How powerful ‘fantastic and curious learning’ really is

2015 was a year of unexpected opportunities, amazing connections and wonderful learning experiences for the SOLE lab in Room 13.

Located in Greenfield Arts in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, UK, it is one of the original seven TED Prize labs and recently celebrated its second birthday.

Co-ordinator Katy Milne marked the occasion in style by joining the Granny Cloud and other educators for the India tour in February 2016.

“One of the most powerful and rewarding things for me is the understanding the Engine Heads (the committee of students who run Room 13) have developed and the language they have found to express and reflect upon how they learn,” says Katy. “They have flourished in a learning environment that has allowed that to happen.

“It is so powerful as they make meaning for themselves and know how to apply their capabilities to any situation. They are also amazing advocates for SOLE and I’m looking forward to extending this further and providing even more opportunities for more learners.”

To celebrate Room 13’s 2nd birthday artists Nicola Golightly and Laura Degnan were commissioned to make the short film and a Little Book of Big Questions, with the first copy being handed to Sugata to mark his birthday which is coincidentally just a day before Room 13’s!

In the past year, Room 13 has:

  • Hosted educators from across the UK, India,The Netherlands, Belgium, France, New Zealand
  • Skyped with Grannies, Suneeta (Dr Kulkarni)in India and new friends across the country
  • Asked Big Questions about the moon, dancing, clouds, the Internet, ourselves,each other, the Victorians and how rivers work, among others
  • Shared experiences with teachers and students and organised SOLE sessions forprimary and secondary schools from across the country
  • Spoken at conferences in the UK and Europe, including the Great North Greatsconference in Newcastle last October, part of the Great North Run Culture Programme.

“We have pondered and puzzled, questioned and wondered, searched and explored, talked and debated and been challenged and had our curiosity stimulated,” adds Katy. “And the best thing is there is so much more to come.”


A testing time for students

How do you tell one quantum particle from another? No, it’s not a bad joke, it’s a question posed to the Engine Heads at Greenfield Community College.

Seventeen-year-old Harry Crawley was shadowing Sugata Mitra for a day to find out more about SOLEs. He’s currently studying maths, further maths, physics and Spanish and his questions certainly had this group of 14-year-olds scratching their heads.

The scientific challenges he devised were based on A level questions normally tackled by students four years older.

“They found it quite difficult as it was quite a bizarre experience, unlike anything they normally do in a SOLE,” says Katy Milne, Director of Arts and Creativity. “They were given the Big Questions to explore SOLE-style in groups but had to answer it on their own as if they were taking an exam.”

It was all part of Sugata’s plan to illustrate how the examination system could be changed to better suit the needs of students and their future employers. He argues that the current exams do little other than test their ability to retain facts, which fails to prepare them adequately for today’s workplaces.


Visiting journalist Joseph Lee from the TES, a weekly UK publication aimed primarily at school teachers in the UK, sat in on the Greenfield SOLE. He wrote a feature for the TES earlier this month about Sugata’s research which showed that eight-year-olds could answer exam questions seven years ahead of their age group if they worked together using the Internet.

Pupils from nearby Byerley Park Primary School have also been taking part in SOLEs in Greenfield’s Room 13 several times a term since January. Katy has noticed that regular sessions with these 10-year-olds have already resulted in some interesting developments. “Their answers have become much deeper over time,” she explains.

For example, Katy said that at the last SOLE session their Big Question was about why the Victorians were such good inventors. “Not only did they find out what type of inventions they discovered, but also how this related to the conditions at the time and why they were needed,” she said. “This led onto what inventions the children thought we needed today to overcome the world’s problems. I’ve not seen them engage with a SOLE session to that level before and this seems to suggest that regular exposure to this way of learning can have a lasting effect.”

Sugata is now testing whether students at Greenfield can answer degree-level questions to discover just how far he can stretch their ability to answer complex questions. This research is the beginning of a study to come up with an alternative method of assessment that could eventually replace the current exam system.

He suggests that if the exam system included different types of questions then learning could encourage the kind of deeper thinking which can sometimes be limited with a more knowledge-led curriculum.

About Room 13

Room 13, which opened in February 2014, is one of the labs opened as part of the TED Prize. It is a creative space for independent learning by students and the wider community, as well as part of Sugata’s ongoing research.

Designed to be very different to a normal classroom, it has an ‘outdoor feel’ — complete with artificial grass and rabbits — and quirky seating to make it an attractive and social space to spend time in.

It is run by a group of students called The Engine Heads, who are responsible for driving things forward in the SOLE and helping to share knowledge about how Room 13 can be used to experience a new way of learning.

Greenfield Arts works together with Greenfield Community College in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, UK and students there have been part of Sugata’s research for several years.

Sally Rix: Greenfield TED Prize Lab update

Just before school broke up for the summer I visited the TED Prize lab at Greenfield Community College in County Durham. Their SOLE room – also known as Room 13 – opened in February of this year and I was curious to know how the children had found the first 5 months or so of their SOLE experience.

I was greeted by an absolutely delightful group of students, all of whom have had the opportunity to use the room quite regularly since it opened. I found their thoughts on the subject fascinating so I thought I’d share a selection of them here…

I’m curious about the room itself (it’s really beautiful!); I have done SOLEs in a traditional classroom setting and I wanted to know whether the students thought it was important to have a specific environment dedicated to the process.

It turns out they think it’s really important: “It’s more calming, more child-friendly” and “It’s better in the room, it’s more exciting.” Although there were questions too “But could it distract you? Like some people just want to mess around with the bunnies.”

When asked about whether the room would maintain its appeal over time they were honest about the novelty effect, “It depends how it’s kept, it needs updating every 6 months or something, then people won’t lose interest.”

One of the things that greatly impressed me was their sophisticated understanding of the concept of self-organised learning. When asked how the room was different to the rest of school they explained that,

“It’s independent. No teachers telling you what to do. You do it in your own way.”
“You’re given an objective and you get into groups. You can change groups. You do the research in the time given to find an answer.”
“It’s not the question and our answers that’s the point, it’s how we go about it and get our independent knowledge.”

A question about how students behave in the room resulted in an interesting exchange which further detailed their understanding:

“There are two groups of people, people who abuse the trust and people who embrace it and think about the task and about what’s possible.”
“Some people feel like they should mess about, messing about is learnt behaviour and if this room can teach people to change that behaviour, that’s great.”
“Certain people can’t change though, they’ve been acting how they’re acting so long that they can’t be different.”
“You login on a teacher’s account so there’s no Firewall. So some people told me they spend the lesson on Facebook or Twitter.”
“They should monitor what people do during the sessions.”
“No, they shouldn’t! That defeats the point of self-organising.”
“Let people go on Facebook if they want to, maybe they will get it out of their system and then they might not do it any more. It’s more exciting if it’s not allowed so say it’s ok and they might not.”

Next the teacher asked them which other areas of school were most like Room 13 and I was really interested to see that the places they listed were some of their ‘favourite’ spaces and all tended to be linked to creativity:

“The dance studio.” “Art.” “The Astroturf.” “The bottom of the field surrounded by trees.”

The students then turned this conversation into a discussion about the future of learning:

“This is an opportunity to start a different kind of education about how people can lead fulfilled lives and be good citizens. Room 13 is the next step to making that.”
“The worst thing about education is that we’re told where we have to be and how we have to be all the time. There are things we need for our brains but also things we need as human beings, if we learn all of these we could be the most evolved humans ever.”

Clearly the extracts here have been selected and interpreted by me; I have endeavoured to be as balanced as possible but the disclaimer is still appropriate!

I would particularly like to thank the teacher who managed the session and the students themselves for their incredibly thoughtful and articulate responses, it was an absolute pleasure to be allowed to listen in. If you would like to learn more about what has been happening in Room 13, please check out their blog at