Tuesday, January 3, 2012

You can never replace the teacher. Or can you? 10 ways to learn without teachers.

I learned nothing in school that was meaningful to me or that I used for success in life. All that just-in-case stuff was a 12-year-sentence that was wasted on me. Instead of being introduced to subjects in which I might be interested, I was turned off from them and was left without the opportunity to discover, develop, or enjoy my passions. Not only that, although I was at the top of my class, I never learned anything I was tested on. After I was forced to memorize and regurgitate onto the paper, the uninteresting, disconnected facts, stayed on the test. 

It is an embarrassment that I graduated high school retaining nothing I learned from my classes in science, social studies, English, math, or having the ability to speak a foreign language. I don’t blame myself though. I did as I was told and I excelled in the game of school. I graduated high school with honors at age 16 and graduated college with honors at 19. I was left on the other side of my diploma and degree with little knowledge, completely unprepared for a successful career, and no idea what I was truly passionate about.  

What’s worse, it took years for me to re/discover the joy of reading (about topics "I" cared about), writing (for a "real" audience), public speaking (My teacher told me I sucked), sports (The coaches said I was too small) and getting in touch with my creativity (there'd be none of that in school). Anything that I learned that was meaningful, I did not learn via someone who was paid to teach me. Instead, I learned outside of school by watching others do it, doing it, reading about it, and connecting with my personal learning network. The reality for me is that I would have been much better off without the teachers in my life weighing me down and wasting my time.  

I’m not saying no one likes or learns well in traditional school.  Ed leadership professor and blogger Jon Becker loved it. My good friend Carla loved school too. She genuinely loved tests and couldn’t wait to get to school on testing days. She loved showing off her grades and couldn’t understand why others did poorly. She enjoys reading textbooks and is a trivia wiz (she holds a Cash Cab win to her list of accolades). This method of learning works for her. Ironically this school-loving superstar earns her living today as a supermodel.  

Unlike Jon and my friend though, many of us learn more effectively without teachers and there are more and more ways to do just that. If learning was customized to allow the Jons and Carlas of the world to learn in a traditional environment and gave students like me the freedom to learn in the way that works best for us, we could certainly better allocate resources for students. So how would we learn if there were no teachers? Here are some of the ways I’ve come across recently that students are, or could be, learning without school or teachers.


1) The hologram that is playing to sold out audiences of thousands in Japan.
Could rock-star teachers be turned into holograms scheduled to come to a livingroom or classroom near you?
2) Five Ways to Give Yourself an Education That Kicks the Crap Out of the One You Got in School
We live in a world where knowledge and information are at our finger tips like never before. Technology has leveled the playing field so that anybody with an interest and an internet connection can receive a world class education. Read about how people everywhere are learning through books, blogs, videos, podcasts, and quality online curricula.

3) M.I.T. Expands Its Free Online Courses
MIT will be allowing anyone anywhere to take M.I.T. courses online free of charge — and for the first time earn official certificates for demonstrating mastery of the subjects taught.

4) Opening Learning Initiative
The Open Learning Initiative (OLI) is an open educational resources project uses knowledge from learning science and the affordances of the web to transform instruction, significantly improve learning outcomes and to achieve significant increases in productivity in post secondary education.

5) Twelve Dozen Places to Learn Online for Free
If you’re interested in learning something new, this article is for you.  Broken down by subject and/or category, there are several top-notch self-education resources bookmarked.

6) Sugata Mitra shows how kids teach themselves
In this provocative video Sugata Mitra challenges the notion that children need adults to learn. He suggests rather than a schooling system of indoctrination, when we accept the truth that children are quite capable of learning on their own we can focus on providing a culture of outdoctrination.

7) Educators Can Save Time When They Stop Reinventing the Wheel with OER
OER which stands for Open Educational Resources is the name of a movement working toward a common goal of providing quality courses for learning for free. At the heart of the movement toward Open Educational Resources is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general, and the Worldwide Web in particular, provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and re-use knowledge. This knowledge provides links to many OER materials.

8) e-Learning for Kids

e-Learning for Kids is a global, nonprofit foundation dedicated to fun and free learning on the Internet for children ages 5 - 12. They offer free, best-in-class courseware in math, science, reading and keyboarding; and they’re building a community for parents and educators to share innovations and insights in childhood education.

9) Life Hacker University
A list of courses available from schools like Yale, MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley that will inspire, challenge, open doors, and give you the tools to improve your life. 

10) Parents explain how their children learn on their own free of schools or teachers
Here are some excerpts:
  • My son learned to read completely on his own without me sitting there telling him what to do or how to do it. He learned to read by doing the things he loves.
  • Replicating science experiments that she watched on YouTube, writing stories on textnovel, and staying home from school to do these things became my second grade daughter's answer to her own learning needs (when her public school situation was boring her to tears). She felt she just wasted all day at school waiting to get home and start learning.
Note: You can join the conversation at our group on Facebook where we discuss learning without school here.

What Next?
As hard as it might be for some to acknowledge, when it comes to learning, teachers are not for everyone. If we are not afraid to accept this as a fact, how might we change the learning environments we provide for 21st century students?


  1. It is my fervent wish as a teacher and the owner of a small hybrid private/homeschool that I teach myself out of a job. I would like nothing better than for my students to be independent, curious learners who need nothing more from me than clarification on a process or method of organizing.

    I do believe, however, that (good) teachers are necessary and vital components of education. Not standing in the front of the class lecturing but almost as a consultant and a person with the wisdom of experience to look at a problem in a different way (and to help students gain experience doing the same thing). The world is a vast sea of knowledge, and good teachers can help build a raft. Computers and holograms and free online classes will never replace human, spontaneous interaction.

  2. Great post, Lisa. Your last paragraph says it all.
    "As hard as it might be for some to acknowledge, when it comes to learning, teachers are not for everyone. If we are not afraid to accept this as a fact, how might we change the learning environments we provide for 21st century students."
    It will be difficult for much of society to change their way of thinking. For more than 100 years we have been indoctrinated that school+teachers+ boredom =learning. Once we move past this deeply ingrained belief, we will see true education of the masses.
    The dedicated educational professionals will be free to share their "passions" with the students. The enthusiasm of passion-led learning is very contagious.
    Adults will still be needed by many(even most), as facilitators, learning coaches, mentors, resource people and leaders. Many dedicated educational professionals already fulfill many of these roles in their classrooms today.
    To all the teachers who read Lisa's post, do not feel threatened by those who suggest that students move away from the standardized classroom, to a passion-led environment. You should view it as giving you the freedom to spread knowledge as you believed was possible when you decided on your profession.

  3. @HoneyFern School
    While human interaction can and will not be totally replaced by technologies such as online class or learning led by holograms, they will provide the students the ability to learn the topics they provide when they have the curiosity and inclination to learn the topic. This will free the "human" element to become consultants to large, small and individual projects designed & undertaken by the students.
    Imagine sharing knowledge & resources with no lesson plans, letting the kids take off on a tangent of interest. Imagine seeing the light of curiosity and enthusiasm in the eyes of a group of 17 year olds ( or any other age).
    Yes, learning enthusiastically! It is possible. I have witnessed it.

  4. I played the school game well, too. But like you, I left not knowing that much, either. If students are not interested or personally invested in the toopic, it just will not stuck with them. It's just a big waste of time then. Thanks for putting together this list.

  5. An interesting post. I've had an on going debate with myself whether I should go back to University for my masters degree or just continue to do my learning on my own. So far returning to official school isn't winning but I am a very self motivated learner so while I'm not attending an institution for higher education, I am learning a ton via twitter links such as this one and on line discussions. My worry is are all people self motivated enough to want to learn new /relevant things? As teachers shouldn't our job be to help everyone become self motivated so that they will in fact want to learn?

    Karen @lirenmanlearns

  6. I absolutely agree with you that school can easily become a place where kids lose the love of learning and that in those cases, it would be better not to have teachers. However, isn't this making the assumption that all teachers are boring and use the lecture method only? It is my hope that the way I teach is creative, engaging, and fuels students' interests even more. I wonder if it makes a difference what grades you are talking about as well. For me personally, I teach second grade and some of the critical things students are learning at that age are how to work well with others, collaborate, and work things out. A school environment and teacher to orchestrate all of this is helpful and beneficial. At the same time, I am currently getting my masters online and find it to be incredibly effective. I guess I would be inclined to think that age makes a difference.

  7. @K lirenman,
    People are born wanting to learn. For folks like me school/teachers did nothing my squash that desire. I don't want to learn what other people tell me I should want to learn. I like learning what I am interested in.

  8. @Stephanie,
    I don't care how a teacher teaches something I'm not interested in. I'm still not interested.

    I think a fallacy is that if a teacher finds something amazing and fascinating students will catch the passion.

    The issue is that for many of us we're forced to take classes we don't care for. Additionally, one of the biggest complaints of students is what they're learning is completely not relevant to their life or success.

    You may be a teacher who is all those things but should school be a game of luck where we get a teacher like you?

    The critical things that your second graders are learning are not things I learned in class. In class I learned to please the teacher. Not talk much to others and do what I thought the teacher wanted me to. Thing like working well with others, collaborating, and working things out are things I learned on the playground (though recess is nearing extinction in many places) and with the kids on block without much adult intervention. It is this sort of crucial play without adults that kids today are being robbed of. I touch on this in this post http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2011/09/bring-back-play-and-disorganized-sports.html

    In places that I went to school and where I work students are learning something other people tell them, following a curriculum they have no input in, doing things that have no real-world relevance, and may or may not have meaning and relevance to their real life. This is not helpful for success in life.

    I went through K-12 learning nothing that contributed to my success. It was a colossal waste of time.

    As I said in my post, some people learn from teachers, texts, and tests. Some people don't. I'm one of them and there are many others like me. There needs to options for people like me.

    The reality is there are options for people like me. Schools like Montessori, Waldorf, Regio Amelia, Blue School, and Democratic schools would all have served me well. Unfortunately our government won't allow such schools to receive government funding since they're not test prep factories that turns students into data producing widgets. For me, therein lies the biggest problem. The schools that work for people like me are reserved only for those who have deep pockets.

  9. @Lisa, Thanks for your comments. Given your experiences in K-12, do you have any suggestions for teachers like me who would like to avoid squashing kids' desires to learn?

  10. Lisa, you are dead on when you say
    "I think a fallacy is that if a teacher finds something amazing and fascinating students will catch the passion."
    It is the same reason parents often say that passion led learning did not work for their family. However, when you did deeper the parent was providing plenty of opportunity for the child to experience the parent's personal passion, expecting the child to follow in their footsteps.
    Children (students) will find their own "passions" and pursue them whole-heartedly. Provide the children with adults (teachers or other experts) to mentor them in their own passions. The kids will develop new curiosities and move on to new and more varied interests and will develop a life long LOVE of learning.

  11. Yes, Stephanie. You should find a school that honors students passions. There are many of them which I share in this post http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2011/02/answer-to-teacher-retention-find.html

    Unfortunately, since government controlled schools value data over student well being, many schools that honor students are not eligible for government funding, but many schools have been created for those interested in working in and having children attend environments where they can be honored as individuals and even avoid having them being tested to near death.