Leave them alone, students must learn without teachers, of their own!

Too much teaching and instructions seemingly spoils the learning-spirit of students and at times they tend to hate the entire business of ‘overly directed learning’. Leaving them alone helps. It encourages self-reflections, self-learning and most importantly breaks the monotony.

by Samar Sarabhai and Prabhat Pankaj*

It reminds us of a famous song by Pink Floyd ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ where the band urges the society at large to leave the kids alone. Transport the same message to the world of teachers and parents and we can feel the taste of our own medicine. How did we learn in our life: Was it all in the classroom, directed by teachers? Yes, we did learn in the classroom but what we are today is because we learnt most of it outside the classroom. The meaning of being a worthy teacher for us is to be prescriptive and direct students for what they should do to be a successful person. What a fallacy! We all learnt by doing, stumbling, exploring, and redoing the things. We all have different ways and paths to reach where we want to reach. Classroom teaching is a well-established method of imparting knowledge but, it assumes that all of the pupil wants to assimilate and churn the knowledge the same way in order to convert into desired learning. Too much of directed learning creates monotony and results in apathy towards learning.

Troublesome knowledge

Mayer & Land (2006) aptly described the concept of threshold and the necessity of making students go through troublesome knowledge. Students always start with comfort zone and the process of learning puts them into learning zone which is a great transition for them. But the troublesome knowledge puts them into panic zone and allows them to transcend the unknown portal. When they come out of the hazy portal, a new awakening and a new learning awaits them. It is like throwing the child in the water and allow them to figure out how to swim and survive. Any teaching schedule devoid of such design where students are left of their own to explore and learn, will not serve enough for the higher order thinking skills among students.

Can students learn without teachers?

Answer is yes – they can and they should. In an experiment, a class of 50 children were given a story to read. All of them read the same story. However, the story did not have the end in it. Children were asked to create their own end to the story. This exercise reflected amazing creativity and imagination with which children narrated how the story should end. The choice in front of us is—do we want the story to end in one single way or we want it to have 50 different ways to look at?

In yet another interesting experiment called ‘hole in the wall’, PC (computer) was embedded in the wall near slum area in manner that it is visible from the street and accessible to anyone passing by. Camera was installed to monitor the movement and the usage of PC. The observations of this experimentation have been astonishing. Children from slum area nearby learnt to operate PC and many more basic functions associated with it. The initiator of this experiment Sugata Mitra joyfully narrated the entire episode in a Ted-talk how children organized their own learning of basic computer operation. This goes on to support that—when children have interest, learning happens. Sugata’s experimentation keeps on reminding us that in a self-organizing system, learning structure appears of its own and it is ever emerging and this happens without any explicit external intervention. Sugata holds that education is a ‘self-organizing system’ and learning is an emergent phenomenon.

One can say that it happens in early age education but will it also work in higher education too? We do not know the answer exactly what will happen to ‘deep learning’ and higher order thinking skills in higher education without an instructor, but we tried it out in a small and limited experimentation. The course curriculum was divided and distributed to students in the class on day-one. Students were asked to prepare the content and presentation of their own. The subsequent classes would start with student presentation (a group of 2-3 students on each topic, each class). The ownership of class teaching was transferred completely to students. The task of the instructor was to supplement ideas, provide references and add examples from real world. It was evident that students successfully learnt and justified content. These students appeared in exam and scored as good as they would have scored with the instructor teaching all the topics to them.

How we worked it out?

We did a small experiment again, after opening the session with the prescribed topic, we asked students to go find the concept in next one hour, understand, assimilate, make sense of the concept and come back to the classroom with their understanding and related queries. The exercise began with some students choosing to do it all by themselves and a many of them made informal groups. This was a true representation of people we see around – some wants to be lone-wolf and many would want to hunt in herd. Thereafter another intriguing pattern emerged – the place they chose. A few remained in classroom, posing their faith on their own search and cognitive skills. Next lot was seen in library; was hungry for more information, wanted to be sure before they arrive upon their understanding and inferences. This was the group who wanted a validation of their own knowledge and came well prepared with their notes. The third group interestingly went to cafeteria of the college, a nice place to reflect upon, with a cup of coffee (external stimulant) to invoke their thoughts and discussions, and a few of them sounded a little serendipitous; what a similarity between the place, the people and kind of learning that emerged.

When the students came back to classroom to discuss what they learned, a few things stood out vis-à-vis the regular classroom.

  • Even after 75 minutes of intense learning, they looked beaming with energy wanting to express themselves.
  • The participation level went many notches up, rather there was a competition of sorts.
  • Diverse thoughts were expressed and there was no dearth of questions being raised.
  • Students asked more questions and were also defending their statements, a sign of exploration.
  • Last but not the least, class went beyond prescribed time of 90 minutes and yet topic is to be fully discussed –  a happy state for a true teacher.

This small experiment leads us to ponder upon a few fundamental questions.

  • Can we take classroom beyond classroom?
  • Is one-fit-for-all (classroom teaching) really what this generation of learner want?
  • Should we not leave some learning spaces for students and not capture all of it to direct what and how should they learn?

Learners will find their own way to learn or else let them come to seek your counsel as to what and how to learn, till then Leave Them Alone for Some time.


This piece of write up is jointly prepared by Samar Sarabhai (Professor of Marketing) and Prabhat Pankaj based on their experiences and experimentation with what makes students learn better in higher education.

Author: Dr Prabhat Pankaj

Dr. Prabhat Pankaj is a postgraduate in Economics and a Ph.D. in applied economics. He is a teacher by choice and started his career 30 years ago in 1991 from Arunachal University. He has been teaching Economics at postgraduate and undergraduate levels for about 30 years, in Universities and B-Schools in India and abroad, including 7 years in Bhutan. Dr. Pankaj has also obtained his Executive Education in "Management and Leadership in Higher Education" at Harvard University, Boston, USA. Furthermore, He has written for the Times of India and other popular publications. Currently, he is serving as the Director of Jaipuria Institute of Management, Jaipur.

17 thoughts

  1. Yet another deeply thought-out educator-position on a vital sphere of education. One of the finest things about teaching and learning is that there is no finality about it. That explains why you come up with amazing perspectives and enlighten us.
    Thank you so much for this brilliant essay, Dr. Pankaj.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful article which advocates the values of self learning and non-traditional teaching. In India I have noticed that due to the rote learning methodology, students learn fast but forget faster with the result that majority falters during application of the knowledge! Learning methodologies need to change if we as a nation do not want to end up with a mass of unskilled and unemployable population holding a piece of paper called a degree!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very contemporary & cutting-edge.

    Cutting-edge because the current academia & educational system isn’t very comfortable with this path-breaking idea.

    Few thoughts:
    1. Right from Kindergarten to Post-Graduation this concept applies beautifully. Now-a-days, a concept of “Slow Parenting” is evolving at the kindergarten level… i.e. letting the child learn/explore at his/her own pace & own accord.

    2. However, in every realm of knowledge, a true student, if s/he pushes oneself properly, reaches a point where the mind is full of questions & needs guidance that cannot emanate from inside. At that point, cometh the role of a teacher. BUT, how many of the students would actually push themselves to that limit? (Subject of another article, quantitative research)

    3. Practical take from the article: before any lecture/delivery of knowledge, the audience needs to be given some time for self-stimulation.

    In the end, must say, a very well written article. Clearly shows your thought leadership.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Found informative and useful article. Interesting ideas and thoughts are discussed. More importantly, ideas discussed in the article are well supported by the studies and experiments executed in the past. We need to implement such ideas to attract new generation towards self-learning.
    I have read the book “Hole in the wall”. This book highlights the basic ideas of self learning / educational technology. Computer was fitted in the wall and the hole was opened for poor children. I think curiosity is the main driving force behind self-learning. Educational Leaders along with their team may focus on activities that can create curiosity among learners.
    I am also convinced with your thought ( human tendency …we do what we see ) that was discussed during talk “Pick a Book.
    As a library professional, I suggest that we may develop placement, literature and entrepreneurship corners in your library and can display related books. Otherwise, lots of books are available in the stacks. Such experiments can be started with small expenditure. Atmospheric environment can be created to attract users in the library or any part of the academic setup. Comfortable seating ( bean bags, soft carpet for seating) and greenery can be arranged in the library.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Vinay ji. Wonderful analysis and your suggestions for library is amazing. I have noted down each one of it. They are very much implementable and it will definitely have great impact on students success. Thank you once again for your encouraging remarks.


  5. That was truly an insightful read. Students should be given such spaces outside classrooms to introspect, explore and learn.

    Monotonous classrooms can drown the innate creativity and enthusiasm in a learner. Learning outside classrooms are more engaging as well as refreshing. Young India is abundant in talent but such initiatives alone bring them to the fore. Let us leave them on their own, self-reflect and cherish the experience.

    Dr Prabhat Pankaj has beautifully conceptualised this in a well drafted article.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Loved the intrinsically crafted blog on self-learning, reflection, and inner drive for participation… an idea that surpasses the prescriptive classroom decorum. The analogies and the experiment-driven exercise is a masterpiece in itself.
    I guess the key to self-learning is stimulating the minds, keeping the motivation level high, humour, probing questions and finally curiosity. These are stimulants to keep learning at go!

    Wonderful penning down by Prof. Prabhat Pankaj and ideas from Prof. Samar Sarabhai.
    Happy Reading!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is truly informative as it reminds us how we learnt and can we give that space to students to learn. The experiment teaches us a lot and further endorses the flipped classroom style. Particularly in the current online classes it would be a tool to really depend upon. In fact, my thoughts could resonate with the article, as recently, I did a treasure hunt activity in one of the course wherein I gave just a challenge and context and only focused on inspiring them and answering their queries. I saw students enthusiastic participation in several classes and they could personally experience several sub topics based on this. This article is very good for those seeking some idea to engage students.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Unfortunately, some teachers I know are racists. Personally practice quizzes, workbooks, answer keys, computer-based training, and teacher’s edition textbooks should be offered in lieu. The whole point is about learning. The worst for me is when teachers scold you in front of everyone, treat you differently, and etc when its our tuition money that pays for their salary but sometimes jealousy to envy with other students that interfere with the old mandatory classroom learning. Personally, I think is too much overhead, inefficient, to even a government waste. Yes, there should be a live face-to-face human interaction if needed but don’t force students to learn the old way because seeing a person explaining things is sometimes too oversimplied and/or a distraction not to mention time lost travelling, unpacking, packing materials and additional cost with that such as parking, bus pass, and etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said, I fully concur with your view. There is no place of arrogance and bias in teaching-learning. However, unfortunately it still exists in some or the other form. Online learning is going to stay and the new norm is physital which allows the learner gain the maximum.


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