Author - School in the Cloud

  Partner - SOLE Central

  Location: London

SOLE is increasingly being used in many different settings, including some where it might not seem a natural fit, such as Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).

Traditionally an area which relies on individual learning or teacher-led in a classroom, it was little surprise that Prof Sugata Mitra caused a bit of a stir when he gave a keynote speech about learning needing to be far more self-organised at an IATEFL conference.

But this was actually the catalyst for a pilot study carried out between SOLE Central and International House in London to look at the potential for using SOLE to help adults learn English as a foreign language.

Although this was only a small study, early findings suggest that while SOLE is not suitable for teaching higher level grammar, it can be effective in terms of language fluency and confidence, especially with less able students. One particular student whose command of English was notably lower than the rest seemed to flourish in this environment. After just four weeks, he was able to stand up in front of the class and give a three minute presentation without any difficulty.


Eighteen multilingual students with an average age of 24-years-old from various different countries – including Japan, Colombia and France – took part in daily one hour-long SOLE sessions over a four week period in 2015. The sessions were run by three International House teachers who had between six months and eight years’ teaching experience.

They followed the usual Big Question format where the teacher sets the question then the students are given 40 minutes to work in small self-organised groups to come up with the answer, following up with a short presentation of their findings.

To make it feel less like a traditional classroom, the furniture was rearranged and softer, more comfortable seating was added, with tea, coffee and biscuits on hand. Students had access to mobile phones, an interactive whiteboard and four laptops, along with poster paper and pens.

The usual method of the teacher leaving the room was used, although some students found this unsettling. When the teacher did remain in the room, this effected the group dynamics, making the students ‘not as lively’ as normal.

Students completed comprehension tests in week one and four, and there was little change between their scores, apart from the student mentioned earlier, whose mark increased from seven to 24. “This might suggest that using the SOLE approach in this way could be more effective with those students who are starting from a much lower point, but obviously we need to explore this further with a much bigger sample size,” says Newcastle University’s Dr James Stanfield, who jointly led the study.

A mixture of Big Questions were used, with some related to language learning, and the most engaged session resulted from one about the cause of the financial crisis in 2008.

Varinder Unlu, from International House, who carried out the study with James, explains that it was certainly a challenge for the teachers involved. “One in particular had misgivings about not being able to correct or guide, but actually found that this method of allowing independent, unsupervised study can work well, as long as the question or task is engaging and thought-provoking enough,” she says.

Further research is now being planned between SOLE Central and International House.

If you’re thinking of experimenting with teaching EFL through SOLE, here’s a few tips which may be useful:

    • Focus an initial lesson on grammar beforehand so everyone can start from the same base level
    • Remain in the room to reassure the students, help maintain order and ensure the students are making an effort to speak in English
    • Remember that a language teacher’s role is crucial – not only in setting an appropriately challenging question but also in the review and feedback stage to encourage more debate and language use.
    • Include variety – the same Big Question format can be less interesting for older students

Although SOLE was originally developed within a primary school setting, researchers and educators all overthe world are also exploring its relevance to secondary, further and higher education. If you’re carrying out SOLE experiments where you live, do share what you’re up to with the School in the Cloud community on Facebook or Twitter.

Watch Sugata’s follow up interview at the IATEFL conference.

Education | Teaching English | TEFL