All entries for Thursday 18 June 2015

June 18, 2015

Children as self–determined learners? Thoughts on an Ethiopian project

A few weeks ago at a research conference I was invited to discuss various educational topics of very recent interest, including what shall be a highly controversial and highly debated idea of children being self-determined learners essentially as described by a learning theory named “Heutagogy.” The main premise of this potential direction of classroom learning is utalising a pure child centred learning approach with the child taking full control of their learning without any assistance or without a teacher being present.

A speaker who was making a case for this approach made the suggestion that learners do not need to have emotional and social connectivity within learning contexts, just the cognitive capability to learn and a micro environment that is suitable for their abilities. Opposition arrived from other people, suggesting that technology should not replace teachers; that children need to feel that they belong and that they need that social and emotional connectivity within a classroom in order to learn effectively and this can only happen if a perceived authority, a teacher, is present. Research within post compulsory education shows that, with some adult learners, it is the case that they need to feel a part of an online learning community before any learning within that community can take place.

Are social and emotional connections to a teacher or even other learners really necessary for learning to take place? We tend to view children as social and emotional beings (especially teenagers, I might add), so could findings at adult education level be applied to children? Would it be even more of a case for children to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of taking part so that they can learn? If so, what is it that makes a person, either a child or adult, feel that need for such connections before they perceive effective learning? Do you really need to feel socially and emotionally connected to other learners before effective learning can take place? Do you really need a teacher or a facilitator and feel connected to that facilitator in order for yourself to feel that you can progress with learning?

It was an interesting discussion and I haven’t really given it much thought until I came across this article published a couple of years ago. Titled “Given Tablets but no Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves”, it describes a couple of schools in Ethiopia trying out an experiment where children, perceived to be illiterate, were given tablets with an assortment of pre-loaded software with the aim of finding out of they could teach themselves valuable reading skills.

Nicholas Negroponte, a founder of the project, suggested at an EmTech conference that early indications show positive results from the experiment. All the children involved in the project had never read a book or had anything to do with words, and yet a few months into the project the children were able to sing the alphabet song and were able to spell words using a paint program. Negroponte, quite rightly, goes on to suggest that this is not substantial proof or evidence that children are able to learn effectively on their own using technology, but the preliminary findings were substantial enough to warrant further research.

Whilst I found the article and the experiences of the children very interesting, I am not going to make any suggestion either way as to whether or not self-determined learning with technology would actually work with children in terms of not having that emotional and social connectivity. However, this project and others similar in other countries do suggest that children are capable of far more than perhaps British society and the British Education system allows them. I have come across people who actually believe that if you teach yourself, then you’re not really learning. This is a view that I do disagree with, and research in other countries show that it is possible that children can become self-determined learners given the right environment. Could it really be possible?

Do note that I am not making any suggestion that technologies should replace teachers; however, remembering that technology is simply an application of learning and not the means of all learning, it does encourage thinking further about the role of the teacher in the classroom. Technology, remember, should not be considered as the be all of everything but as one of many modern methods of designing learning environments so that more effective learning can take place among and between learners. Other methods include micro learning environments, self-determination, personalised learning environments, informal learning, among others.

It makes you think about the possibilities with technology and the transformations that technologies can bring to any classroom. It makes you think about and question the relationship between teacher, child, and technology and it makes you also question the role of emotive and social learning processes and their influence upon learning.

The biggest question in all of this, however, is whether or not children can really be self-determined learners. If you believe that they are not able to be self-determined learners (with or without technology), then are your assumptions about this restricted to what you have experienced? Are they bounded by the social and political contexts of our education system that does not encourage our children to be self-determined learners?

Whatever your answers are, the main thing when considering the issues raised in this blog post is that any amount of thinking and questioning about the relationship between teacher, child, and technology and the role and importance of social and emotional learning within self-determined learning contexts are always valuable and useful. This is simply because there can be no progress without questioning, and no understanding without exploring those questions as objectively as is possible.

If you have made it through the blog post this far, check out the article

Thoughts on the assumptions of learners and teachers automatically knowing about technology

Whenever I come across an article that explores the apparent inability of teachers to use technology effectively for teaching and learning purposes, you cannot help but wonder what is going on out there given that there is such a huge potential for technology to transform Education and to contribute towards the aims and objectives of meaningful learning experiences. As an Educational researcher (in the making) I think about the role of technology in Education constantly, both in individual self-directed and social learning contexts.

Reading through an article titled "Why Ed Tech is not Transforming How Teachers Teach" simply adds to the fact that technological investments are meaningless if there is a lack of investment in the training of teachers to use technology adequately and in learner understanding of the role and purpose of technology towards their learning, suitable for the teaching and learning contexts they are within at a particular time.

It is fairly pointless, in my opinion, to suggest that technology does nothing to improve learning after making huge investments when there is no clue in the classroom as to their appropriateness. There appears to be this long running, and still persisting, assumption that learners have an automatic, innate understanding of the appropriateness, purpose and use of technology for their learning simply because they use technology in their leisure time. I find that teachers, particularly newer teachers, are expected to know and understand uses of technology appropriate for their teaching. It is not expected that being able to drive a car on the road automatically means that the driver is able to control and drive an F1 vehicle around a race track, so why is there an expectation that teachers and learners automatically have an understanding of technology for teaching and learning simply because they use technology for leisure?

There must be a change in the assumptions that people have regarding an innate ability to immediately be able to comprehend technologies for learning just because technology is extremely common. General use of technology does not equate to being able to understand their uses in specific educational contexts.

In explaining the barriers to adopting technologies fully, the article makes some very excellent points about teachers feeling that they are bound to school politics and established classroom normalities and traditions, which is a very interesting and important point to pick up because this is a much wider problem than technological learning contexts. I have spoken to teachers in the past who have attempted to bring in advanced teaching methods such as problem solving methods, and these were scorned at by those higher up the school’s hierarchy. This then becomes a problem of teaching methods in general, and what is deemed as acceptable in the classroom and what is accepted is ever changing: just take a look at the methods now used to teach mathematics in schools. But is what becomes acceptable driven by Governments? School politics? Are children really being considered in the decision making as to what should be acceptable?

The article suggests and references other reasons for the lack of technological uptake, and all these reasons have very little to do with the effectiveness of the technology itself. Essentially, you cannot expect teachers and learners to improve their teaching and learning through technology if neither of them have had the training and experience that allows them to immediately evaluate and select the most appropriate technology for a particular teaching and learning context. All the investment in technology within Education shall not amount to anything unless there is a change of attitude and a more substantial investment in teacher and learner training and experience of technology within educational environments.

Check out the article:

Why Ed Tech is not Transforming How Teachers Teach

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