning. Language did not matter, and neither did education. When working in groups, children do not need to be “taught” how to use computers. They can teach themselves.

Most of the children barely went to school who learned computer in Sugata’s experiment,  didn’t know any English, and had never seen a computer before and they didn’t know what the internet was. However, they quickly figured out how to use the computer and access the internet. The educationist Dr. Sugata saw children teaching each other how to use the computer and picking up new skills. Which factors drove them to learn computer and internet use in this way? The answers may be many but the prime answers are they learnt it in a fearless and free environment. They learned it without any teachers’ guidance. They learned it through mentoring. They learned it by being self-motivated. 

About the author

Masum Billah

Masum Billah

Masum Billah works as a Program Manager in BRAC Education Program, BRAC, and Vice-President of Bangladesh English Language Teachers’ Association (BELTA), Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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