Independent thinking and learning

Last night, I found an old article in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review dated October 2012 regarding a special experiment and I want to share with you:

The MIT research team began with a question: "Is it possible for the students to learn WITHOUT the teachers? Can they self-taught themselves without any help?"

To get the answer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research team went into a remote village in Ethiopia. They placed several boxes contain tablets outside of several huts and use a video camera to film the activities. The study began when cchildren in this village found these boxes outside their hut. Since many of them never go to school, do not know how to read, as their village is in a deep jungle with no school, no books, no teacher. Would they even open the boxes? What would they do? The MIT researchers were not even sure. There were no instructions in the box on what to do as these children cannot read it anyway. So what happened?

According to the article, it took only 5 minutes for them to open the box, grab the tablet inside, find the on/off switch, and power it up. The MIT researchers were shocked to find that even with no prior experience using technology, without any formal education, they do not even know English and never read any printed materials, but within a few days, these children were actively playing with their tablet and be able to download 47apps to their tablet. Two weeks later they were able to sing the ABC song. And five months later, some children “hacked the tablet” to customize the look and feel of the computer.

In this experiment, the children learn to use the tablet even WITHOUT a teacher, as long as they had a device that they can play with then they could educate themselves. The MIT research team concluded that: “Traditional educators can learn from this experiment that sometimes, they need to give students the opportunity to learn ON THEIR OWN. After several months of observing and watching these children, the team document the benefits of this self-learning as follow:

1. There is a difference between memorizing the materials just to pass an exam then forget most of it and the understanding of the process of learning. Students who are not given the opportunity for Self- learning do not develop the skill of HOW to learn and how to analyze a concept from multiple views because the teacher forces them to follow strict instructions that interfere with the student’s natural curiosity.

2. Self- learning focuses on the process, not the goal: The process of Self- learning is an adventure that can be destroyed when the primary is focusing on “passing” or “Failing.” Students should learn that “failure” is also a learning opportunity and could become the seed for success later.

3. Not every student is learning at the same pace. Traditional education system forces students to learn according to a schedule and eliminates slow learning students. An active learning method let the teacher monitor the classroom and allows each student to learn at their own pace.

4. Traditional education creates fears of failure and hampers students ‘ ability to function in the real world. Self- learning allowing students to manage their own learning which includes time management and other skills. The working environment is not like classrooms where everything is methodical and routine. Self- learning requires the student to develop other skills like planning and making priority lists and deadlines to achieve their goals. They must also learn how to deal with distraction effectively.

5. Passion and curiosity develop deeper learning: There is a big difference in motivation if teachers allowed students to learn something that truly piqued their interest. Motivation to climb over obstacles is far easier when the student is allowed to choose what subject to tackle first.

6. When things get tough, those who do not quit are the ones who are determined to rely on their own sense of self-learning

7. Self- learners are more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. A weakness is only as dangerous as the level of ignorance the person has about it. Self- learning forces students to grapple with both their strengths and weaknesses through the learning process.

8. When the process is part of the goal, failure isn’t quite so scary. When the fear of failure disappears, it is much easier to learn the art of self-critique. Traditional teachers and classrooms make little room for failure as everything is based on grades and exams.

Learning is not always a straight path. Oftentimes it is a messy walk in the woods with a lot of detours. Self- learners are ready and capable of navigating the process whereas students that are fed information from the teacher will get discouraged when they venture out on their own.



  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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