Self-organised learning environments – in a Science classroom #coetail


I’ve just finished up a unit into how humans use energy to support progress. It’s the big ‘science’ unit for the year with a strong focus on the scientific process.

The traditional approach to this is a set of teacher-initiated experiments where the class goes through the process of observing, forming hypothesis, testing, retesting, forming a conclusion. The kids then re-create an existing experiment, remix it or find a similar one to perform. The problem is that as teachers we’ve asked the question and given them them a fix, all the kids need to do is follow the instructions. Which leads to an important question:

Are the kids performing an understanding of how scientists think or following a procedural text?

Over the course of this unit I made a wave machine I had seen online made out of gummy bears with the kids.

We went through the scientific procedure, writing up an experiment etc. Yet instead of packing away the machine I left the machine up for the kids to play with.

As I watched the kids, I noticed that they actually go through a scientific process through play with a single-minded focus – how can I get a bigger wave?

The kids initially started with a simple pulse on one end as I had demonstrated but were starting to apply more force. Not satisfied, they started winding up the wave machine over on itself which resulted in the gummy bears moving around on themselves.

Impressed with the results the kids kept re-testing until someone came up with an idea that the wave machines could be wound up on both sides… which sometimes resulted in the waves being amplified when they met in the middle. One of them asked me to video their creation in slow motion so that they could ‘see it’ better.

What I noticed from the experiment was that powerful learning came not when I had shown the kids how the equipment worked or run a few tests, written up the experiment. It came afterwards, when I left the children to play. They were

  • forming hypothesis, testing and then retesting
  • observing and recording data
  • controlling for variables by organising to let go of the machine at the same time
  • forming conclusions and building on each other’s ideas

They didn’t have a language for what they were doing, but their hands and their eyes were engaged in scientific thought.

I wondered how could help the children bridge the gap between what the kids thought of as play and the scientific process.

Enter the self-organised learning environment.

Popularised by Sugata Mitra’s school in the cloud where basic computing equipment and an internet connection was left out and the kids taught themselves. When I look at the future of learning for younger learners, MOOCs are unlikely to feature. However, the self-organised learning environment which harnesses children’s natural curiosity with ubiquitous access to information is where I see future evolution of learning.

I wondered if I could use the principles of learning through play for the children to learn about electric circuits and conductivity as well as how the scientific process works.

The class had some knowledge of a basic circuits. I had Makey Makeys – a small device that plugs into your computer via USB and will turn anything that conducts into a key via crocodile clips, playdough, plasticine tinfoil tape, cooper wire, playdough, insulated wires.

I posed a challenge to the class, using their knowledge of circuits could they design a game controller for someone with limited use of their hands.

I had noticed that as a teacher, I spend an awful lot of time asking a lot of low-level questions that the kids could worth through by themselves, find out online or by asking a peer. I gave each group of 3-4 children two popsicle sticks which represented the questions they could ask an adult in the room (thanks ISHCMC).  Instead I observed children in class and put up post it notes of behaviours that were supporting learning and those which were detrimental to the group.

The groups also had a child to serve as a documenter during this process.

Data for reflection

And then I left them to it.

Initially there was a lot of failure.

One group spent an entire time on the physical design and little time developing a circuit that could work.


Not a wire to be seen – more interested in physical movement than electrical at the moment

However, two groups had began to develop interesting lines of inquiry. One drew on previous experience from tuning in to help them recreate a circuit. The other started looking online for instances where the circuit worked, finding youtube videos to help them figure out.

Key understanding – to find out how something works you need to draw on past observations and other’s knowledge. We observed that the group that was able to successfully build a circuit was the one where there was a lot of testing and re-testing going on during the building process.

Key understanding – you need to test and retest to ensure you understand how your ideas work So the kids were tasked with making a simple circuit which we then put together into a dance mat based off of one the creations the kids had found on youtube.

One of the children suggested we take the creation outside. The kids also decided tore-create the lightsabers and a ‘rigged’ apple bob I had made, alongside an apple piano, and playdough minecraft to showcase.

And then the secondary kids showed little initial interest in the kids’ creations. My 8 year olds, immediately took action by running and finding older siblings to show off their discoveries.

Key understanding – curiosity is what drives discovery.

The kids also encountered problems. It was raining heavily and there was a lot of condensation as they bought their circuits from the air-conditioned classroom out into the tropical heat. The kids found their circuits which tested well in the classroom were malfunctioning outside. The circuit would either ‘play’ in a loop without a visible completion or the keys would sometimes ‘stick’ together.


Why is this not working all of a sudden?

Key understanding – sometimes your results are unexpected

In response to the challenge kids quickly ran around finding tissues to mop up excess condensation and provide insulation for their circuits.


Tissues to help keep the the table and makey makey dry.

The children finally shared their learning with their parents through a mini-exhibition. However instead of a giant science fair where they shared final products with their family – we kept with the spirit of this unit and instead the children built their circuits with their families.

Talk about a risk.

Usually when children share with their parents it’s a final product, with a nice clean neat write up and the kids know the results. Instead the children in my class built a circuit from scratch. The children did need to get their materials together. Some of them thought about writing down their instructions while others had a blueprint.


No posters, or presentations. But equipment ready to go!

As a teacher at an international school with high expectations, it is scary stuff hearing from a child a few minutes before the exhibition –

“I don’t know if marshmallows will conduct, I think they will because they are squishy inside so they must have water and I know that water conducts. We’ll have to test out to see…”

Yet as far as the unit goes, that comment is spot on for demonstrating the Lines of Inquiry.

Key understanding – the scientific process can help aid in the discovery of new ideas

From this unit the key trends of the future of learning I see

Rich learning environments – our tuning in was just a case of me rigging up a room with Makey Makeys and leaving the children to discover. That experience was the one the children turned to when initially faced with a challenge.


How do I get this Music to play? – A makey makey music maze using scratch programming


Making – this is actually old school. In our rush to embrace technology we need to be mindful that children (of all ages) need to be making and creating

Time for inquiry – the kids were so engaged I often had to shoo them off to other classes.  Sometimes I worry that in our rush for ‘inquiry time’ we aren’t being mindful that if we plan, for genuine inquiry the kids will want to continue.

Failure – Lots of things went wrong in this unit but every step along the way became a way to link back to the lines of inquiry.

Documentation – the post its and pictures all served as rich sources of data for both myself and the children during the process. However, the kids hated being in the role of observer.

Reflection, reflection, reflection – If I was to do this differently next time, I’d be a lot more mindful of the observations looking at both process as well as content.

Share – One of the best parts of creating is sharing with others. We often assume in schools that we should be sharing with younger children, however by sharing with secondary the children had set backs.

Showcase process, not product – if we are series about learning in schools we need to spend more time showing off our ‘almost theres.’ The parents in my class loved building together with their children which enabled more interactions than the usual show and tell.


Building with family

from Teaching the Teacher

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