There is a buzz in education around Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs). The term was coined by Sugata Mitra, a Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University in England.
[Image from Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0]
Through his The Hole-in-the-Wall projects, Sugata and his colleagues spent 13 years conducting experiments to explore the nature of self-organised learning. In a nutshell, Mitra discovered that if you put children in front of a computer, they can teach themselves and each other, without supervision or formal training.
“Education-as-usual assumes that kids are empty vessels who need to be sat down in a room and filled with curricular content. Dr. Mitra’s experiments prove that wrong.”
In 2013, Sugata Mitra won the first-ever $1m (£658,000) TED Prize award (TED Prize, 2013)2. Mitra pledged to invest the money to construct a ‘school in the cloud’. On Friday 22nd November 2013 Mitra opened the world’s first new state-of-the-art SOLE learning space at Stephenson High School in Killingworth, England (TED Blog, 2013)3. The school is the first of seven SOLEs to be built (two in the United Kingdom and five in India).
Mitra uses a simile to describe the behaviour of children in a SOLE: “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organise around it, like bees around a flower.” Following the bee analogy, the content is the pollen, the class is the hive and the collective knowledge is the honey. All students benefit from the honey (Kenna, 2013)4.
An excellent SOLE Toolkit is available to download for free from the TED website, which provides a framework for primary school children between the ages of 8–12 years old. A SOLE learning journey is fuelled by “big questions, self-discovery, sharing and spontaneity”. The basic parameters of a SOLE session are:
- Pose a question for learners to consider
- Learners choose their own groups of four
- Learners can change groups at any time
- Learners can look to see what other groups are doing and take that information back to their own group (cross-pollination)
- Learners can talk with each other and discuss with other groups
- Learners can move around freely
- Participants have the opportunity to tell their friends what they learned after the SOLE
A SOLE session is divided into three distinct stages:
- Proposal of a question (~5 minutes)
- Investigation (~40 minutes)
- Review (~20 minutes)
Some example questions given in the SOLE Toolkit:
- What is a soul?
- Can animals think?
- How does my digestion system work?
- Was the colour “orange” named after the fruit or vice versa?
- Did dinosaurs really exist?
SOLEs in Further Education
Teachers have a tendency to ‘stick with what works’ and can be reluctant to accept change or experiment in the classroom. Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said: “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery”. (BrainyQuote, 2013)5. Educators must embrace change and technology, not hide from it. If we stand still and fail to evolve, we will die.
I have spent the last two years working as a trainee teacher in an FE college and in my experience, many students lack basic research skills. In the connected world of today, we are exposed to a tsunami of information. It is therefore imperative that we teach students how to quickly locate relevant material on the Internet. I think online research skills should be treated as equally important as English and Mathematics skills.
If students are to survive and thrive in the competitive and uncertain world of today, they need strategies to help them quickly find imformation. The SOLE method encourages students to take ownership of their learning and think for themselves. SOLE sessions enable students to hone their research skills and encourage them to become independent and confident learners. SOLEs can benefit all students (regardless of age) and they should definitely be used in further education institutions.
Computers vs. teachers
SOLEs demand just one computer for every four students. Could Mitra’s work usher the beginning of a new era, where computers replace teachers? Science fiction writer and futurist Sir Arthur C. Clarke said to Mitra: “any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!”. (IZ Quotes, 2013)6. Mitra believes this is absolutely untrue: “We have curricula, we have examinations, and children desperately need their teachers to handle the system. Until the system itself changes, there is no question about the teacher’s role”. (Ward, 2011)7.
TED Blog. (2013). School in the Cloud - Sugata Mitra.
Retrieved from TED: http://blog.ted.com/2013/12/16/the-first-school-in-the-cloud-opens/ ↩
BrainyQuote. (2013). Harold Wilson at BrainyQuote.
Retrieved from BrainyQuote: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/h/haroldwils104500.html ↩
Ward, H. (2011). ‘Teachers not required? Absolutely untrue’.
Retrieved from TES Connect: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6133917 ↩