A philosophical approach to SOLE

For our latest blog post, we spoke to Sugata Mitra about his current experiment, which is bound to get people thinking! You can also listen to the interview in full.

Sugata: “When I think about children and values and beliefs I find most of the time these are actually impose – unlike, for example, a poem. You wouldn’t say to a child ‘you have to like this poem because it’s very famous’. You would say ‘do you think it’s a good poem?’

“In the English language we would say values are acquired. But I don’t see any acquisition going on here <in mainstream education>. I see imposition instead.

“When it comes to belief systems it can get even worse. A lot of our world’s troubles are because of belief systems. <But> if a belief system is editable then I think there’s not much wrong with it.

“In a way science is a belief system: people tell you there’s gravity and you might say ‘how do you know?’ and I would say: ‘here’s the experiments that show that gravity exists’, but then you are not going to do those experiments. You really have to just believe me, so it is a belief system but it is editable.

Children-led belief and value systems

“As time goes on our beliefs change and we say ‘they got it wrong and now we’ve got it right’. However, unfortunately there are other belief systems which our children grow up in which are not editable. They are usually written down 1,000s of years ago and they are in every culture. I’m a bit uneasy with books written several thousand years ago which are not editable and everything in them is supposed to be right. Therefore there is no question of asking any questions!

“So then I thought of an experiment. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue to do values and beliefs the way we do it now – all I’m trying to say is that can we just do an experiment to see is it possible for children to derive a value or a belief given the right kind of question?

“I’m working on those questions and obviously if children are working together to figure out the answer then that’s the heart of a SOLE, so it seems to be a natural fit. Can children who do SOLEs acquire a collective value by themselves which they kind of agree with and would it make any sense? Would they arrive at conclusions that we as adults of a particular culture or society would disagree with? If so, what would we do? Would we say ‘even if you believe the opposite you have to behave otherwise’?.

“These are all unknowns but I think that there is some merit at this point with Internet and SOLEs to look at this area of values and beliefs.

Philosophy for Children

“There is a subject called P4C (Philosophy for Children) which was started in Britain many years ago which I noticed hasn’t really done very well. I think I know why – it’s because it’s teacher-driven. Now if it’s physics or maths and teacher-driven then the teacher is just going to tell you the big findings and the big truths of these subjects.  But if it’s an area of belief and faith then different teachers are going to do different things. In fact, it might even be somewhat risky to do it, so perhaps that’s the reason P4C has been stumbling along.

“So, I was wondering if we could do a set of experiments with SOLEs and P4C and the acquisition of a collective value system by children. I know it sounds very ambitious but you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Sugata is currently carrying out these experiments with teachers in the Isle of Man, Argentina, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra is Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University.

His “Hole in the Wall” experiments, begun in 1999, revealed that groups of children can learn almost anything by themselves given Internet access and the ability to work collaboratively. He developed this original idea into the SOLE [the Self Organised Learning Environment] approach, reaching out to children with minimal or no educational opportunities, in remote corners of the globe.

He has driven research into making this approach part of mainstream education. At TED2013, Sugata Mitra made a bold TED Prize wish: to revolutionize the future of learning. The School in the Cloud is making this possible with self-organised learning and Sugata’s methodologies at its heart.

Whilst Sugata has home bases in Newcastle, UK and West Bengal, India, his ideas are having an impact world-wide.

SOLE Central

 

SOLE Central is the home of the School in the Cloud. It is a global hub for research into self-organised learning environments (SOLEs), bringing together researchers, practitioners, policy makers and entrepreneurs. Professor Sugata Mitra’s work has already transformed lives in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world and our aim is to build on these strong foundations.

This interdisciplinary research centre is led by Newcastle University’s School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences and involves academics from across the University.

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.

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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.

First TED Prize lab has global reach

It hardly seems two years ago that George Stephenson High School opened the doors of the first School in the Cloud lab in the world. Head of Design and Art Amy-Leigh Hope, who was there from the beginning, shares some of her highlights below. You can also watch a new video of Amy in action in a SOLE session, filmed as part of Jerry Rothwell’s upcoming documentary The School in the Cloud.

Some of Amy’s highlights since the opening:

Interacting with other schools – UK and across the world

“I have been lucky enough to meet and work with many amazing people, from Newcastle University to schools in America, Australia and beyond,” says Amy. “We have Skyped into a SOLE session alongside schools in New Jersey, had visitors from Australia and shared many ideas, resources and experiences.”

One of her favourite sessions was linking up with a local middle school to take part in a joint science SOLE with Year 7 children around the Big Question ‘Can science solve world hunger?’. “Being pestered by the children for more lessons like this afterwards was a very proud moment.”

Seeing the room grow and develop

Amy says the room has gone from strength to strength since it opened – so much so that it’s now difficult to get in for a session as it’s often fully booked! “I know I am lucky to work in a school where teachers and senior management totally embrace SOLE,” says Amy. “Working alongside such a dynamic team has developed my own practice and created a buzz in the school among both staff and students.”

Skyping into India

Last year Amy’s Year 7 class Skyped into Phaltan SOLE lab in India, with School in the Cloud Research Director Dr Suneeta Kulkarni on hand to help translate. “It was fantastic for our children both to see their world view expand but also have it made to feel that little bit smaller by connecting with this group so far away,” says Amy. The children, who were all roughly the same age, chatted about cricket, football and chicken! “It was wonderful to finally see the children I have heard about and imagined across the other side of the world.”

Sugata taking part in SOLE sessions and teacher training

The school has strong links with Newcastle University and takes part in regular events and visits. Sugata has led several SOLE sessions and staff training across the teaching schools, which include local primary schools. “It is amazing to have this support,” says Amy. “It develops your love of learning even further and helps us realise how SOLE can continue to develop and inspire children.”

Inspiring me to push myself

“On a personal note as a class teacher, SOLE has inspired me to push myself to develop and let children lead the way – after all it is all about them,” says Amy. “I feel I have improved and developed as a teacher over the years I have been involved with SOLE. I believe it has improved my relationships and created enjoyment and excitement in lessons. Just sitting back and watching learning happen creates an understanding as a practitioner that you too can learn so much.”

The lab at George Stephenson High School is located in Killingworth, North Tyneside, Tyne and Wear, UK and was opened on 22 November 2013.

European researchers are ‘rethinking education’

SOLES are all about empowering children to take control of their own learning. Now researchers are hoping it can also work for young people at risk of dropping out of education altogether.

Early school leaving (ESL) is linked to unemployment, social exclusion, and poverty. While there are many reasons why young people decide to give up on education and training, such as family issues or learning difficulties, many simply become disengaged.

And as there is no single reason for early school leaving, there are also no easy answers. However, EUROSOLE, a new European-wide research project being led by Newcastle University’s SOLE Central, aims to come up with some workable solutions over the next three years.

Researchers will be exploring how a new approach to the problem – where young people rather than educators take a leading role in their education – can help foster a lifelong love of learning. It will build on the idea of ‘traditional’ SOLEs, where the emphasis is on stimulating curiosity and engagement in learning within a social and collaborative atmosphere.

“Many young people leave school early because they feel disengaged,” explains Dr Anne Preston, of Newcastle University’s SOLE Central, who is leading the project. “We know that a lack of active involvement in their own learning plays a key role in the high percentage of early school leavers in Europe. But if you change the balance of control between teachers and students you can alter these dynamics and come up with effective preventative measures to tackle the issue.”

One of the main aims of the project is to create four sustainable alternative SOLE spaces in Newcastle (UK), North Tyneside (UK), Dublin (Ireland) and Lahti (Finland) to test this alternative approach. These spaces will draw on the partners’ diverse but complementary approaches to education which straddles formal, non and in-formal learning.

“Young people’s engagement with what they are learning is central to how they learn,” says Dr Preston. “The SOLE approach is similar to personalised and student-led learning but its difference lies in its focus on creating a social, intellectual and academic space for learning to take place rather than prescribing specific teaching methods.

“Our challenge is to bring about a change in the role of the teacher from transmitter of knowledge to facilitator of learning, enabling us to literally ‘rethink education’ in the process.”

The project will also look at the quality and relevance of students’ skills and competences and how the SOLE approach can promote the kind of 21st century skills that will empower young people long after they leave school. One of the outcomes will be a set of handbooks for educators to help them facilitate a SOLE that will engage this particular audience, along with a guide to learning for change.

Recent reports into early school leaving (ESL) across Europe have highlighted an urgent need to better understand this issue and develop targeted, effective prevention and reduction measures.

European countries have committed to reducing the average share of early school leavers to less than 10% by 2020. It currently varies across Europe from 3.9% in Slovenia to 23.6% in Spain with an average of 12% Europe-wide (Eurostat 2013).

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SOLE Central, the global research hub into SOLE research and practice which Sugata heads up at Newcastle University, is leading this three-year project together with the University’s Open Lab and University of Dublin Trinity College (Ireland); Lahti University of Applied Sciences (Finland); Success4All CIC(UK); George Stephenson High School SOLE Lab (UK); and cvo Toekomstonderwijs ‘School of the Future’(Belgium).

EUROSOLE: Promoting Young People’s Transition Pathways Through Engagement in European Self-Organised Learning Spaces is funded through a grant of €391K from Erasmus+and will run until September 2018.

*Early school leavers are defined as 18-24-year-olds with at most lower secondary level education who have not progressed to any further education or training.