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?

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