The Power of Putting Students in Charge of Their Learning

Can students teach themselves? If so, what are the limits to their learning? What is the role of the teacher in the 21st century? These questions have all been on my mind lately.

This is a topic that Sugata Mitra has spoke on with great depth. Sugata Mitra is a professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in England. I am fascinated by his research and findings because I think he has found something, that while incredible, is also something we have always known. If you have not watched the below TED talk I encourage you to.

Mitra found that students when given access to technology can teach themselves almost anything. Students in rural India with a computer built into a wall can learn science material years ahead of their time in a language they do not speak. Amazing.

I can’t speak for everyone but I assume many have had the same experience of learning and school as I have. From elementary school to high school to college to today my learning has been driven almost solely by me – even if I didn’t recognize it. I remember sitting in classes in college listening to lectures and thinking to myself “when I get home I will make sense of this and teach it to myself.” I had that same thought just this weekend in one of my statistics classes for my doctoral degree. I listened for hours as the professor wrote on a whiteboard and described all kinds of tests and worked problems on the board. None of it made much sense to me until I went home, began to read on my own, watched a couple of quick YouTube videos and solved some problems myself. I began to wonder to myself “did I even need to be sitting in that class today.”

I am not saying that teachers are not necessary for learning. Actually, I believe teachers can be more important than ever in the process of learning. Just not in the way we have always thought. We no longer need the sage on the stage, the great dispenser of knowledge. In today’s world the knowledge is not contained in a certain few people – it is everywhere. What modern day teachers need to do is to be great encouragers and supporters of learning. They should model what it means to learn and fail and try again. They should provide opportunities for students to stretch their minds rather than just continue practice of skills they already know. Students should spend almost no time in school doing what they already know how to do.

The best teachers I ever had were also the best encouragers. They never provided me the answers – they motivated me to keep going. They explained things I was confused about by asking more questions that helped me work through it on my own.

As teachers we can no longer think of ourselves as the sole dispensers of knowledge. I have known many teachers that underestimate their students and what their learning potential is based on the erroneous view of “how can they have learned it, if I haven’t taught it.” Or even worse teachers that say “I taught it, so why didn’t they learn it.”

We are in a great transition right now in education that I think is very exciting. It is the idea that as educators we are not responsible for teaching, we are responsible for student learning and growth. This is such a seismic change when realized. Success is not determined by what we do – reading the lesson plan, giving the worksheet, lecturing at the whiteboard – all the practices of traditional “teaching”. Rather success is determined by what students can do – student learning and growth. This type of success focuses on students rather than adults. Isn’t that the point? It is great if adults in a school feel successful – but they are not the target audience. Schools exist for the success of students.

We can accomplish this by doing two things. First, put students in charge of their learning and encourage them to go farther than they ever thought they could. Second, recognize that there are numerous ways for students to learn new material – technology, peers, etc. – not just the teacher.

We have recently been using Khan Academy a lot at Kipling and the students love it. I think they love it because it recognizes what they already know. They can be in charge of their own learning. On the front page the website of Khan Academy its says – You only have to know one thing: You can learn anything. So true.