International College Hong Kong

Free Learning

A pedagogical approach where students chart their own learning through a varied map of challenges and experiences.

Free running invites participants to use creativity, skill and strength to find new ways to navigate a landscape. It is fun, engaging and highly motivating for those who participate. It takes a space (urban or otherwise) and turns it on its head, drawing new functions from an existing, very fixed, form.

In much the same way, Free Learning aims to provide students with an intellectual landscape through which they can playfully discover their own path. It promotes creativity, individuality, team work, freedom and taking responsibility.

As a teacher, working in the traditional school paradigm, it is possible to construct teaching and learning opportunities that focus on all students, and that reach a minimum standard for most. However, to make these engaging and motivating, teachers have to work themselves ragged, and in time, learning becomes rote and sterile. Both students and teachers jump through hoops together, to achieve things many students are simply not interested in, or are encountering at the wrong time. Those who are engaged soar, a mass in the middle push on in spite of it all, and the remainder suffer through unwillingly.

Free learning dispenses with the pretence that students need to follow a certain path as a group, by simply:

  1. Offering a large online menu of (in my case) ICT learning choices for students to study from (we call these units, and they look like this).

  2. Allowing individuals and small ad hoc groups to chose their own path and pace through the units on offer.

  3. Providing a way for students to record which units they have chosen as they progress, and then to submit evidence (e.g. photos, work itself, text) for each unit. This can be done via our Free Learning Gibbon module, or some other method.

  4. Providing a way to map learning outcomes to units, and ways to see what students are currently working on, where they have already traveled, and what outcomes they have covered (or not)

  5. Assessing learning formatively based on observation and discussion, with aspects of summative assessment based on student submitted work and other evidence.

In this way, we can provide more choice, more personalised pathways and more motivation for students to learn. Students spend less time sitting and listening to me (even though I already try and do the minimum of this given the current model), and more time working hands on in ways they enjoy.

By asking students to cover a range of outcomes, we can still help them cover broad swathes of content, but this need not be a focus: if we can free ourselves of the delusion that kids currently cover everything (which they don’t, in a meaningful way), then we can be comfortable with something less regimented and assembly line. Do all students really need the exact same experience? No.

Free learning, as a model, affords us a chance to set the classroom up for success by throwing out much baggage brought along from industrial, conformity-driven, pre-ICT education. It represents the use of technology to finally revolutionise classroom practice.

We have now been running Free Learning at ICHK for over 4 years, and the result is more student engagement, improved classroom energy and zero focus on grades. Learning new things is now the prime concern. The proof, so they say, is in the pudding. So, look at some of the student work in our growing Free Learning Showcase, to see how this works in practice.

Free Learning has featured as a presentation at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, 2015 Asia Pacific International Schools Conference, the 8th 21C Learning Hong Kong and RCHK Transform. If you are interested in running Free Learning in your classroom, school or organisation, please do get in touch with Ross Parker at

When asked about Free Learning, students and teachers who have encountered the programme have told us that:

“It is less stressful without peer comparisons and deadlines. You can choose the subject you want to focus on, it makes the lessons all the more interesting.” – Student, ICHK

“For me it’s fun but hard ; )” – Student, ICHK

“I feel like it is great to let students study what they want to, but still have to complete certain units to be able to move on to the next one, that sort of makes it like a game with levels and different paths.” – Student, ICHK

“It is AWESOME!!!” – Student, ICHK

“I attended your free learning session at RCHK and I decided to use a modified version for our current media unit. I wanted to thank you for the inspiration for this…it has inspired me to see how I can use this type of workflow more often. I am certain that it has met my students needs much better.” – Patricia Thomson, PYP Teacher, RCHK


Some of the ideas here are based on the work of Sugatra Mitra and the related work shown in Good’s Future Learning video. Others have emerged from Toby Newton’s work on independent student learning in Human Technologies and from Google’s 80/20 time. We would like to recognise the contributions of these sources to what has become Free Learning.

Copyright © 2024 ICHK, All Rights Reserved