SOLE? It’s like learning a new language

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.

Bringing Einstein into education

It’s all very well Sugata going into schools, shaking things up and then leaving the teachers to it, but what’s it like from a headteacher’s point of view?

Headteacher John Grove shares his thoughts after Sugata visited his school, Belleville Primary School in Clapham, London, to carry out SOLEs (self organised learning environments) with Years 3, 4 and 5 (seven to 10-year-olds).

“The SOLEs that took place were not quite like the ones we’re used to,” he says. “Sugata wanted to try something a little different and see if the children could answer higher level questions from Science A-Level and GCSE exam papers by working in SOLEs. He had recently conducted the same experiment in Jakarta and Gateshead and we were excited to see how the children at Belleville would fare.”

John says to begin with the children were a little uncertain about their ability to answer an A-Level or GCSE question. However, once Sugata asked the class if they thought they could come up with an answer if they were able to use the internet in groups, they felt a lot more confident!

‘Pure SOLE’

He describes what occurred during the visit as a ‘pure SOLE’. “By this I mean one with an open question, not one restricted to a specific class, topic or theme,” he explains. “It was also ‘pure’ in the sense that the adults did not participate or even tour round the classroom. We try to keep our SOLEs pure – our questions, however, relate to the topic or theme that is currently being covered by the class and are usually done at the beginning or the end of a topic or unit of work.”

All classes involved in SOLEs at the school consist of around 30 pupils, and each class has eight or nine iPads between them. The children organise themselves into groups of about three or four, with the option to change groups at any time. During Sugata’s visit, the children also had a number of teaching staff observing them from a distance and nine external visitors from other schools, mainly headteachers.

“Having so many adults observing the children could potentially change the dynamic of the SOLE,” says John. “However, the children remained unfazed throughout. We have multiple visitors at Belleville and therefore the children are used to being observed. I introduced Sugata and told the children to imagine the observing adults were invisible, and in turn, the adults were not allowed to speak to the pupils during the hour.”


As usual in Sugata’s recent experiments in this field, an ‘assistant professor’ was chosen (following a mini election) to be the go-between if any problems arose. John explains that because they all voted, they were therefore happy to listen to him.

There were three different questions for each age group which ranged from: explaining how vaccinations prevent infection (Year 3); to putting themselves in the position of a consultant dealing with a 15-year-old with Cystic Fibrosis (Year 5); and a scenario that involves homeostasis, where the body temperatures of a team of wildlife experts are falling as they shelter in a cave (Year 4).

John says it took a matter of minutes before the Year 5s discovered there was no known cure for Cystic Fibrosis, but that antibiotics could be used to treat it. When it came to presenting, some groups focused heavily on the medical descriptions, while others went further, recommending that the consultant should encourage the boy to have a heart and lung transplant, but also stress that he would need to wait until this was available.

“Sugata told the Year 5s that they were able to answer an A-Level question nine years ahead of their time,” says John. “Needless to say our pupils were very proud of themselves.”

Broadening vocabulary

Initially, John thought the younger Year 4 pupils may need more time as their three-part question around homeostasis was arguably harder than the previous one. “Despite this, during the presentations every group managed to answer all three questions, explaining in detail what homeostasis is and giving examples of other physiological processes,” he says. “One group even mentioned the link between the physiological and the psychological, which Sugata found particularly impressive.”

Many of the youngest group (Year 3) took to Google images initially to discover how vaccinations are administered and soon went on to explain that a vaccination is ‘medicine you put in a syringe which is used to stop diseases and take germs away’.

After the Year 3 groups had presented, Sugata asked the children if they could summarise what they had learnt. One child said they did not know there was an ‘immune system’ but they had heard of the word ‘immune’. “It was evident that the children were also beginning to broaden their vocabulary as well as expanding their knowledge,” says John. “Following each SOLE, the observing staff and visitors were all in agreement that the children’s capability to tackle such advanced questions and reach the correct answer each time was extraordinary.”

Using the Internet in exams

Sugata also asked one of the classes to think about why they need to wait until secondary school or college to answer questions they have the scope to answer now. He told them to think about what could possibly happen nine years from now – would they be allowed to use the internet in their GCSE and A-Level exams? Sugata left the children to ponder by telling them: “You might be able to access the internet with a tablet, or maybe by then it’ll be your watch, or your glasses! That future is coming soon.”

After the SOLEs had finished, Sugata met with over 20 teachers to discuss the day. “This was incredibly valuable as the teachers had the opportunity to fire questions and in turn Sugata provided his insight, experiences and knowledge of his SOLE approach,” says John. “One teacher asked what to do if they were doing a SOLE and the children just couldn’t reach an answer, to which Sugata said that he would go back to the wording of the question, as that is probably where the fault lies.”

Sugata then left them with a quote from Einstein which he believes should be on the walls of every school:

“I don’t need to know everything;I just need to know where to find it, when I need it.”
– Einstein

The Granny Cloud on tour: first stop, London!

“The Granny Cloud could become to learning what Skype is to instantaneous video-conferencing.” – Prof Sugata Mitra

Anyone accidentally stumbling upon a gathering occurring just off Liverpool St in London last Saturday could have been forgiven for thinking they’d walked in on a reunion of old friends.

In fact, most of the people in that room – who had travelled from all over the UK and Europe to be there – had never actually met in ‘real life’, but had shared many hours together online, as part of the Granny Cloud*.

The Granny Gathering, organised by Liz Fewings, was a day filled with food, laughter and ideas and the chance to chat with Newcastle University’s Prof Sugata Mitra about the School in the Cloud and how the ‘grannies’ are a vital part of its future.

Technology – the most challenging part of making the School in the Cloud work on a daily basis – was even on our side as we managed to have an excellent Skype connection with Suneeta Kulkarni, research director for the School in the Cloud, who joined us for the entire session from India.

From hearing about learning hairdressing (with truly hair-raising results!) and construction via the Internet in further education from PhD student Cathy Ellis (who is researching the use of SOLEs in this environment), to how children in the USA and Ghana come up with the same answer to a Big Question, there was plenty to discuss.

For example, how YouTube is bringing about a revolution in how we acquire skills. Sugata was imagining a future where retired lawyers and plumbers could be called upon online and raised the question whether this could be a natural extension of the Granny Cloud.

“I often turn to the Internet as a last resort,” he said.“But for a generation now, it is the first thing they turn to. If we take the existing Granny Cloud, we have a lot of people who have lots of skills – should we just restrict ourselves to teaching children if we have these skills to share?”

As part of this, he asked the group for their opinions on helping out with Newcastle University’s PGCE programme to help young teachers understand how self-organised learning environments work. Those present were keen to explore this at a later date.

Sugata spoke about how SOLEs make something happen that we really can’t pin down quite yet as it’s very difficult to measure. “It’s the way they level out the playing field for children whose circumstances are very different and show huge differences in traditional comprehension tests,” he said.

He also shared many anecdotes with us all, such as the children’s response in the USA and Ghana to a question about why the Blue Whale is the biggest creature on the planet. They both came up with similar reasons, such as it having space to grow, but in the USA, one child added that it was a ‘bit like when the Irish came to Texas. They grew bigger because they had the space!’

It was also a time to reflect on how fragile a SOLE environment can be and how easily the learning dynamic can be affected by phrasing a question in a certain way or using a particular word. Sugata gave an example of how his intention was for the children to look into how homo sapiens evolved through learning to cook after showing them a TED talk on the subject but, because the facilitators of the session said ‘go ahead and research the brain’ rather than ‘I’ll leave you to research the topic’, the children simply researched the brain and missed the cooking point entirely.

There was talk about how the role of a ‘granny’ was very different in the UK’s School in the Clouds than those in India and how this was evolving – in some cases they are now helping with homework in the UK!

All the ‘grannies’ present had had issues with technolog and Sugata agreed that this, rather than the pedagogy, is the biggest challenge of the project. When problems occur, it’s worth remembering that in some of the more remote Indian locations, the connection is via a dongle about nine foot away precariously hanging out of a window at the mercy of a gust of wind or passing bird!

Another of Sugata’s ideas was to create more of a drop-in Granny Cloud rather than just structured sessions so children could search for an available granny online and then dial in for a quick chat. “Of course, you would not be able to have any lesson plan and would need to be able to react onthe spot – rather like if your doorbell rang and 15 children came in,” said Sugata. “It’s the digital equivalent of looking in the fridge to see what you’ve got to offer them! Key to this approach, he stressed, was not to overload existing ‘grannies’ but to boost the numbers available.

Jackie Barrow said she was concerned about how many people applied to be ‘grannies’ and then lost interest and there was a discussion about how this could be addressed. Steps are already being taken to follow-up in these instances, but there were ideas for a ‘digital staff room’ or similar space where people could drop in to ask for advice and support each other more.

Several of the people present admitted, even after years of being a ‘granny’, they still felt nervous each time and realised this could be a huge barrier for someone new to the project.medium_052b8623-edd2-4fa4-b75b-96172eeb8eb3

There was also a general consensus that, as in the tradition of Iyengar yoga, it was important to have knowledge passed down so there was an universal approach to being a SOLE ‘granny’, to help avoid it ‘splintering if it gets too big’ and losing sight of why the Granny Cloud exists in the first place. Those who had been part of the project for many years wanted to share how much they had learned from Suneeta’s wise words and direction during this time and how valuable it was to have her to guide them.

People also spent some time chatting about whether it was right that children could request a particular ‘granny’ and the possible repercussions of negative feedback. It was generally agreed, however, that it might be useful for some sort of constructive feedback mechanism to be put in place so ‘grannies’ could continuously tailor their sessions to better meet the needs of the children.

Liz Fewings also asked those present if they would be interested in setting up a charity to help raise funds for some of the SOLEs operating outside of the School in the Cloud (some of the ‘grannies’ have already successfully raised funds for equipment in several locations) and there was a general consensus that this would be worth following up. Do get in touch with Liz via this platform if you want to know more about this.

And, in the tradition of self-organised learning environments, we all picked up some new knowledge, such as how the Granny Cloud perfectly reflects the technology it uses. Skype works on a peer-to-peer basis so there is no centralised server. Instead, each small computer looks for another nearby to help out to pass it on, so one syllable of what we say could be handled by a computer in Hong Kong, the next in New Zealand and so on.

“It appears seamless and continuous,” explained Sugata.“This reflects the true nature of peer-to-peer in that lots of people with little money can collaborate and produce the same end result as a large corporation with a lot of money. At the moment there is no full-time person whose job is the Granny Cloud and that still makes me quite happy.”

However, he did raise the issue of whether there was a need for a more formalised approach in future: should we have a Granny Cloud Charter for example or trademark it? Big Questions to discuss at a later date….

*For those new to the project, the term Granny Cloud refers to the many e-mediators across the world who enable this project to work on a day-to-day basis.

Many people think you think you have to be an actual granny to take part, but this is far from true! We have both male and female volunteers of all ages in the Granny Cloud but what they all share is a universal ‘grandmother approach’ which perfectly complements the self-organised learning environment.

By providing unconditional encouragement and being appreciative of the children’s efforts, irrespective of whether or not they understand what they are trying to do, these ‘Grannies’ help to create an environment where children can thrive and grow in confidence.

The Granny Cloud was initially formed to provide educational support for children in remote, disadvantaged settings in rural and urban areas in India. The objective was that children would become confident and become more fluent in English, which would help their studies.

Today, it is also an integral part of The School in the Cloud project where the Grannies also help to set children off on their own adventures by providing ‘Big Questions’ to stimulate a child’s natural curiosity.