Self-directed learning

This is finally happening: new elementary schools in the Netherlands, set to open in the fall, are rethinking the educational model by giving each child an iPad and letting them learn at their own pace (with teachers acting as coaches and guides).

If a child would rather play on his or her iPad instead of learning, it’ll be okay. And the children will choose what they wish to learn based on what they happen to be curious about. […]

“At home, Daphne learns naturally, according to her own pace, interactively and using multimedia tools,” says de Hond. […] The classic chalk-and-blackboard teachers, he adds angrily, “are preparing children for a world that no longer exists.”

Actually, the idea of self-directed education is at least a hundred years old, as one of the core principles of Montessori schools. In fact, I attended a Montessori school, which perhaps helps to explain why a decade ago I was already thinking about using technology to extend self-directed learning. In high school, I designed an educational website about electricity and described it this way:

This site was specifically designed with the idea that there is no one correct path leading through it. Instead, you are encouraged to start at whichever category interests you most and then meander at leisure through whichever pages “spark” your interest.


Everyone is interested in different things, so it doesn’t make much sense to make every visitor use the same route, as they would in a traditional research paper. The nature of the web allowed me to set up the site so that people can very easily “choose their own adventure” according to what looks interesting. The hope is that people will have a better learning experience and stay at the site longer knowing they have the power to read about the things they want.

I also pointed out that the connections between topics are crucial:

Energy politics depend on the technologies in use, and development of the technologies depends on the politics. Electrical appliances depend on generators and power lines; all of these things are based on physical principles related to electricity. Because of this there is no inherently “correct” way to teach the subject — so why make one up and say it’s correct? Instead, I hope that visitors will be fascinated by the connections that exist between topics, and willingly learn about areas they might not have wanted to learn about if it was presented in an isolated, linear fashion.

The article about the new Dutch schools casually mentions, almost as a side note:

If a math app is neither enjoyable nor successful, the teacher simply orders another one. The supply of educational programs never runs dry in Apple’s online app store.

I wonder to what extent that is true. Are there high quality educational apps for every K-5 topic, available in all major languages? Do all of these apps let teachers and parents monitor the child’s progress? And further, do these apps make the connections between topics apparent, so that students can follow links to other apps to learn about related concepts?

The principal of one of these schools was quoted as saying “what we are doing will seem pretty normal in 2020.” I don’t doubt that; the low-tech version already seemed pretty normal when I was a kid. In the meantime, I wonder what I should do to help make the high-tech version a success.

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