Helen Moyer hates the word “teacher” despite the fact she’s been one for seven years.
“I remember teachers from my own school days standing in front of the class just relaying facts and I never wanted to do that,” she says. “I want to create an atmosphere where the children see me as a learner as well and SOLE is perfect for that. It’s completely changed the way I teach.”
Williston School, where Helen works, is also a supporter of P4C (Philosophy for Children), which she finds aligns well with SOLE principles. For the past few years they have been working towards letting the children own their learning, embracing new technologies and pedagogical approaches.
Being on the Isle of Man (which is located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland – pictured below) means educators enjoy more freedom to experiment than most: they have their own government, no OFSTED inspections, and can create their own curriculum.
“We’re pushing boundaries all the time and the difference SOLE has made has been incredible,” says Helen. “It’s created a level of curiosity and an ability to share their learning collaboratively which is nothing short of amazing. It’s like the love of learning has been re-ignited within them.”
Helen was first introduced to SOLE three years ago when one of the IT staff returned from a conference where Sugata Mitra was speaking and suggested they try it out.
But the first few attempts weren’t exactly a success. “It was complete chaos and I thought ‘what on earth am I doing?!’” says Helen.
One of her challenges was the amount of high level needs pupils she had in her class, with dyslexia and autism especially prevalent among the students.
So she got in touch with Sarah Leonard, an experienced SOLE practitioner, who at the time was working at Masham School in North Yorkshire. When Helen explained the students were just not ‘gelling’, Sarah put her onto the idea of ‘social SOLEs’ where you focus on an issue affecting the class dynamics rather than a Big Question.
They decided to research dyslexia and autism and in the process learned that a lot of children think very differently from each other. “At the end of the SOLE they were valuing their input in reflection time and it completely changed the dynamics of their friendships,” explains Helen.
“It’s had the most profound effects and now the class is not hierarchical – instead they say ‘I’ll take a bit of your brain and yours and let’s use the internet as well’. It’s definitely given them ownership of their learning.
“I stand back so much more now and let them crack on, giving them little questions to help them delve deeper but nowhere near as much planning as I used to. But the level of questioning has to be quite efficient to be able to draw them in – it’s not an easy ride as a teacher by any means and it can be exhausting!
“I find it’s like being a conductor, getting everyone’s opinions and bringing them together.”
An example of a social SOLE at the school was when one class was really struggling with friendships. They decided to look at what makes a true friend – such as fairness and loyalty – and explore what that means.
“It was extraordinary,” says Helen, who came upon the idea for the SOLE after doing a bit of research to see what the children valued in a teacher. “They wanted a teacher to be fair – to be equal and make sure everyone gets equal amounts of time, so we focussed on what fairness meant to them,” she explains.
By the end of the exercise, Helen was blown away by the level of understanding her eight and nine-year-olds demonstrated. “Their conclusion was that fairness is about giving people what they need at that time, which is pretty amazing for that age group.”
Helen admits that taking that step back as a teacher is both ‘exciting and liberating’ and also ‘really scary’, but once she did, she saw the value in the learning process.
She has been using SOLE in her class for 18 months and each child, without any prompting, said on their individual reports that the best way they learn is through SOLE. It has now become a regular feature in the classroom, especially in maths, where she will often use a ‘mini SOLE’ to bring in a new concept like division.
“As teachers we put a lid on learning, such as by saying ‘Today we’re going to do space’, but with a Big Question there are no limits.” – Helen
From the Big Question: ‘What would the world look like without insects?’ a little boy who struggles a lot in her class said that humans would be extinct. He could also logically justify his thinking process. “You’d never get to talk about things like that in a regular class,” says Helen.
Her advice for teachers thinking about trying SOLE for the first time this term is to simply ‘throw yourself into it’. She suggests using SOLE initially as an observation tool to see how they learn best, whether it’s in small or big groups etc. and taking time to listen to the vocabulary the children use.
“Some teachers are desperate to guide the children a bit too much and you have to try to stop that,” says Helen.” The SOLE process is chaotic for everyone involved and crashing and burning is part of it, so celebrate the epic fails, enjoy it and save your energy for the end!”
Helen stresses the importance of having a phrase to use that encourages further questions or investigation, so that if they’re struggling with a concept you’re not tempted to answer it for them.
By way of illustration, when the headteacher came to observe one of her sessions, she told Helen she’d used ‘that’s interesting’ about 150 times! “It stops me answering their questions!” says Helen. “I also go round and magpie their ideas and say ‘tell me one amazing fact you’ve learned in the last 5 minutes’.
“It’s about listening to the children 100% then reeling their threads together to create a pattern that they can go away with and explore further.”
She also finds that inviting the children into the question really helps to get them engaged. For example, she’ll often make it personal and use a story about her own boys to prompt a session. “I’ll say something like ‘we had a very interesting conversation around the dining room table and we don’t know the answer to this question’,” she says. “They then become so driven to find an answer to help me at home. That motivation really draws them in and evokes curiosity.”
Helen has the same class again this year and will be taking part in research with Sugata into the use of SOLE and P4C to see how valuable each approach is to the other.
When Sugata visited the school in July he explained that SOLE ‘can’t be watered down’ as then it simply won’t work, in answer to concerns that it might be used by teachers as an alternative to preparing a lesson.
He’s returning to the Isle of Man in January 2018 to help train headteachers. “It’s about making sure it’s about quality teaching and how you maintain that rigour with SOLE,” explains Helen.
With 32 primary schools and five secondary schools on the Isle of Man there’s huge potential to explore the effect of SOLE across the board.
Helen says she’s hoping to go into secondary schools to introduce them to SOLE. “It has the potential to completely change the dialogue within the classroom, and that’s what’s really exciting.”
Find more about Helen in our Community Member section.