“This self-organized learning consists of endless trial and error procedures”

“This self-organized learning consists of endless trial and error procedures”

What students think about self-organized learning

by Susanne Lienhard

The introduction of Curriculum 21, highly controversial even at its development stage, is now the responsibility of the German-speaking cantons. The curriculum meets with wide opposition. In various cantons citizens have launched initiatives demanding that the introduction of Curriculum 21 must be decided by Parliament rather than by the education authority. Citizens will thus be given the opportunity to call for a referendum opposing the decision, if necessary. Curriculum 21 follows the OECD model of a standardized education. Subject-specific goals regarding content that must be achieved at the end of the school year are no longer defined; instead learning contents are cut up into thousands of singular competences, which are to be checked by extensive testing. The competence orientation is associated with the dissolution of the previous subjects in favor of collective topics such as “Nature, Man and Society” and with the introduction of cycles instead of yearly grades, that way abolishing the previously fixed yearly learning objectives. Classroom teaching where the teacher together with all the children of his class strives at achieving the age-appropriate yearly learning targets, would definitely belong to the past, as the heterogeneity of the classes would increase significantly and individualized forms of learning, such as “self-organized learning” would become compulsive.

On 17 November, the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” reported on two schools that are already based on individualized learning. These examples show how the so-called “self-organized or self-discovering-education” is being implemented there in “Lernateliers” (learning studios) or “Lernlandschaften” (learning environments). The class structures are partially or completely dissolved, each student working alone at his own desk, which is provided with a privacy screening in the front, at the right and the left side, so that everyone is able to concentrate and to execute his own individual learning program. In the classroom, which resembles an open-plan office, absolute tranquility is the rule. Teachers have to restrain themselves, they are not allowed to give other than clues to the students where and how to find answers to their questions, for example, on the Internet, but they should not provide complete answers and should certainly not explain the learning material. They are reduced to so-called “learning guides” or “learning coaches”. This way students are to arrive at more discipline, motivation and sense of responsibility, skills that are in high demand by the economy. An interesting detail: Counselling is provided to both schools by a private company from Germany which sells its ideas of self-organized learning as a trademark and is obviously able this way to finance itself on the advanced training market.
Since in the course of my German lessons I had just worked out the differences between objectively informing and commenting text types with a high school class (10th grade), there was an opportunity to present to the students the above-mentioned “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” report about “self-organized learning” and to make them write a commentary on the article. The results send a clear signal.
Maria writes: “I doubt that children will become more independent that way. In particular social interaction in the classroom is extremely restricted. A living classroom atmosphere motivates children more than a situation in which they are left to themselves for the further work on the topic, especially in case they have only partly understood a problem, after the short input of the so-called learning guide. In traditional classroom instruction, understanding the course material is already facilitated by the fact that about 20 other students might have the same question, or perhaps other questions which every student may benefit from. However, if the topic has to be worked on independently, only the individual questions can be clarified. If my sister had to learn in a self-organized way, I would see no chance for her, because she would possibly despair, in case she does not understand a point. She would probably almost be ashamed to ask a question, because she might think that the other students understand everything.”
Lukas shares Maria’s concerns when he writes: “Self-organized learning deprives shy students, who do not dare to ask questions, the opportunity to hear the fellow students’ questions and the respective answers of the teacher, which might have helped them understand things better in the former whole-class teaching.”
Anika says: “For me personally a good class community has always been very important for a good learning atmosphere. This can not come about if each student performs his individual program on his own. The interpersonal values are rationalized away by self-organized learning.”
Michael adds for consideration: “For compulsory education this form of teaching is not a good solution, since the differences in performance will be very great.”
Niki asks himself: “What is more valuable with respect to education, a class community or learning in isolation? How can children who have to learn in a self-organized manner acquire social skills? When I ask my parents and grandparents what they remember positively about their school, they always relate experiences with their classmates. So the social environment during the school days has a great influence on the experience of school, after all. During self-organized learning these social bonds are not completely abolished, but greatly reduced. This will very likely have an impact on the students’ later social life.”
Theo tells of his younger brother, who attends the first grade of secondary school and must learn in a “self-organized” manner in a learning environment: “Luc is quite a good and ambitious student, but has trouble to develop topics himself. Precisely this is the Achilles’ heel of self-organized learning. Before each test Luc has no idea of the subject, although he has completed several corresponding practice sheets. Now my father or I sit with him night after night to work on the learning material that he did not understand. We do what actually would be the teacher’s job. For me this is not a problem, because I learned the material, recently. However, if parents do not have time to learn with their children, or simply do not have the necessary skills, the children are lost. And this in a period of their lives that will shape their future.”
Katharina addresses contradictions in the argumentation of the proponents of self-organized learning: “In the NZZ report ‘Learning to learn’ it is often repeated that self-organized learning would benefit the weakest members of the class as the teacher will have more time for them. However, it is also said that the teachers are not really allowed to help them, but only give some clues on how to manage the work on their own. This is like giving a rope to a layman on the high seas and telling him: ‘If you fasten it with a knot and pull it, a sail will be hoisted.’ The man will try to attach the rope at various places. Ideally, he may find the right place by chance. But if it does not work, he will be discouraged and loses interest. This self-organized learning consists of endless trial and error procedures.”
Sarah confirms this demotivating effect: “My own experience as a student shows that the motivation level drops in case of a monotonous instructional design and that failure when trying to solve tasks in isolation, depress rather than encourages further efforts. However, failures are guaranteed, due to lack of explanations during self-organized learning. This in turn decreases the interest of the students, a process which will ultimately lead to a deterioration of their educational achievement.”
Reto adds for consideration: “For many teachers, this concept is certainly not desirable, as they enjoy teaching. Some teachers are bothered by just giving hints for individual work, especially since they are asked to help in subjects which they do not teach themselves. The running of the school is supposed to become more flexible, but will this really happen, if the teachers are not supporting the new ideas? Probably not, because unmotivated teachers can hardly generate motivated, independent and responsible students.”
Julia finally says: “How can you learn something without being actually taught? Indeed, you do not put a learner-driver just behind the wheel hoping he will be able to teach himself how to drive a car. An accident is predictable. Therefore, the learner-driver takes a class first, obtains explanations and performs practice with the teacher. It should be just the same in school.”
The comments are coming from young people who have experienced traditional classroom instruction before, who have had studied that way for several years and were then confronted with the concept of self-organized learning. Their comments express a keen sensorium for the conditions of successful learning: a good class community as a prerequisite of a good learning climate, communication of knowledge and guidance by the teacher, motivated teachers, working out the subject matter together in the classroom community, encouragement by the others’ questions, social justice, etc..
Lino Guzzella, President of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH), confirms the high school students’ statements: “Creative, critical, independent thinking is something that you have to practise like playing the violin. And this practice does not take place via internet, but especially by direct contacts with other people. Learning at a high level, real learning, learning to think – this is a process that is determined socially and emotionally. […] The moment when ideas arise, the moment of awareness, is something of the most beautiful that a person can experience. And this experience only takes place in interpersonal exchange. Learning is a communion between master and pupil, spoken in a pathetic way. […] It is an illusion to believe that reading a text or looking at a website is enough to understand its meaning. In my opinion this does not work. Learning is a process in which students and teachers participate mentally and physically. It requires the genuine, not something canned.”1
The contradiction to the program postulated by Curriculum 21 could not be a greater one. The education of creative, critical and independently thinking individuals, who will be able to help shaping our direct democracy responsibly as citizens, will not succeed with this curriculum. It does not fulfill the educational mandate of the elementary school, as it is defined in the cantonal legislation.2    •

1    “Lernen ist Magie” (Learning is magic), interview with Lino Guzzella. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Sunday from 28 December 2014. http://www.nzz.ch/nzzas/nzz-am-sonntag/lernen-ist-magie-1.18451751  (1.1.2015)
2    See Current Concerns No. 6 of 11 February 2013. In this issue, the articles of education of all cantons were collected.

Cantonal education articles

The jurisdiction in educational matters in federal Switzerland is up to the cantons. Reading the different cantons’2 educational articles, each expresses in the typical own wording that school’s business is much more comprehensive than drilling children on test-conform “competences”. School’s most distinguished business is to prepare children and adolescents for the future tasks as fellow human beings and citizens of our direct democracy. To consider just one example we print the current valid educational article of the canton of St. Gall here:

Education Act of 13 January 1983

The Grand Council (Parliament) of the Canton of St. Gall in application of Articles 2 to 8 of the Constitution on 16 November 1890 decrees as law:
Educational mission

Article 3

  1. Elementary schools support parents in the upbringing of the child toward a life-affirming, efficient and socially responsible person. They are run according to Christian principles.
  2. They promote the different and diverse talents and natures of students. They teach them the basic knowledge and skills, provide access to the various areas of culture and guide them toward independent thinking and acting.
  3. They educate the students to be responsible persons and citizens according to the principles of democracy, freedom and social justice within the constitutional state.

Put Curriculum 21 also in Aargau to the vote!

At the end of December in Aargau the popular initiative “Ja zu einer guten Volksschule – Nein zum Lehrplan 21” (“Yes to a good elementary-school – No to Curriculum 21”) was launched. The Aargau committee was able to inform the public that after only four months over 3,000 eligible citizens voted for a cantonal referendum that opposes the tacit implementation of Curriculum 21.

Source: www.lehrplan21-nein.ch

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