Self Managed Learning made difficult

I appreciate that the title may seem a little strange. So many self-help texts are about things “made easy”. What I want to cover here is the fact that it is quite difficult to get people to understand why we are doing Self Managed Learning. The prevailing paradigm is one where assumptions are that young people go to school to learn. The dominant model is one that I want to challenge here and I want to do that through presenting real evidence.

I’m a scientist by background and therefore I tend to be interested in evidence rather than prejudiced opinion. The way in which schools dismiss evidence and continue to practice in ways that are counter to the best available research is at the very least disappointing and at its worse potentially immoral.

So first I have to say a little bit about Self Managed Learning;( however for full information there are books and articles and videos available for people who are interested). After doing this I will give a few examples of evidence that seems to me to be incontrovertible and where if teachers and other adults working with children claim to be professionals they should act on the basis of this evidence.

An outline of Self Managed Learning

A simple distinction between what we are doing and what schools do could be captured in the following two sentences.

Schools teach children subjects in order for them to pass tests.


In Self Managed Learning we assist young people to learn in order for them to lead a good life.

Whilst I am the chair of governors of Self Managed Learning College I also do work in the college with young people. My business card says “Ian Cunningham, learning assistant”. Our job as adults is to assist young people to learn in ways that are appropriate to them and meet their needs. We are also not interested in testing and assessment except where young people choose it.

My own view is that it’s wrong to assess another human being unless they have chosen it. So our students may take public exams if they choose and they do so in the context of their interests in pursuing a particular career they themselves have freely chosen, with our assistance as adults.

In assisting students with their learning we have no classrooms, no imposed curriculum, no imposed lessons, no imposed teaching. Students are able to learn in ways which suit them and which fit with the kind of direction they want to take in their lives.

We start off with a whole week where we find out about the person, their interests, what they like and don’t like and any directions they want to take in their life. After that we can start to work with them to help them to think through the kind of programme of learning that they want to undertake. So students do have timetables – but ones that they write themselves in relation to their overall needs.

In order to work through their plans for learning students are in what we call learning groups. These consist of six students and one adult to support the group. Students are free to raise whatever they like within the group in order to help them with their learning. The group is the basis on which students think through their weekly timetables.

In addition to belonging to a learning group each student is also part of a learning community. This is the whole group of students with adults who are there to assist them. At the moment in the college we have 24 students (aged from 9 to 16) and typically between three and five adults on each morning (we operate from 0900 to 1300 each weekday). We start the morning with a community meeting which is chaired in rotation; it could be a nine-year-old chairing the meeting or one of the adults.

The role of the community meeting is to work out collective needs such as agreeing rules for working through to organising trips or agreeing on bringing in visitors. Indeed anything can be raised by students that is relevant to the running of the whole community.

Some examples of evidence about learning

In creating the Self Managed Learning approach we have drawn on an array of well documented evidence about the nature of learning. Below are just a few examples taken from that evidence.

Teaching versus learning

There is a strange assumption that what is taught equals what is learned. If teaching worked perfectly then presumably every child would get A* in every exam that they took. Classroom teaching seems often to be aimed at a mythical average child. This average child doesn’t exist. Every child is different and there is no such thing as an average child.

We know for instance that there are huge differences in the way people prefer to learn. The classroom seems to be based on an assumption of a particular way of transmitting knowledge and skills through particular media that are again aimed at some mythical average child. Personally I never found the classroom an environment that I liked. I rather agreed with Oscar Wilde “I love to learn – I just can’t bear to be taught”.

In our research on learning with young people we found that there are at least 55 ways in which young people can learn of which the classroom is only one. In our college, given that students get free choice, no one has ever asked us to recreate a classroom. Some love to learn using a computer whereas others prefer to read books and others are like to get more help from adults. The question is why should we be concerned about the way in which a person wants to learn so long as they learn what they choose.

My favourite teacher at school was the geography teacher because he never taught as anything. He just gave us the material on a Monday and said I will test you on it on Friday. I loved this freedom as an independent learner. Others might choose a different approach.

The most important test that we have in our society is the driving test. Yet as a society we have no interest whatsoever in how a person learns to drive. Individuals could have had 1000 hours of lessons with a driving school or they might have merely spent a few hours driving with help from their parents in order to learn. As long as the person can actually go on a real road and show that they can drive safely they can pass the test. Why do schools assume that children must be locked into classrooms when it isn’t an appropriate way of learning for many children?

The subjective curriculum

The curriculum chosen by examining bodies and by the state is one that is a subjective choice. There is no objective basis to the choice of the curriculum. Indeed there have been many challenges to the current academically biased curriculum in England from a huge range of educationalists. And yet schools are now avidly buying into the English baccalaureate where there is a complete neglect of creative subjects in the arts and other areas outside a very narrow range of academic subjects.

Our approach to curriculum is to try to understand the kind of life that an individual wants to leave and what might be appropriate within that. Clearly if students are choosing, for instance, to go to university then they do have to deal with the fact that there may be an academic requirement that they might want to meet. However despite what schools and universities say you can go to university without any qualifications. The Open University is a good example but also universities have access courses for those without GCSEs and A-levels.

Summer born children.

The government’s own research a few years ago showed that at least 10,000 children every year get worse results at GCSE just because they’re born in the summer. These children are also less likely to go to university and what is particularly worrying is that both teachers and parents tend to underestimate the abilities of children born in the summer. This level of discrimination is quite appalling and yet nobody seems to want to do anything about it and schools continue to provide discriminatory environments making, for instance, children in year 11 all take their GCSEs in that year. We have found that our students might to take a GCSE a year or two earlier others might want to take another year beyond year 11 if they feel that that’s going to be advantageous to them. Why not?

Employers views.

Every credible survey of the views of employers over the last 10 years comes to similar conclusions. Generally employers say that schools are failing the world of work because they are neglecting important aspects of learning such as creativity, ability to get on with other people, ability to be self disciplined and self managing, etc. This evidence is generally ignored by schools despite the rhetoric of wanting, for instance, young people to learn to be able to be more employable. The continuing pressure to pass exams and assume that that’s going to get you into university and therefore have a good career is a monstrous lie. It is continuing to create misery for many young people.

An example of this was a meeting some months ago about education where a number of recent graduates complained that they could not get satisfying work. Some were unemployed; others were doing menial tasks for low pay. A week later I went to a meeting of companies in the digital and creative sectors in our city of Brighton. Most of the employers there were saying they couldn’t find people to fill the jobs that they had. They want people who are both creative and digitally aware and who can work in this fast-moving sector of the economy. It is also the major growth area of the economy in our city and in many parts of the UK. Schools and universities are failing young people when there peddling faulty information about the world of work.

The Government’s own figures show that the major expansion of jobs in the UK over the last 5 to 10 years has been in the creative sector or creative jobs within traditional organisations. The Government’s narrow emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths is a delusion. Of course there is work in those sectors but the neglect of the creative sector is misguided.


The above are just a few examples of an evidence base that we see as supporting alternatives to the current schooling model. Another example is the weird requirement for people to be able to handwrite. This article was created without me writing a word on a piece of paper. I had a serious cycle accident recently and so I’m unable to handwrite or use a computer. This whole piece has been created on a voice to text piece of software. I accept that some enjoy handwriting, but I don’t ever feel the need to put pen to paper.

Ian Cunningham

Published in P.E.N Journal 24