Self-directed learning for all ages

Winner of $1 million prize at TED2013 Conference experiments with a unique teaching technique.

Listening to the radio on the way home from work a few weeks ago, a story on NPR caught my interest. It was about a group of children in a New Delhi slum who were provided a computer with no knowledge of how to use it. Working together without any adult supervision, they learned to solve problems well beyond normal expectations. This ‘hole-in-the-wall’ experiment was conducted by Sugata Mitra, a professor at Newcastle University. NPR went on to share that Dr. Mitra was recently awarded a $1 million TED prize to continue research on self-organized learning environments (SOLE) with youth.

It was an intriguing story. According to Dr. Mitra, his plans are to “help design the future of learning by supporting children to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together.” He has already invested some of his seed money to create miniature child-driven learning environments all over the world with the help of a SOLE toolkit and would like to build a School in the Cloud where children can pursue intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online.

I generally work with adults at Michigan State University Extension. Mitras’ self-organized learning environments may be very similar to self-directed learning, a form of informal adult education defined by Malcolm Knowles. Dr. Knowles described self-directed learning as a process in which individuals take on the responsibility for their own learning by diagnosing their personal learning needs, setting goals, identifying resources, implementing strategies and evaluating the outcomes.

Furthermore, a University of Georgia article about adult education (Conlan, Grabowski and Smith, 2012) concluded that through self-directed learning students are motivated by (1) internal/external goals, (2) reflective and action oriented processes and (3) linkages with other students.

These may be the same proven motivations that have driven the young SOLE participants. For about a decade Mitra has been asking if students learn more quickly by (1) self-empowered opportunities, (2) freedom to solve questions on their own, and (3) working in self-selected groups. With his TED award, he will continue to test his theories and determine if self-organized learning environments are a viable alternative to regular schools, especially where teachers may be unavailable.

Both, self-directed learning and self-organized learning environments may engage students of all ages.

The Michigan State University Extension Leadership and Community Engagement team offers training for improved effectiveness in several areas, including communicating through conflict, volunteer board development, meeting management and facilitation skills development, and organizational strategic visioning and planning.