The IKEA Effect and SOLE

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
Read more about John Dabell

Do students value their learning more if they have had a say in how it is constructed?

I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to be given presents for doing my job. It’s a bit embarrassing really. I’ve got over 200 ‘world best teacher’ mugs and about the same number of novelty ties to open a shop with. Majestic Wine could ‘call on me’ if their supplies were ever running low, and I’ve even got boxes and boxes of chocolates dating back to 2003! Then there are a handful of presents that pupils have made themselves including an origami crane, a wooden puzzle, a ukulele and a papier-mâché map of Britain.

The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. The name derives from the Swedish manufacturer and furniture retailer IKEA, which sells many furniture products that require assembly.

For what it’s worth …

Without sounding ungrateful, the DIY presents have had far more value than all the other stuff! In many senses, I over-value them and I haven’t had the heart or nerve to car boot them. Irrational cognitive bias? Daft object attachment? Guilty conscience? False sentiment? Giving any teacher a bottle of wine is just too easy, but to make something yourself that has demanded hours of effort, now that’s special.

This got me thinking about my teaching. How many times have I just given pupils something from a book or resource that has been ready-made? Follow the bullet points and fire away.

How many times have I just given the knowledge without students driving their own knowledge? Should students go out and learn what the world looks like for themselves? I’m not really an off-the-shelf or spoon-feeding type of teacher, but my conclusion is this: I have given far too much.


Some of my better lessons have been where I’ve made my own resources because I’ve had a say in them, I’ve crafted them and I have put some heart and soul into them. They’ve also been the lessons where I’ve gone ‘off-piste’ and ditched my plans in some sort of hedonistic cry for freedom. My best presents have been home-grown where pupils have heavily invested their time and effort and injected their projects with something of themselves. Often ill-constructed, but still beautiful, amateurish, naïve and sometimes even dangerous, the hand-made presents have meant something to both giver and receiver because they have an emotional involvement and connection.

“I have given far too much … I’m now empty.”

Image: Shutterstock

The message is clear: if we give pupils the opportunity to make something for themselves, then we give them the chance to make something of themselves too. If a pupil has a hand in their learning and their mind and their heart, they are going to value it more: blood, sweat and tears count.

The IKEA-effect:

You couldn’t make this up: researchers from Harvard Business School found that when people built their own stuff, they stuffed things with more love and affection than if they had just gone out and purchased something brand new and ready-made. People will value a home-made wobbly table, far more than its worth if they’ve had to build it with their own splintered hands. They called this The IKEA Effect.

Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University and author of “Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations.” He discusses what’s known as the “Ikea Effect.” (Business Insider UK)

Make or break learning:

Raw material student-centred approaches can trigger the IKEA-effect because they allow students to unfold and own their learning; take responsibility for it and this increases their intrinsic value of it. Learning is not always pretty, but gains in confidence are guaranteed and can be achieved through collaborative project-based learning, or a flipped classroom where students construct their own knowledge. Input feeds output, so allowing students to have a say in class rules or what the curriculum should be made up of can act as powerful incentive to engage. If you built the rule, are you more likely to follow it? It’s make or break time: abdicating some control gives pupils pride, self-worth and independence so let them loose.

You gotta have SOLE:

The architecture of ownership doesn’t have to be grand, but it is easily achieved within a SOLE (Self-Organised Learning Environment) design.

In SOLE, pupils are given the freedom to learn by asking ‘big questions’ where they work collaboratively to find the answers. Running a session like this might just sound like a recipe for chaos, but organic freedom doesn’t mean students running around like headless chickens. Take a look at the godfather of SOLE, Sugata Mitra, explain how to run a SOLE session and why being fully unprepared is all part of the plan.

Sugata Mitra’s research has shown that ‘intellectual amplification’ is common in a SOLE – he found students could use the internet to answer test questions well ahead of their time, obtain decent scores and retain the information further down the line. SOLEs provide the learning space for students to learn on their own terms and at their own pace and can form one part of a student’s experience. The success of SOLEs demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with having your head in the clouds and it is something we should all do more often.

When tied to a desk and learning someone else’s curriculum, how much learning actually takes place? Within a SOLE, students are engineering their own learning and definitely have a stake in it as they are creatively engaged. Isn’t it about time you stopped giving so much as a teacher and put a little SOLE into your day?

Teacher ownership is just an own-goal.

Written by John Dabell for Teacher Toolkit. Read more of his articles.

SOLE Central is a global hub for research into self-organised learning environments (SOLEs), bringing together researchers, practitioners, policy makers and entrepreneurs. This interdisciplinary research centre is led by Newcastle University’s School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences.

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