A reply to Debra Kidd on self-directed learning

Recently, Debra Kidd wrote a post that I said that I would respond to. Twitter is not the medium to analyse this properly – it is too terse. And Debra raises some important points. However, I think that the conclusions that she draws are profoundly wrong.

Debra notes the recent research findings of Sugata Mitra that students can learn things for themselves. There has been much comment about the validity of these findings and I don’t intend to analyse that here. However, there is an important point to make. Were there to be anyone who was arguing that children cannot learn things by themselves, then Debra’s post would be an effective rebuttal of it. She writes of Sam who, after developing an interest in natural disasters, researched geology and Zen Buddhism before alighting on a desire to study Japanese. If the claim is that all children require teacher input in order to learn anything at all then even Debra’s single case would prove this wrong.

However, I am not sure that anyone is making this claim. I think we are confusing the part with the whole.

For instance, I am quite clear that some children can learn to read by simply being exposed to books and a supportive environment, even if this process is not very efficient. If I start to discuss phonics on Twitter then pretty soon someone will point out to me that they learnt to read, or their child learnt to read, without systematic synthetic phonics. I suppose that I am meant to find this surprising or a refutation of my argument. I find it to be neither.

Let us consider, for example, the fact that a proportion of people will recover from the Ebola virus without intervention.  Figures are hard to come by but let us imagine that I were able to present you with a personal testimony from a survivor. Would you conclude from this that patients who are suffering from Ebola should not be given medical intervention? I suspect that you would not. You see, it is not the fact that some people can survive Ebola without medical attention that is important.

This is an issue that also illuminates Mitra’s work. If we take his famous hole-in-the-wall experiment at face value, then we have to accept that some children taught themselves how to use computers. But which children? As @teach_well has discovered, although located near to slums, it is not clear that it is slum children who benefited from Mitra’s machines. Clearly, the presence of Mitra’s computers most benefits those children who are best prepared to take advantage of this opportunity. I would suggest that these are likely to be more middle-class children; they are less likely to be required to spend time earning money and they are more likely to have the relevant foundational knowledge. We have no way of knowing that Mitra’s approach would benefit all students in a particular setting. In my experience, it is relatively easy to get some children learning. The task of education systems is to maximise learning for all. This should be the mission of educators committed to social justice.

Truly, Sam seems like a remarkable boy. And you can’t help nodding in agreement with Debra when she writes about Sam’s RE teacher who can only comment that he talks too much whilst giving him a relatively low grade. The boy has developed a passionate interest in Buddhism, for goodness sake! However, this also illustrates another point about self-directed interest-only learning.

The great benefit of the sort of RE that is taught in U.K. schools – which is not replicated Australia – is that you have to learn about different religions. If Sam is interested in Zen Buddhism then that’s great but should we conclude that he should be able to single-mindedly pursue that interest in RE lessons? If so, he will not find out about other religions. No doubt, Sam has researched these already. However, if accepted as a general principle then how comfortable would we be with Muslim students who only ever learn about Islam or Christian students who only ever learn about Christianity? Yes, it is great for education to develop passions in students. I am quite taken with Kieran Egan’s idea that we should all have a specialist area, even if I worry about the practicalities. But a common core of knowledge builds empathy and enables us to understand the passions of others.

As a boy, I read ‘Doctor Who’ books. My teacher made me read ‘The Hobbit’. I didn’t like it much. In fact, I resented having to read it. However, I now remember much more about The Hobbit than any of those Doctor Who books. I suppose that you could argue that my teacher oppressed me. I tend to think that she helped me gain an education.

My own daughter has recently developed a passion for science. I do not know what sparked Sam’s interest in natural disasters but I am quite clear about what happened to my daughter. Although still in primary school, she started to have science lessons from a specialist science teacher. Ever since, she has come home buzzing with ideas and questions. A rich, knowledge-based curriculum has the potential to provoke passions. It might not always do so. After all, we are individuals and I might enjoy something that you find quite dull. But it is clear that I am never going to develop a passion for something if I don’t know that it exists.

Which is why a rich, knowledge-based curriculum is even more important for children from deprived backgrounds. These are the children who are less likely to visit museums in the holidays or have rich discussions around a middle-class dinner table. I suppose that this is why Michaela Community School replicates that dinner table at lunchtime in school. It is why it is critical that we expose students to ideas that they are unlikely to just happen upon.

The alternative is the sort of vacuous lessons that we can all remember; a lesson in the abstract about ‘writing’ or ‘reading comprehension’ or making some kind of dumb poster. I remember being taught word-processing because of future, paperless offices and the fact that we would not use handwriting any more. I was taught how to name a file so that I would be able to save it and how to set-up WYSIWYG justification in ‘View’; a BBC micro word-processor. It was dull, pointless, ultimately useless and I’d have been far better off learning some Shakespeare. It might not have developed into a lifelong passion but at least it wouldn’t have been a waste of my time.


23 thoughts on “A reply to Debra Kidd on self-directed learning

  1. Exactly that Greg – I would never have developed a fascination with history if I had not been introduced to the Romans at school and taken to an archaeological dig on a school visit.

    At the time I was more interested in My Little Pony at home and reading in general.

    That topic blew me away. I have seen this happen to children in class too where they just blossom. However, we can not feasibly teach everything and I have equally encouraged children to develop their interests in learning at home.

    The other half and I discussed how we learnt things at home which were not taught in school. However, I didn’t have a problem with that and didn’t think there was anything unusual. In the end I got the best of both worlds, pursuing my own interests at home and being exposed to a broad education at school.

  2. Thanks for writing this Greg – it’s a thoughtful response. Yes, Sam did research other religions in his quest to find his fit, many of which will never be covered in RE. But my point was not that he should only be able to study what he’s interested in, but that he’ll be asked to study what he already knows next year at a level way lower than his current understanding. As Graham Nuthal pointed out in his book, we often teach kids things they already know without taking the time to find out. This is not only a waste of time, but it creates boredom with school and a feeling of pointlessness. What else could schools do? I agree that schools and knowledge can open up a passion for children – these things are not always ‘found’ – but too often the focus is not on inspiring passion but on mastering objectives aimed at the middle. What do we do to find and tap into existing expertise in children? What opportunities do we give them to develop healthy obsessions with subjects? How much effort do we make to figure out who they are, what they want to be and what they need? I’m not convinced Sam will grow up to be a Japanese speaking bhuddist seismologist – but the fascinating thing has been the persistence with which he has applied himself to content way above his supposed level of capability. I believe all children have this capacity and we underestimate it.

    It’s a little disingenuous of you to argue that there is either a rich knowledge based curriculum packed with content or a vacuum. There is plenty of scope for allowing children to pursue an interest to a level beyond that expected of their age group without emptying the classroom of all content. It takes some imagination but it can be done and to suggest that lessons that try are vacuous is patronising. You can teach Shakespeare AND leave some spaces for the kids to tell you that actually they really prefer Marlowe.

    1. But surely what you want in terms of RE could be dealt with by pre-assessment. That’s what I used to always do. Also if parent told gave me the information which you have I would take that into account when planning and do something else for him. Isn’t that just standard differentiation?

      As for Japanese, its not on the national curriculum although an academy could include it if they choose. However, most schools would not cater for all the languages at primary or even secondary. For example, I had to go to a Saturday school to learn to read and write Punjabi. It was no big deal – two hours on a Saturday and I am sure many other ethnic minorities have to do the same.

      The real question then is what is it realistic to expect schools to do in a class of 30 and with the resources they have. That’s where a core comes in that all children have.

      Also what is actually wrong with children pursuing their ‘healthy obsessions’ as you call them at home? Why does this have to involve school?

      1. So then maybe it is a case of ensuring that they have access to a wide range of after school clubs. I ran many different ones including engineering club with equipment from Dyson, code club where we built our own mini computers and philosophy club. If the teacher work load actually reduced in real terms it would enable a lot more teachers to offer something – I only stopped due to rise in marking. In addition, subsidising clubs for parents who genuinely can’t afford it is also something which schools use pupil premium money for.

        However, every single thing children may be interested in can not be catered for. Schools have finite resources and can not possibly afford to spend money on enabling children to pursue niche interests. Which as you indicated yourself may last a long time but equally may not.

        Not having supportive parents is unfortunate but it is also a concept that I have seen used to label parents who are working hard and don’t spend as much time with their children as they would like.

        Being able to pursue individual interests is something I would encourage but I think this could be far more effectively done by giving parents the information about facilities their children can access and even enabling this. Working with family support workers makes a real difference to helping parents and building more positive relationships between parents and children.

        In the end you think the curriculum should be flexible enough to enable children to pursue individual interests during school time and I think this is more appropriate in their own time. In the end, it is children from deprived families who fair the least well in terms of their outcomes from more progressive systems as they rely on school to enable them to teach them as much as their middle/upper class peers.

        I just see your suggestion taking this away from them (and would have done so for me as a child).

    2. I take your point about spending time teaching kids things that they already know. I am keen on the use of formative assessment and I think, in general, we collect too little feedback from the students on what they know and understand. I find little tests and quizzes are good. However, my experience of using formative assessment convinces me that we sometimes also assume students understand things that they don’t understand. I think the students assume this too (Willingham has written about this).

      As a child, I taught myself computer programming. This was not in a particularly disciplined way. I would copy code out of books and magazine and mess about with it to see what happened. I was able to write quite sophisticated programs that impressed those around me. However, I was still missing many fundamentals. I never really grasped subroutines, for instance, and this put a clear limit on what I could do. If someone had tried to systematically teach me programming at this point then I might have objected that I already knew it. However, I would have benefitted from it. Of course, nobody ever tried to teach anything as rigorous as programming. It was all word-processing in IT. I think I did a bit of Papert-style discovery learning of LOGO in primary school but that didn’t really go anywhere.

      As a young adult, I signed-up for a course on cubase at night school. We turned up and the instructor effectively said “you’ve all seen cubase before, I assume, so off you go creating something and I’ll be around to help.” I had seen cubase before and I’d struggled to get started with it. That’s why I was on a course. A bit of explicit instruction in the fundamentals was exactly what I would have liked.

      So it works on a number of levels.

      1. Ok so if we follow that logic through you’re saying you would have benefitted from someone who spotted your interest and ability and did something to shape and enhance it. That’s pretty much what I’m arguing for.

      1. If we start young enough maybe. Even though I don’t like Wilshaw’s idea for the long term, I think in the short term we have to do something to break the cycle of poor education. You need commitment and belief in children. I have witnessed far to much of a gulf between what is expected of poor children and their middle class peers. Have butted heads with many SLT, colleagues, etc over this too. I can’t reconcile myself to the excuses made as they could have been made for me but weren’t because my school was majority middle class. I did after school clubs and that did help. Parents took me to library regularly which was good too. There are simple practical things we can do.

        Replacing the core curriculum with their personal pursuits will only ever work in favour of middle class children. At least with a core set of knowledge they will be able to access the same. That is how it was done in the past and it has worked. It doesn’t mean it stays the same forever but in order to make the system fairer we need more diversity. In order for that diversity to occur we need people who can be equal to others. It may look like this can be achieved with progressive methods but it hasn’t.

  3. Yes, many of those ideas would work. You’ve made a huge assumption about what I think the curriculum should do. I didn’t say that. I simply said that children have interests. That those interests can drive them towards complex learning and it’s worth taking the time to find out what they are and do what you can to support them. That’s about it really.

  4. Nice response Greg and great to see Debra in the comments. Some advice I’m sharing with teens on my free video guide to find mentors, is that one of the best provocations of thought is to see/hear/read two people you admire expressing different opinions. This is when we are emotionally compelled to dig deeper for our own stance.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that school can do what it wants. It’s too big a beast for me to talk with. Many times as a student (without the support at home to develop my interests) I’d wished the whole thing could have been run as drop-in, drop-out out clubs led by teachers, so they’d stop being impatient when you already know or don’t know what they need you to know or not know. Students can become more educated by learning to say what they need and, if that teacher can’t provide it they can become more educated by letting them go find another (or a book, or an online course) instead of having to sit there and daydream away the time. Teens at least could thrive on the receiving end of this proposal: do what you want and in the end you’ll be taking these core exams, but how you get there is up to you. This wouldn’t be impossible and teachers would finally be free to teach what they actually love, with self-selected students who are curious enough to be there. Seeing this would be inspiring for students too who, right now, are faced many hours a week with good-hearted but tired teachers doing their best to look good on paper.

    But, while too many think this is kind of school model impossible, I’ve gone and created a virtual after-school club for teens where I talk about how to develop and leverage natural interests including how to find mentors in their field who can teach them, so we can all worry a little less about those without at home.

    1. I think the model that you have described involves people taking greater responsibility. However, (you knew there would be a but of some sort!!) my mother left school at 14 because she was immature (her words) and couldn’t be bothered at that point to learn any further. She has spent her whole life regretting that decision and simply would not let us make the same choice.

      Also I think that when this kind of thinking is applied anywhere near primary school – it is a disaster. Children need the fundamentals of being able to read, write and do basic maths. They are the most basic of life skills and yes I am going to put it above art, music, etc as it will in the end it would limit what could even be learnt there.

      Being literate and numerate to a certain level (and I don’t claim to know what the upper end of that would be) is essential in a literate society. It is essential for access to information and making decisions for yourself. It is also most essential for children from poor backgrounds because anything else guarantees they can never break out of their circumstances.

      This much I do know, there is point beyond which learning to read becomes very difficult, having recently tried teaching a 50 year old how to read. It was heartbreaking to have to teach her basic sounds and see her go back to her comfort zone of words she knew and struggle.

      With the caveat of those who simply can’t due to disability, no child should be leaving primary school without being able to read and they need to do it sooner not later. I don’t buy the whole teaching them to early puts them off instead it is not knowing how puts them off reading and makes them resort, even in early Key Stage 2, to developing non-reading behaviours.

      So I am happy for there to be flexibility but only once the non-negotiables are sorted out because in the end we are all adults who are literate and numerate and to deny this through any kind of folly to others is nothing short of immoral.

      1. Hey there, thanks for the reply. Yep, I’m happy with and support everything you say about early years/primary and for older people. For teens, like your mum, perhaps some flexibility so it’s not an all-in or all-out choice would have been helpful. Who knows? I can only do my best for the people I work with best, and that’s teens who self-select to follow what I teach.

      2. I think there is a lot of merit with increasingly levels of flexibility. I also think it needs to extend throughout life as I do think different people want to learn at different times. Just that there is a basic level which we can’t make flexible because we know as adults that it will make the child’s life harder not easier to make this choice. Also they’re not asking for the choice at the age of 4 we are offering it to them!!

  5. There is no doubt that a student (of any age) will learn best when they get excited about a topic. At that point, any teacher in the vicinity should take on the job of handing them books and information as fast as the student can grab it.

    However, how many students will be thrilled and excited to learn spelling rules in third grade? But, if they don’t learn the third grade rules, the fourth grade rules will be harder to pick up, and once they’ve fallen behind, it becomes even harder to get back on track. They will end up as adults who look like fools every time they write something.

    Will that same student *also* be thrilled to learn about history, multiplication and division, vocabulary, penmanship, science, etc. Yet, to be a well-rounded and well-educated individual, each of us has to learn things that we’re not that keen on picking up. In addition, a child of 6 or 10 or 16 should still be checking out multiple options of what excites them. To narrow down to a limited study early, is to close doors to their future options. Students should be encouraged to remain generalists.

    Furthermore, even if you were a teacher lucky enough to have one student who really loved and took control of learning everything that they need to learn each year, could you count on every student having the same enthusiasm? Yet, a teacher has to deal with getting perhaps 10-20 things into his or her students’ heads every single day. That’s 10 things, for each of 20 students, for 180 school days. That’s 36,000 items of information or skills which some students might be enthusiastic about, but most will not be–and that’s just a single year of teaching in a single classroom.

    How is following the enthusiasms of a classroom of individual students supposed to get the job of educating them all sufficiently done?

      1. Me too. I think you’ve expressed the core issues of our current education system very succinctly. My question is; what now? Because this can’t be the best we an do. We can’t just say ‘keep going’ when we know what you’ve written here.

  6. It is quite easy actually, just convince yourself that there isn’t anything that a student really needs to know or know how to do. Alberta is doing this as we speak: “WHEREAS education in Alberta will be shaped by a greater emphasis on education than on the school; on the learner than on the system; on competencies than on content; on inquiry, discovery and the application of knowledge than on the dissemination of information; and on technology to support the creation and sharing of knowledge than on technology to support teaching.” http://education.alberta.ca/department/policy/standards/goals/ Ten vague outcomes per Subject! Just think of the freedom! We will lead the world in Minecraft as the world beats a path to our door to discover the reason why. Anyone who argues that becoming the world leader in Minecraft isn’t as important as learning how to read is stuck in the past and, as it has been confirmed by a Tech company that I am a “Thought Leader” for having the “Vison” to purchase their product, it should be obvious that I have a much better idea of what the future holds than you… Oh, and I obviously care more about children than you do (in case it wasn’t obvious).

    1. Oh, and a quick caveat, although:

      1) Knowledge is hardly mentioned in the Ministerial order except derisively.

      2)The people who are in charge of changing the curriculum never seem to give much more than lip-service to the idea that children should actually know something that they may not want to learn (http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid3064642656001?bckey=AQ~~,AAABPhvTOmE~,OCApyahQOXoUCRwjMCVIfKCUW2EQqjNl&bctid=3923866477001 )

      3) We are doing away with most standardized assessments that will see if the children are learning anything as dull as knowledge.

      4) And your child doesn’t seem to partake in anything as dull as practice, and some of his friends don’t seem to be able to read much of anything and have to count on their fingers to figure out what 6 + 4 is.

      I do want to make it absolutely clear that, as a credentialed “Thought Leader” I believe knowledge of the world, Literacy (watching uTube), Numeracy (Understanding what numbers want) are still somewhat important, but, unlike your myopic world view, I believe in BALANCE and so I am sure we will get to things like reading eventually.

      Also *waves hand slowly* these are not the droids you are looking for.

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