Friday, April 18, 2014

The Rise of SOLEs (part 2): At the Heart of a SOLE

This is part 2 of a three-part series about SOLEs. (see also Part 1 and Part 3)

One of the keystones of Sugata Mitra's controversial plenary at the IATEFL conference this year was his belief in the positive effects of getting children learning with the Internet, clustered in groups around computers, solving a 'big question' on their own. This he has named the SOLE.

What is a SOLE?
SOLE stands for 'Self-Organised Learning Environment' and it is an idea which developed out of Sugata Mitra's interest in further exploring Minimally Invasive Education (MIE) - something which he experimented with during the Hole-in-the -Wall project.  

MIE has been defined by Sugata Mitra as a "pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher."

Sugata believes that the beauty of MIE is that children are 'driven purely by their own interests', whereas conventional pedagogy 'focuses on the teacher's ability to disseminate information in a classroom setting.' He goes on to say that MIE 'thus complements the formal schooling system by providing a much needed balance for a child to learn on her own.'


Since Sugata Mitra's early experiments with the Hole-in-the-Wall, he has moved onto exploring 'The School in the Cloud' with the SOLEs forming the basis of this and taking MIE further.

The most comprehensive information about what a SOLE is and how you can 'bring it to your community' can be found in the SOLE toolkit.

SOLE fundamentals
  • SOLEs are aimed at children from 8-12 years old
  • In a SOLE "educators play an important role in both teaching kids how to think, and giving them room to feed their curiosity"
  • The children work in groups of 4 and they can work with whoever they like, moving around freely
  • The children choose their own questions to explore
  • The computers should be shared (1 between 3-4)
  • Children can change groups whenever they like, for whatever reason
  • Children can look at what the other groups are doing and discuss this with them
  • Choosing the right question to ask the children is vital - it must capture their imagination
  • The children are given the opportunity to share the information they find and tell their friends what they learned after the SOLE
SOLEs seem to have been set up in two different educational settings. The first of these is, similar to the situation of the hole-in-the-wall experiments: in places such as rural India where there is a shortage of teachers. Although no teacher is required, there does need to be the presence of an adult (a peer helper), principally to encourage the children in their learning and to be responsible for behaviour management.

As well as rural India, where it seems that SOLEs are being set up without the need for a teacher to be present, SOLEs are also being set up in the North-East of England. In this situation, it is clear that teachers are most certainly involved.

For example, recently, Carol Goodey shared the following video of Emma Crawley, a teacher at St Aidan's Primary School in Gateshead talking about 'Lessons from the SOLE'



In the video, Emma explains how she and her colleagues took Sugata's ideas and transformed it into learning in the classroom for 8-9 year-olds. Key takeaways for me from this video were:
  • Teacher-directed SOLE means that a curriculum can be followed, with the teacher's careful planning and guidance. 
  • Choosing the right question to ask the children is fundamental. The question must motivate the children into action and should not be able to be answered easily.
  • The teacher was worried what might happen as she was leaving the children to their own devices and did not intervene - she did not have high expectations of it at first.
  • At the end of the activity, what the children found out astonished her - it was much richer than she thought it would be. 
  • Looking at what the children learned, she decided that she could get rid of half the science lessons to follow.
  • She uses the phrase "we used it to start off history and geography..." - this indicates that SOLE was used to complement regular teaching activities she did.
  • The teachers seems to always use a 'pre-SOLE' activity, showing a video or images related to the question.
  • The children were looking at and understanding complicated information that the teacher would normally expect to be "way above their understanding".
  • The way she uses SOLEs needs a teacher to do follow-up activities in class based on the information the children find
  • The unstructured nature of this type of discovery learning leads to the children finding information that a teacher would not usually present to a class of this age group. The children are therefore led to push themselves at a level higher than they normally would be learning at. 
  • Instead of telling teachers to 'use it once a term', she recommends teachers should use SOLE when they think it appropriate and that "this seems to be the best fit for SOLE" - there is no suggestion here that SOLE should replace most or even a large proportion of regular classroom time - Emma seems to be suggesting that it works as an occasional activity.
From what is said in the video, SOLEs certainly change the focus of the learning experience, with the children looking out at the real world as opposed to only what goes on inside and at the front of the classroom.
The video also underlines the role of the teacher in the SOLE, which I think changes the nature of the SOLE entirely. In fact, the main reason why Sugata Mitra annoyed teachers at the IATEFL Harrogate conference this month was because of the implication that no teacher was required for the SOLE to work. On further investigation, it seems that what was meant (as I now understand it) was more that although no teacher is necessary (if no teacher is available), it is preferable if a teacher is involved. In fact, Sugata Mitra said as much on Facebook earlier this week: 

Actually, I am curious about when and where I said teachers are no longer required. SOLEs are being used by teachers all around the world. They seem to like the idea. In places where you can't get teachers, SOLEs without teachers are better than nothing. In places where the English teacher does not know English, the cloud grannies are a great help. Why is this so abhorrent, curiously, to EFL teachers in particular?

He seems to not have realised that some (myself included when listening carefully to what he actually said and taking notes) have been given the wrong message. I won't examine the  'better than nothing' aspect of the SOLE without a teacher, but will say that this aspect of it has been discussed in the comments of part 1 of this blog post

Responses in Facebook to the video (above) on SOLEs 

Jeremy Harmer, when he shared the video on Facebook posted the following: "Fabulous teacher, great activities and/but for me an example of why, perhaps, teachers might have got riled after the IATEFL plenary. Watch it and ask is this a 'self-organised' learning environment? Does this mean 'the end of schooling as we know it?', does it prove that the education system is 'outdated' and crucially does Emma show that teachers are or are not necessary?"

The responses from people were interesting:

Anne Fox said "Excellent, practice-based, voluntary (for the teachers), not at all like a WebQuest (where the sources are of info are given by the teacher), not a full-time way of learning and teacher engaged in loads of useful meta-learning skills to enhance what the children are doing."

Paul Driver chipped in with "It's an ECTELE Extremely Contrived Technology Enhanced Learning Environment). I don't think he would have upset anyone at IATEFL if he'd just said that inquiry-based learning and Google are powerful allies."

And Jill Hadfield said "It's Discovery Learning. Extremely well- organised ( by the teacher) and very structured. Nothing like the 'no need for teachers' stance suggested by Mitra. In fact it shows exactly why the teacher is needed!"


It's Anne Fox's comment that I find most interesting here as SOLE's have often been compared to webquests. For this reason, I decided to compare them with SOLEs in this (three-part) blog post. 

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