The MIT Technology Review (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/506466/given-tablets-but-no-teachers-ethiopian-children-teach-themselves/) reported on an intriguing experiment by the One Laptop Per Child organization. In Ethiopia, the researchers placed boxes full of Android based tablets with pre-loaded apps outside of a remote village overnight and watched to see what the children, who had never even read or even seen a written word in English would do with them. The goal was “to see if illiterate kids with no previous exposure to written words could learn how to read all by themselves, by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programs.” To the researchers’ surprise, the kids did not play with the boxes or even have trouble figuring out what to do. They found: “Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,”
The results of this experiment advanced a body of research showing that children will educate themselves when given the opportunity and resources, even without a teacher present. Closer to home, our seven year old granddaughter has become fascinated with human organs and diving into independent videos has taught herself the functioning of major organs and diseases that impact them. While spelling “their” or “there” on a first grade spelling test may challenge her, she can read and spell esophagus, intestine, and peristalsis because of her curiosity and wonder. She even asked for a custom birthday cake, and as grandparents, we responded as only grandparents will do (see photo).
So the question remains: why is more independent thinking and learning not occurring here in the United States? In her article “10 Reasons Why Educators Should Encourage Independent Learning” Julie DeNeen writes, “money often drives many of the current educational trends. Standardized testing is the benchmark for funding, and teachers are instructed to teach “to the test” to ensure good marks.”
While that may be true, there are more nefarious forces at work with the Performance Arms Race being Public Enemy Number One. As districts increase graduation requirements (with computer science “trending up” these days), and as students pack their schedules with traditional AP classes believing (falsely) that the extra weighted grade or umpteenth AP class gives them an advantage in the college admissions race, opportunities for independent study decline. Some students are even mathematically savvy enough to realize that an A in an independent study project (usually an unweighted grade) would actually cause their weighted 4.2, 4.3, etc. GPA to drop. How tragic!
It is time to declare our independence from the Performance Arms Race and allow our students to pursue more independent study. Ms. DeNeen and I share several beliefs including:
Students Learn How to Learn
The best educators understand the difference between a student who can recite material versus a student who actually understands the information. The latter is only possible if the student is able to acquire the skill of HOW to learn. Learning exactly how to learn is an extremely worthwhile process and is far more likely to happen when students are immersed in studying a topic that fascinates, intrigues, and excites them! Teachers must give students the time and resources to pursue what they want to learn. This process involves inquiry, examination, backtracking, moving forward and more. But the end result is an invaluable skill: a student who understands how to learn and is ever eager to learn more.
As educators and adults, we understand that the real world is challenging. In order to survive and thrive in the real world, you must be able to bounce back from failure on a regular basis. The most successful people are those who rely on their own sense of satisfaction and not someone else cheering them on or offering pats on the back along the way. When teachers provide the opportunity for independent thinking, students are able to achieve that internal satisfaction when they finally arrive at the answer or the end result. Students who have a facilitator rather than a teacher will come to depend on themselves for a job well done. That is a skill that will be treasured in the workplace.
Flexibility for Different Levels of Intelligence
When an educator allows for and encourages independent study, they are also creating flexibility for all different levels of intelligence in the classroom. Each child is unique and therefore learns at a different pace and in different ways than their peers. When a teacher becomes a facilitator of independent thinking, each child can work at his or her own pace. This helps to eliminate frustrations from the child who may take longer to learn, and it creates more opportunity for the child who grasps concepts more quickly.
Finally, DeNeed notes “passion and curiosity cement learning.” She could not be more on target. I have been fortunate to mentor nearly 100 high school students working on independent research projects, often in teams. These students have immersed themselves in studying computational chemistry educating themselves on electron spin, absorption, graphene, and silicone; on complex wind turbine design challenges; on biofilm development; experimenting with organic water purification; and many more. As we connect at reunions or social media, they always recall their learnings and the challenges they overcame through independent work. Some pursued advanced study and careers in these areas; others did not. But most importantly, like our granddaughter they have retained the sense of wonder, delight in discovery, fascination with exploring new knowledge, boundless curiosity, and unbridled passion in pursuit of answers. Perhaps the real graduation requirement should be to pursue an independent study project and thus leave school with that same exuberance for learning with which they began school.