My first experience of Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) was spontaneous. It was the beginning of November and so I was wearing a poppy. In Hong Kong, this is not really a tradition. Attaching a paper flower to my shirt was a huge, unintentional provocation! Children of all ages asked me about it as I walked around school. At first, I answered them. I gave them a quick, shallow answer about Remembrance Day that, to be honest, they have probably already forgotten. With my own students, I approached it differently. The poppy provided an opportunity for me to explore SOLE, an idea that my principal had been telling me about. I scrapped the lesson plan and set SOLE in motion…
What is SOLE?
SOLE is the brainchild of Sugata Mitra and his famous ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments at the turn of the century. Mitra placed computers in deprived, remote areas of India and found that children, under the right conditions, were able to figure out how the computers and internet work, comprehend the English and use the technology to learn – all in the absence of adults. We can create a similar independent learning environment in classrooms, whereby children work collaboratively around a single device in order to answer questions. Among other benefits, Mitra claims that this method of learning improves students’ research skills, reading comprehension and lifelong learning habits.
SOLE is not about making learning happen. Rather, it’s about letting it happen. As teachers, our role is to facilitate, support, coach and offer important encouragement. But, mainly, we should get out of their way and watch as they learn for themselves!
A single SOLE session is broken down into three sections:
- The posing of a big question
- Set time for the children to investigate online
- Time to review and share
A typical hour session looks something like this:
Importantly, each group has access to only one device in order to promote communication and collaboration within the group. SOLE sessions are flexible; students are encouraged to share and communicate with other groups as well as their own.
“A SOLE is a mildly chaotic environment of children, clustered around the internet, in search of answers to big questions.”
Back to the poppy…
To honour my students’ questions and curiosity, I allowed them time to research and take notes on poster paper. The question isn’t a great example of a ‘big question’ (better ones can be found at StartSOLE), but it worked for the session: “Why is Mr. Hill wearing a red flower?” With thirty minutes on the clock, I watched with interest and pride as my students explored and compared various online resources. Throughout the process, they were constructing their own understanding and practising all-important research skills.
After thirty minutes, the students were encouraged to put the supporting details aside and focus on answering the question succinctly. The answers from each group varied but were equally deep. They went beyond the facts and delved deep into transferable concepts such as tradition, respect and symbolism. I was amazed by their responses and how they continued to learn from each other in the review section of the lesson. They constructed meaningful and memorable answers, from scratch, within half an hour. Very impressive! It’s amazing what our students can do when we get out of their way!
Since this unplanned poppy event, my co-teacher and I have held several SOLE sessions to support our units. We have also been making a conscious effort to develop students’ research skills. This has included explicit teaching of skills such as paraphrasing, filtering, question formulation and critical thinking. SOLE has been a tremendous opportunity for students to practise these important skills. Last week, our Library teacher commented on their noticeably improved research skills. This was great to hear! I believe that SOLE has played a key role in this progress.
“Our job is no longer to help kids memorise a few things they might need some day; our job is to help kids access and use information in meaningful ways when they need it. Our job is to teach kids how to learn.”
Mark Wagner, More Now
With his $1 million TED Prize (won in 2013), Mitra has been busy developing his ideas. He has strong beliefs about the future of education and practices that need to change. For more information, watch this recent TEDx Talk (2018).
SOLE offers another option in our pedagogical toolkit. I hope that this has been a useful introduction. When appropriate, try facilitating a SOLE session. Set it in motion and then sit back and watch learning flourish before your eyes. If you give it a try in your classroom or have any prior experience, please keep the discussion going by leaving a comment below. As always, let me know if I can help in any way.
“If you allow the education process to self-organize then learning emerges.”
Resources and further reading
Sugata Mitra: Build a School in the Cloud (TED Talk)
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