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October 30, 2012 / gaillovely

Learning without Us?

child looking in wrong end of binoculars

Some things just ought to make us think…

Long ago, in internet terms and maybe even in education terms, I first read about Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” project and today I read another article with a similar focus, 

Can children learn without us? Without teachers? Without schools?

We need to think about this. Seriously.

The article I read today has the headline:

“Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves”.

With 100 million 5-6 year old children worldwide receiving no schooling, the One Laptop per Child organization dropped large cardboard boxes of Motorola Zoom tablets into villages where there was no schooling and little print or other literacy programs. As described in the article linked above, they were surprised at what happened:

“I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,”

This is not unlike some of the findings of Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” Project which I have been following for 10 years…

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Can children learn without teachers? Can children learn without adult intervention? OF COURSE THEY CAN!

Watch children, they are learning all the time. We embrace the learning they do in informal settings. We watch rapt as young learners learn to hold a rattle,  learn to walk, learn to talk, learn to ride a bike… why would it shock us that they might learn other things, school things too? You see, the building blocks of some things can be learned from peers and with experimentation. This may be less efficient, or it may be more efficient… but it can happen.  My mother tLittle Gailold me the story of when I was two years old and we were in our car, a big blue Chevy, and I was sitting in the back seat, actually standing on the back seat, and she heard me saying the street names as we drove. At first she thought I was remembering the streets from our earlier journeys as these were familiar roads, but then we turned off the familiar road on a detour due to road construction. The next thing she heard was me saying the names of these roads which I had never been on before. I was mispronouncing some of the road names, but I was clearly “reading” the signs. She then tested me and tested me, both in the car and when we arrived home. She discovered I could read. But, how could this be? No one had taught me to read. I had learned to read without any teaching.

You see, I believe, curiosity is innate. Children want to explore, explain, expound and experience… they do it all the time. We have schools and formalized learning at least partially to try to “encourage” young learners to learn what we value or think is important. We can’t stop them from learning. Think about taking a group of young learners on a field trip to the zoo. As the teacher I am probably hoping they will learn about the animals, the biomes they thrive in, the food they eat, their social structure or even just what they look or sound like. If my learners are later asked to draw, tell or explain the zoo trip to someone else they will readily share what they actually learned. Some will have learned the lessons we had in mind while others will regale us with stories of the child who was sick on the bus, the “bathroom behavior” of the chimps or even the shoes the guide was wearing. They ALL would have learned something. All of them.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab, and the chairman of the One Laptop Per Child foundation suggests in another recent article ( ) that we do not yet know if his tablet project described above will lead to children teaching themselves to read, but there is perhaps a more important possibility… that children learn best when they explore ideas, content, questions, and tools themselves.

I wonder, perhaps schooling needs to reflect a bit more of the culture and formats of informal learning. Explore, examine, try, do, be, think, share, fail and succeed. Ask rather than be told.

Do I think there is a place for teachers in this “system” of learning?

Yes, I do. Teachers can help to provide guidance, a sounding board, probing questions, resources, skills and tools and prior experience when appropriate or requested. Teachers can bring opportunities for discussion and reflection and synthesis by asking and sharing.

The thing is, we have a lot to learn ourselves. The roles are ever-changing. We can learn with and from and for our students and they with and from and for us. Technologies can provide access to ideas, tools and new ways to tinker with our learning. Technologies can bring colleagues or co-learners to prompt deeper thought through the need to explain, justify, or support our theories. They can provide leverage for our newly found ideas and skills.

Have you ever watched a group of children with a new toy? They try things. They share what happens. They watch. They grab it and try it themselves. They explore it. They learn. We intervene when we want them to learn something specific… or to keep them safe… or because we really want them to do something a certain way. We have a role, well, we have many roles… perhaps the BIG idea here is we need to take the time to be a learner AND a teacher and to help our children do be both as well.

I look forward to YOUR thoughts, please leave a comment here so we can all explore this together.

One Comment

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  1. Carol Teitelman / Oct 31 2012 10:26 AM

    Thanks for the reminder that we are all learning all the time. You have succinctly put the spotlight back where it should be. An parallel article appeared in the ASCD SmartBreif today suggesting that teachers remove time limits since they do not provide an accurate picture of the learning process.

    Hopefully, I can mark today on the calendar as the day we shifted the emphasis back to learning.

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