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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.

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