My grasp of the Spanish language is limited to ‘hola’ and a few rusty phrases leftover from travelling many years ago, so it was a bit of a shock to suddenly find myself in the middle of a Spanish-speaking classroom. ‘How would you like to join a SOLE in a few minutes?’ SOLE México co-ordinator Oscar O’Farrill typed on Skype as we were about to start the interview.
I was prepared for asking the questions, rather than being on the other side, but when you work with self organised learning environments you have go with the flow from time to time! Naturally, it was complete chaos, but the smiling, excited faces made it clear from the outset how much SOLE means to these children.
Oscar has been running SOLEs since 2013, initially in a community centre in Tres Marías, Morelos, and for nearly a year in a public school in San Luis Potosi, a small rural community about four hours from México City. Despite many ongoing challenges, SOLE México is going from strength to strength, with exciting plans on the horizon.
Oscar, whose eclectic career includes working in human resources for Coca-Cola and representing his country in ice hockey as a teenager and later as a rugby player, is at the heart of plans to expand SOLE across the country.
A back injury cut his sporting career short and he turned to coaching instead, but always had an interest in psychology, which he went on to study at degree level. “I’ve always been amazed about learning processes,” says Oscar. “Every day I think ‘how does learning happen and how can I make it better?’. My mind is 100% thinking about how the mind works. It’s my passion and I want to find out more.”
For Oscar, SOLE brings together all the factors of coaching, team work and psychology that are important to him. “There’s amazing potential for SOLE in México and thanks to technology finally coming into classrooms, we can reach the furthest places in México where it is most needed,” he says. “What I love most about SOLE is how almost anything can become a Big Question – you really don’t need much to start.”
Oscar says it takes several months before the children are accustomed to working in a SOLE environment but then they pick up valuable skills in leadership, team working and presentations at a rapid pace. “It takes some time to ‘unlearn’ the traditional approach to start learning in a SOLE,” he explains.
Oscar has also has been ‘granny’ for many sessions. “The Granny Cloud is an amazing way to collaborate in this worldwide effort to redesign education, but as the blog said ‘being a granny is not that easy’,” says Oscar. He added that despite the obvious language barrier, he has seen how non-English speaking children and a non-Spanish speaking granny can communicate. “It may take some time but with patience, joyfulness and motivation, it can surely happen,” he says. “Of course, it is really helpful if you’re a bilingual granny, but that’s certainly not essential!”
Oscar’s team has persevered with getting local schools on board, despite initial reservations. “We’ve visited many schools to give demos and everybody likes it but I can see the fear in their eyes,” he explains. “It seems that some of them are not ready to experience it. But some of them agree it’s a waste of time to continue learning the way we have for hundreds of years.
“How will this be of use to children in the real world in 10 years’ time? Children need to be able to develop personal skills and be able to search for answers, work in teams, have critical thinking, global networking, communication skills, be creative and, of course, know how and why to use technology. These are abilities and values that children need to be better in the future.”
However, Oscar concedes he also has to take a pragmatic approach. “Traditional teaching methods are difficult to get rid of, so there will be those who are just not ready to have something like this yet, but they’ll get there sooner or later,” he says.
One of the recurring questions he gets from school principals and teachers is ‘How does a SOLE evaluate progress?’ As a result, SOLE México is carrying out research and experiments into this issue with the help of the pedagogy department at Universidad Iberoamericana, led by Dr Cimenna Chao.
“Everyone around the world has the same question – ‘how do we evaluate this?’” says Oscar. “I know I’m not that experienced and nobody knows exactly the right way to do it at the moment – that’s why we’re still carrying out research. But I think each country should be prepared to customise its own SOLE learning process to make it work.”
As private schools in Mexico are reluctant to provide funds, SOLE México is now perfecting the design of a sustainable model to ensure that SOLEs can reach even the poorest public schools.
One such school is the one I ‘beamed’ into, where Veronica Ojeda is constantly looking for new methods and ways to help the children improve. She was the only teacher who came forward after Sugata’s visit to México willing to take a risk with SOLE, so Oscar has been working with her ever since to make it happen.
To put the cost of education into context, there are several different levels of private schooling, ranging from 5,000 to 13,000 pesos a month. An average basic government salary in Mexico is between 5-7,000 pesos a month. A teacher working in a public school earns just 65-70 pesos a day.
So what’s next for SOLE México? Oscar and his team, as you probably won’t be surprised to hear, have big plans. There are now five partners in the team, with expertise covering everything from entrepreneurship to educational technology and psychology, and they already have 38 investors interested in supporting their project through crowd equity funding. They are also about to link up with a start-up dedicated to bringing low-cost internet to remote rural communities in Mexico.
Soon, SOLE México will also start working with a NGO as part of its citizenship programme to bring SOLEs into Mayan communities, where Spanish is their second language. They’re aiming to have 10 SOLEs running as part of that project from January and hopefully open a SOLE centre next year.
We’ll let you know how they get on via social media – you can also follow them on Facebook.
Main photo credit: Blanca Parra