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.
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.
- Mayer J & Land R. (2006). Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, Routledge.
- Mitra, Sugata (2012). “The Hole in the Wall Project and the Power of Self-Organized Learning”, Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation.
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.