How to Steer Self-Organizing Classes?

I finally got to read the wonderful Wired piece about the Mexican school. It tells a true story about how a teacher adopted Sugata Mitra -esque teaching methods. As a by-product he discovered a 12 years old genius in his class. Strongly recommended reading.

Like Mitra with his hole in the wall experiment, Sergio Juárez Correa gave his class some problems and then just stepped back, letting them discuss and come up with solutions. As you can guess, the results were excellent. Besides Paloma Noyola Bueno (the genius), also other students significantly improved their learning.

The great thing about self-organizing approaches is that they are student-centered. Students can choose the methods they want to apply. Sometimes they can even select the problems they want to tackle. This presumably makes them more motivated. That’s very easy to believe.

I think it would still be too idealistic and naïve to claim that this method as such is bulletproof, always yielding to the best results with each student, in each context. In reality the teacher has reason to intervene every once in the while and carefully steer the students to a preferable direction.

The keyword here is ‘carefully’. How to subtly get the kids to take interest in something, without appearing bossy and in effect resorting back to traditional methods? The best way to get the students to lose their motivation is to first claim that they can do things how they want and then take it back.

There are some tips and tricks for the teacher to apply. First strategy is to give the student a set of choices instead of complete freedom: “In this project your job is to run a business. Choose your domain from consulting, logistics, or automotive industry.” “Log on to any of these three mathematics games to learn fractions.” “You can do this exercise individually or in groups.”

The second pointer is to start with small tasks. Teaching typically corresponds to mandatory curriculum items. However, there can be plenty of room for variation in how these items are addressed.

The third advice is to be present. As with flipped classroom, also student-centered methods free the teacher from giving lectures to actually interacting with the kids. So “stepping back” should not be taken too seriously. Or rather the step should be so short that the teacher was still available for the students.

You could argue that following the above proposals dilutes the core message of self-organized and student-centered learning. If the teacher steps in very often, it actually becomes teacher-centered learning. In the Wired story Juarez Correa said that he was sometimes very tempted to intervene when his students seemed to have difficulties, but he resisted the urge.

What do you think? Can student-centered approach be introduced partially or in batches. Instead of blowing up one big hole in the wall, can we drill several smaller ones?


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