Education & School · Organizational Change & Development

Self-Organized Learning: What it means and how it can work

“The premise of education is that we know what children need to know and that we can help them learn it” – Sir Ken Robinson (Ted Talks Education, 2013)

Our hope for education is always that our schools are helping people learn faster, better and the right content.  School content is designed to be the kinds of things that students might not otherwise learn on their own, but are deemed significant to life in the modern world.  Things like language literacy, math proficiency, and an understanding of the value of history, art and scientific method nearly make it on everyone’s list of what school’s should help student’s learn.

To improve student outcomes in any/all these subjects, we commonly believe, requires more and more teaching.

This premise is incomplete. 

Schools are systems. They have inputs (time, money, energy, heart, food, books) and outputs (engaged upstanding citizens, am I right?) stores of resources and information feedback loops. It’s not unlike a garden, growing under the right conditions.

All systems (schools and gardens included) land somewhere on a spectrum between rigid structure and total chaos (Fig. 1).  This is based on systems characteristics such as the rules and policies that govern the system, the purpose that it is trying to achieve, and the interplay of all individual parts (students, teachers, staff, parents, boards, etc.) within the system.

Education systems are just one type of what are sometimes also referred to as “complex adaptive systems“.  They are “complex”, with many pieces working in concert . They are “adaptive” because each individual,  the organization as a whole and the environment in which it exists, change constantly. There are similarities between how all complex adaptive systems function and change. (See Dana Meadows for more on this subject.)  

Structure Vs. Chaos
Fig. 1: All systems land somewhere on this spectrum between absolute structure and complete chaos.

The more-chaotic school models – like the Brooklyn Free School or Democratic Schools –  operate where learning is less directed and less controlled from “above” in a hierarchy or central office, and are designed to favor student-directed or teacher-directed learning.  Learning is not necessarily less expected at these schools, nor less achieved, just less standardized and regimented.

Most schools naturally fall somewhere in between the polar ends of this spectrum.  For example: the leadership in what we may consider a highly-structured school district simply cannot know or control everything that happens in every one of their classrooms everyday – how could they?  Though some may preach a level of standardization, one simply cannot achieve it absolutely in a school (any complex adaptive system, really.)

The same is true with chaos: any organization built on absolute chaos cannot function with any great value.  Direction, or a “mission” are natural principlesof organizing that provide the most basic structure. “Why does this organization exist? What is your goal?”.  This is why, in the modern age, anarchy and autocracy are both in decline in favor while democracy is on the rise.  Democracy, or similar governments designed to exist in the middle-ground between structure and chaos, is preferred because is has direction, but allows its citizens a certain amount of “self-organization” (i.e. people have the freedom to choose the direction and parameters of the system).

Enter Dr. Sugata Mitra, who is experimenting with self-organized school systems:

Moments after receiving the prestigious TED Prize, professor Sugata Mitra shared this vision for an education system where learning is not necessarily the product of more teaching, but:

“the product of … self-organization … if we allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges.  It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen” – Sugata Mitra

A school in the cloud, where people teach and learn whatever they choose.  Counter to a highly structured education system, Mitra’s self-organized system might seem too chaotic to even be called a system.  How will we know that anyone is really learning anything of significance?

Mitra’s project, whether we agree on it as a viable, mass education solution, brings us back to consider: how powerful really is the natural process of learning?  To what degree can chaotic, unregulated, student self-direction replace the rigid structure of schools, and be beneficial? Will a cloud-based school serve the students of the future as well?

Like it or not, everyday schools could consider how they might capture value from some “self-organizing”.   Consider how the business world has done the same.

The 2004 Harvard Business Review article “Get Self-Organized” opens with the sentence “A little chaos goes a long way”.   The author, David Ticoll, suggests that businesses can gain certain value by allowing certain aspects of their organizations or services self-organize.  Examples range from Linux software and the open-source movement, wikipedia’s ability to dominate the encyclopedia market, and catering products to you based on your previous purchases.  Customers have palpable control over the content these services provide for them.  They get to impact their experience in meaningful ways and that makes all the difference.

I predict a greater degree of self-organization in the school system in reaction to the failings of rigid top-down efforts for control.  Stanford education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond indicates in her book The Flat World and Education (2010, Teachers College Press) that the way to a new paradigm for education in the United states will rightly include (among many other exceptional points) a (1) reduction in enforcement of procedures and an increase in school capacity and a (2) decrease in managing for compliance with an increase in managing for improvement.  Both of these ways forward suggest a “freeing” of schools from former rigidity and structure, to embracing a new direction, with a hint of chaos.

In summary: All organizations exist on a spectrum between structure and chaos, depending on their rules and values.  Organizations that embrace chaos and self-direction – at least in select ways – have found success in adapting to a fast-changing world. Schools and businesses alike can find value in thoughtfully decreasing rigidity and increasing chaos by letting their customers, students, staff or teachers self-organize certain aspects of their work and learning.  Indeed, making the most of the natural process of learning – and allowing the systemic chaos necessary for it to work – is to create space for otherwise unseen possibilities for improvement.


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