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.

The future of learning…

…what is it?

I pride myself in saying that I have quite un-orthodox views of education. I’m pedantic (we should use the word learning not education!) and sometimes focus too much on what is said, rather than why it’s being said…I like to read educational texts like Holt’s ‘instead of education’, Freire’s ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, and Falko Peschel’s ‘Open Learning’ (although, I think the book is only available in German…sorry); watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks; and visit/read about cool schools like Grundschule Harmonie, Laborschule Bielefeld, and Summerhill School. While doing all of that, I then get mad at myself because in that entire list of pedagogues there’s not a single woman. Yes, Maria Montessori did some coo stuff…but that’s not radical enough for me anymore!

But I will not let this turn into a feminist rant about how there are way too many old, white men getting all the glory in (my) pedagogy libraries. That’s for another post.

On to what I actually wanted to say with this post. Yesterday I took part in an ‘Open Classroom’, as Jonathan Worth from PhonarNation calls it.

Essentially, there is a module called ‘The Future of Learning’ at Newcastle University. It is lead by Sugata Mitra who has 4 beautiful TED talks and 2 books, and some cool projects (like the School in the Cloud). Instead of teaching the 20 odd students or so that are actually signed up for the module (like I was 2 years ago…) the Open Classroom allows learners from across the globe to take part!

All you have to do – or at least all I did yesterday – was to go to this website and listen to the provocation at the same time as the class takes place at the university. Then the students in the class, and those learning outside the class, tweet their notes and engage in discussions via twitter, making sure to include #EDU8213.

In this way, quite a few interesting people got involved in the conversation leading it off onto interesting tangents.

For example, Daniel Callaghan got involved in relation to learning, education, and happiness

We also discussed whether or not teachers should have all the answers…

There area a LOT of tweets around all sorts of topics at #EDU8213 if you’re interested…and please, GET INVOLVED!

This was an exciting experience, that made me think critically about learning and education from angles I hadn’t previously thought about too much. I hope that the audience will continue to grow for the coming live sessions.

Although this was a great experience, I would like to see more involvement from Sugata Mitra himself. He did pose a few questions, and responded to some tweets…but I’d like to hear more from him on twitter. I realise that he’s busy actually teaching the class that’s present in person at Newcastle University, but still…

Reflecting on the two hours I spent on twitter yesterday, I realise that there are a few things that I want to address in regards to this way of learning.

Fitting complex thoughts into 140 characters on twitter is difficult, but also a useful exercise. This was the first time I’ve fully engaged in various academic conversations via twitter. I’d previously only had conversations with one or two other people via twitter that were mostly started by a question I had asked them, or an article either of us had shared. This time however, it was different. Several people became involved in a single conversation, so abbreviations became my friends, and grammar went out the window (I’m sorry to all the language teachers I’ve ever had!). At times, the conversations were difficult to follow because different participants of the conversation went off on different tangents…but I tried my best.

What I realised during my various conversations was that they were very varied. I was involved in conversations about whether teachers should have all the answers, whether testing is the best option, and whether kids can teach themselves how to read and write. I have discussed all of these topics before, and while I have gained a few insights from talking to different people about them (as you always do). However, I’m not sure that I was able to put across my entire opinion, and whether the people I was talking to were able to put their entire thought process into their own argumentation. Anther thing I realised was that none of the conversations really shocked me, or changed my mind. It was more of a conversation about things I’ve had lots of conversations about before (but this time with different people…).

Overall, this was an interesting experience, and I’m excited to see how this module continues to evolve. I’d love to see some descriptive statistics on how many people took part, how many tweets there were, how many responses, conversations, retweets there were. Who got involved? What did I miss?

I’m looking forward to the next session on Tuesday the 17th of November 2015 at 14:30 – 16:00!

Education in the Developing world…

Quite recently I went to a public lecture organized by Insights at Newcastle University by Sir Michael Barber. It was candidly titled “Getting every child into school and learning; why wait?” and discussed exactly that question, using Punjab in Pakistan as a specific example.

While I agree with many of the things Sir Barber said in his speech regarding the importance of non-state schools, public private partnerships, and the importance of vouchers to allow parents, and ultimately students, to choose what school children go, there was one major aspect of his view on education that I did not agree with. It comes from a more pedagogical stand-point than an International Development context, but I still wonder why that is…

One man sort-of brought up my concern at the end of the lecture by asking about the definition of ‘education’. Throughout Barber’s talk, it seemed like he knew what ‘education’ was, and that he (and the local government) were ‘giving’ students what they thought was the best education. How do they go about finding out whether students were ‘learning’? They go and test the students on their native language, english and maths proficiency.

To me, that is not education.

To me, that is the ancient definition and understanding of education that has brought us into the twenty first century, and that is now the source of so many problems.

It is the 21st century! Computers are everywhere. Test answers are easily obtainable by a quick google search! There really is no more need for learning knowledge by heart…I do agree that there are basic things such as reading and writing that are absolutely necessary for learners to learn (that doesn’t mean they have to be taught that by teachers…but that’s a different debate), but testing maths, english, and native language proficiency is not the way of testing ‘learning’.

One statement that I felt was especially depricating to those out of the formal education systems was that ‘millions of children are not learning’ and we need to get them into school, so they can start learning. While Barber did say that getting them into schools was only the first step, and actually making sure they learnt at school was the second (more important) step, he does assume that school = learning.

I personally have a very big problem with a statement like that.

As was seen in my research regarding homelessness (here, here, here) or other looking at tumblr as a learning environment, it becomes very clear very quickly that learning doesn’t just happen at school! Are you not convinced? How did you LEARN to talk? communicate? social norms? Did you learn all that at school? Probably not…

A question I had for Sir Michael Barber, but sadly didn’t get the opportunity to ask him is the following:
If you say that the private sector is able to innovate, then why doesn’t it do so? Why does it advocate traditional rote learning in the 21st century, when you have the opportunity to leapfrog western educational history right into the 21st century reality of educational research from academics such as Sugata Mitra and Steve Wheeler? Why don’t you aid developing countries overtaking the west? Why don’t we allow them to compete on a global market? Make education skills rather thank knowledge based? We know that education in the west is outdated, so why are we introducing old methods into new systems?

What the heck are SOLEs?

The easiest, and probably best way of finding out what a SOLE is, is to watch Sugata Mitra‘s TED talks, so I’ve embedded them below. If however you don’t have an hour to listen to his three talks you can save them for later and continue to read below.

2007 Sugata Mitra: Shows How Kids Teach Themselves

2010 Sugata Mitra: The Child Driven Education

2013 Sugata Mitra: Build A School In The Cloud

So what actually are SOLEs? They’re the environment in which exploratory learning can take place. Wikipedia does a better deal of explaining it than me:

a place where children can work in groups, access the internet and other software, follow up on a class activity or project or take them where their interests lead them.

There are many examples on here, and a detailed description of one research project here.

Since 2013 the movement has kept going, and turned into the School in the Cloud. It’s a place to find out more about SOLEs, to learn from others’ experiences, get news, and almost most importantly getting involved!

You can download the toolkit, or use this wikihow to figure out how to devise your own SOLE!

Is tumblr a suitable learning environment for feminism?

I’ve been getting very interested in several social justice issues, feminism being a major concern for me…being a woman and all.

I took the opportunity that my course offered me to take my love for equality and my love for tumblr and mix them up. Personally, I see a lot of social justice flying about the tumblrsphere, so I was wondering how other people thought about their experience of the website. Some of the questions I asked were:

  • Did they learn something from the community?
  • Did they feel they were getting a rounded point of view of what feminism is?
  • Did they feel tumblr was a safe environment for sharing their opinion on feminism?

I created a SurveyMonkey questionnaire, went through the “feminism” tumblr tag directly asked my followers the questions and had conversations with two users.

Overall, the responses I got were quite positive, although there were some very negative ones in there too!

I came up with presenting my results through a poster that I made look like a tumblr page. So I set out to collect screenshots, draw in a URL line and ‘bookmarked’ the page ^^


What does this mean for Digital Civics?

I found that although tumblr doesn’t have a fully functioning chat system, and although it’s a very anonymous site (or maybe exactly because of this?) people are able to speak openly about the topic. It is a mostly unregulated space where hate isn’t uncommon and where discussion, debate and agreement are often made through open threads that anyone with an internet connection and an account can add to. These are often sprinkled with links to other websites and sources to show that information is accurate, which could be a reason why many respondents have said they learnt a lot about feminism and many accompanying issues through the blogging website.

I wonder…

if an unregulated, open, not directly educational website a better source for politically fragile information than the school system? Is a place where everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student, a network of learning and communicating a viable place for naturally occurring learning?

if this is a better place for people to learn about social issues than school?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer to both of these questions were ‘YES’ if teenagers were asked. I personally would give both of those a whooping standing-ovation YIPPEDY YES!

School? Education? Not interested.

So far, I have conducted six interviews on schooling and homelessness. I do not want to go into too much detail on my questions, and just want to give some examples of the stories I have heard. I will give two examples that will show the complexity of the situation that homelessness is.

First, I would like to give an example that might be exactly what one thinks of when they hear the term of homeless and Bucharest, Romania in one sentence:

Man 1: 30 years old.
The first time he ran away from home, he was only 5 1/2 years old. He was moved between abusive child centres, his abusive home and the abusive streets. He started using Aurolac (car paint in a plastic bag-the drug of choice for the children of the streets of Bucharest) at a very early age and did not go to school. Living on the streets was like a game to him until he was 18 years old. It was only then that he realized that he was no longer a child, and that the state would no longer provide for him. He did not attend school, does not know how to read or write and lived day after day not moving around, stealing here and there, carrying boxes of beer or juice from vans into shops for a little bit of money every now and again. At age 30 he is mentally and physically ill and is attempting to get off the streets. Education is still of no interest to him.

Not everyone is like this. Just like everywhere else there are people who get to the streets because of mistakes they have made in their later lives.

Man 2: 30 years old
Moved on to the streets at age 28 after his girlfriend of 12 years broke up with him and he began using drugs. He did not want his family to know, so he moved to the streets to avoid them being ashamed of him. This man has completed high school, speaks English very well and enjoys reading. He enjoyed it so much that he would read with a flashlight in the abandoned building he was staying in despite the laughter coming from his street companions. After some time, the others became interested in reading and he began to teach them how to read and write. A year after moving onto the streets he heard about a certain social service centre that could help him get off the streets. He has been there and at home since December. His love for reading and his belief that education is important has turned him into a sort of teacher for 3 friends (2 on the street and one in the centre).

I wanted to give these two very different examples of homelessness to show the complexity of my study and to show that just like everybody else, there are those that enjoy and those that do not enjoy school and studying.

I will be conducting some focus groups to see where reading, writing, mathematics lie on the scale of importance for different people who have been involved with the streets as well as when the most educative phases of their time on the streets were.

smiling, hugging and singing with people who are homeless

Finally I had my meeting with Marius from the NGO I am working with for my dissertation.

I had my meeting at 9, and after the debacle that was last nights lack of internet, I actually found my way to the social centre without any problems. Well, any major problems. I couldn’t find the door and had to ask a neighbour where the entrance was…that was a little embarrassing seeing as I had actually walked past the entrance before…

I walk in, go to the office to speak to Marius who is quite happy to see me and show me around the entire centre.

I am left in a room half an hour later with 6 other men. One street and social worker and 5 beneficiaries of the centre. It was around 9:30 and everyone was getting ready for the daily meeting.

I found out that this atelier was a newly established programme of string-therapy (Creating of string art) for men who have lived on the streets and are HIV+. I spent my morning there and had some interesting talks with the men.

Lunchtime! I remember this kind of food…I gained quite a bit of weight in my 6 weeks of working in an orphanage in Moldova run by the same NGO…I’m glad I wont be eating at the centre every day. Not because the food is bad, but because it’s super fatty. Yea, there’s the me that cares a little about what she looks like…sorry.

I get introduced to the 50 or so people who are present at lunch and am asked to give a short introduction about what I want to talk about with the 18-35 year olds.

Of course, I begin by apologizing for the abysmal state my Romanian is in…having said that, I feel a LOT of it coming back already; and although I never learnt grammar, I understand quite a lot of it.

I gave a short introduction that was followed by some questions. YES. THANK YOU. That means some were at least a little interested in what I wanted to find out! YES. So learning/education/survival skills are an interesting topic not only for academic researchers like myself, but for the people that the questions are aimed towards as well.

Now there is an hour of break time without any activities. I go outside to try to have some informal chats with some people where I find out some very interesting and quite positive things.

A man, 28 years old:
Has spent a couple of days (at this point..has been there before, many times) as his ‘holiday’ from work. He is working in the kitchen of the most respected and high class hotel Bucharest has to offer.
I said this was a positive example, because this man has found a job through the NGO. From what he told me he enjoys the job but likes to spend time at the centre. The rest of the time he lives with family, or on the street.
This is just an example of how wages in Romania do not always allow for a decent standard of living. This man works in the kitchen (cutting fruit and vegetables. Yes, not a great job. But a job nonetheless) of the best hotel in town, and still cannot sustain his existence by it.

After singing some religious, romanian pop and gibberish renditions of english songs with him and a friend of his who quite skilfully accompanied us all on the guitar (learnt at the social centre) it is time for activities again.

I go back to my newly made friends of the string therapy room and continue to talk to them about all sorts of things. Among them, school.

Man A, 28 years old:
He was in school for 3 years and says he enjoyed it. He is able to write and read quite well. Not quite at the average adult level, but at a level where he can take notes and understand what he is reading. He said he enjoyed school quite a bit. He has been drawing and learning how to draw  at social service centres for the last 9 years.

Another man I talked to had been to school for 5 years and has been on and off the streets since he was a child. He did not enjoy school a whole lot.

These short, informal conversations made it very clear to me that there are several people who are willing to talk about this topic to me, and that there will be very many different stories to be heard. There will be many different opinions which will hopefully lead to great discussions and interviews.

My day today was very interesting and leaves me to wonder how my first research session tomorrow afternoon will go.