Experiences of Self Organised Learning…

I’ve written before about Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs), and the opening of SOLE Central at Newcastle University. I have problems with the research, as I do with all the research that I read, but overall I think it’s an interesting concept. I also think it shouldn’t be talked about only in the context of schools (which much of it is), because I think it can say so much more about learning than what could or couldn’t work in schools. Having said that, I do think there is potential for this in schools….

Anyway, that’s not what this blog post is about. This blog post is about Self-organised learning, not necessarily self-organised learning environments. As I was writing my last blog post about EDU8213, I began to write a little bit about the self-organised learning that I had experienced in schools…so this is just a continuation of that. An exploration into self-organised learning that I’ve done over the years.

This could be a very, very long blog post…so instead of describing everything in great detail, I’m just going to list a couple of things that I’ve done through my education so far.

  • Small projects through primary and middle school where we could choose what topics we were interested in and then study those in depth. This sometimes happened in groups and other times as individuals. A particularly great example of this for me is how I developed my knowledge of Dolphins.
  • In middle school, one of the teachers at the school decided to create a module where students could study anything they wanted in whichever way they wanted. I decided to learn about  the beginning of the Universe and (much like Sugata has found) ended up going into stuff that was way beyond what any curriculum would have taught me at this age.
  • As part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) World School Programme that I took part in through middle and high school, we had to complete the Middle Years Programme (MYP) Personal Project. Here each student spends a year learning something that they are interested in. They have a supervisor that helps them through the process, and have to write a reflective report about what they had learnt in the end, and also present the work in front of an audience made up of students, staff, and parents. I decided to create a line of recycled clothing and learnt many things about recycling and ethical clothing, as well as practical skills in sewing and clothes-making.
  • As part of the IB programme (essentially the last two years of high school), we did the ‘Group 4 Project’. In the IB, different subjects are seperated into different ‘Groups’ that students can choose from. Group 4 for example, is the group all the sciences are in, and we had to choose at least one of these to do for our IB. The Group 4 project was a week of entirely student-led experiments, and one of the best memories I have of 11th grade. Each group was made up of one or two students from Physics, Biology, and Chemistry (the only sciences our school offered at the time). We had to work together to develop a theme that we would each do experiments around before presenting our work in front of staff and students at the end of the week.
  • Another part of the IB was the Extended Essay, or the EE as we all referred to it. This is a 4,000 word paper that each student writes with the help from a supervisor. The student picks a subject they want to do it in (I chose English Literature) and then the student and supervisor come up with a topic within that subject to choose (I looked at the role setting played in character development in Shakespeare’s The Tempest).

As you can see, all my projects were very different and didn’t really have anything to do with one another. And that was okay. That wasn’t the point of these projects. The point was to learn something that interests the student at that point in time, as well as learning to manage a project, learn as a group or an individual, and ask big, difficult, and complex questions. All of these things are great preparation for university work…particularly Dissertations (which really, are just longer forms of reports of self-organised learning).

I think whoever manages the school in the cloud twitter summed it up perfectly in this tweet

So if all of academia is built on the idea of self-organised learning and projects, why do we have such a problem with accepting that self-organised learning works? Why do we as a society, as the institution of learning not take the way of learning that all of this is built on and just roll with it?

There’s a bit of research into how and where SOLEs have been used, there’s the collection of large questions that can be used, and there’s stuff on the school in the cloud on the website, but really. Why do we still have to ask the same question of students? The examples I showed above were all entirely led by me. Yes, I was led and supported by teachers, colleagues, supervisors, other students, but it was my journey. My learning.

Something that bothers me a little with my description of projects above, is that while they were all led by me, the content was also only learnt by me. I didn’t work in groups for most of them, but very well could have (there are also lots of projects that I did work on with others that were ‘taught’ in the same vein of pedagogy that I just didn’t mention above). So why not have SOLEs that are learner-led; where the questions come from the learners themselves?

Where do we learn what we know?

Before starting this response to Session 2 of Newcastle University’s EDU8213, I wanted to just say that the only reason I am doing this is twitter. At first I didn’t really want to join in with the class today. I wasn’t feeling up for it, and I had other things to do…lessons of my own to prepare, going through the ethics process for a study I’m planning, and doing general PhD reading…

I thought that this week, I would just sit on twitter and respond to a couple of things that I find interesting and retweet some stuff. 10 minutes into this, I wanted to hear what was actually being said in the audio file for session 2…so here I am.


When I was 17, I went off to Uni to do my Bachelor’s of Education at the Private University College of Education of the Diocese of Linz, which is just a fancy way of saying ‘teacher training school’. I trained for three years to be a primary school teacher in Austria, which allowed me to learn a broad set of topics including language development, neurology of child development, creativity and learning, reform pedagogies, intercultural understanding, but also more pragmatic subjects like how to develop lesson plans, curricula, marking criteria, and reflective exercises. 

A large part of this was self-reflection, I’d say almost half of the 14 modules we had a semester were based in coaching, team-building, reflection, or communication strategies. Since I was training to be a primary school teacher much of that reflection was focused on my own primary school years.

So, in lieu of Sugata’s provocation, I thought I could take a little trip down memory lane to explore where and how I learnt a couple of different things.There are lots of things I could talk about here, but I’m going to focus on my language learning, because I think it says a lot about self-organised, and peer learning.

Language learning

I moved around Europe a lot, so a large part of my life was dedicated to learning language…sometimes this was very systematic, while other times it was very organic. I think the best example of that may be how I learnt Spanish and Romanian.

When I was around 10 years old, I lived and went to school in Spain. I went to a British school, and learnt Spanish as a ‘foreign language’. This meant that I started at the lowest common denominator; I have memories of learning the special characters of the alphabet in Spanish, as well as special punctuation marks. At the same time though, I also went to sports clubs with a bunch of Spanish kids where I learnt all sorts of other things in Spanish. I hated the sports clubs because I couldn’t talk to the other kids, and mostly because I was the only ‘foreigner’ and I wasn’t really included in anything. I learnt some Spanish, but that didn’t seem to help me in the Spanish classes at school as they cared more about grammar and (relatively useless) vocabulary. To this day, I cannot speak Spanish properly, but am pretty good at understanding it and picking up things on the go.

A few years later, I moved to Romania. Again, I went to an english speaking school. This time however, the school didn’t think it was really necessary to teach us Romanian and so the only way to learn the language systematically was to attend the (extremely boring) ‘Romanian Language’ optional class. So I did that…for 1 semester. I got out of that class as soon as possible. It felt useless, futile, and incredibly boring. I wasn’t interested and don’t think I learnt very much. While being in this school, a friend of mine and I made friends with a couple of Romanian kids in the skate part (yes, I was a very cool teenager, I know.) We mostly talked to them in English (as they all spoke it really well, and we couldn’t really speak Romanian), but picked up little bits of Romanian on the way. I began using these little phrases with my Romanian friends in the english school too, and they were quick to teach me more things. At this point, it was just fun to say a couple of sentences in Romanian every now and again. It wasn’t until I graduated high school, that I really got into learning the language. I went to Moldova for two months to work in an orphanage…and there I was confronted with the choice of either learning Russian or Romanian properly so I could communicate with the kids, the guardians, the staff, or anyone, really. I think the main reason why I learnt as much as I did during that time was because I already knew quite a bit of Romanian before I went (which was very important to me). The kids were fabulous at teaching me new words and sentences. They would laugh at me if I said something wrong, they would correct me in incredibly sweet ways, and laugh at my pronunciation until I got it right. They would laugh even more if I said the Romanian word for something, instead of the Moldovan word. It was all in great fun. I went back to Moldova a couple of years later, and while driving around the country was often believed to be either Romanian or Moldovan.

By  no means, is my Romanian perfect, but my accent and word-choice are similar to those of native speakers because I learnt from native speakers; mostly children. I didn’t learn the grammar (and to this day don’t really understand it) and didn’t learn vocabulary…but still, I’m able to have conversations about all sorts of things in the language.

While I can name mundane things in Spanish but not Romanian, I am able to have more of a conversation in Romanian than in Spanish. I think that this has a lot to do with how I learnt the language; a lot with who taught me that language, where I was taught this language, and how I feel  about those situations and experiences.

My teachers were often a lot younger than me, or at least roughly the same age. None of them were trained teachers, and I had personal relationships with all of them. I like them, and (I think and hope) they liked me. We shared experiences together that had nothing to do with learning the language. In fact, most of the language learning that I went through when learning Romanian had nothing to do with actual language learning.

It was all based around interpersonal relationships, travel, and a wish to be able to communicate.