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.

Inspiring families to learn together

Like many before him, Steven Delpome was inspired to try SOLE after hearing Sugata Mitra talk.

“I was listening to him on the TED Radio Hour and got fascinated by the whole idea,” he explains. Up until then I was a believer like everyone else that you tell children to do things, they practice, learn it and move on. Then the test says ‘they passed’ so they’re good.”

At that point in our chat, Steven pauses to reflect on what he just said: “I’ve moved on so far since then – that sentence makes so little sense to me right now!” he laughs.

Later that year he started experimenting a little in class to see what the kids could do on their own. He didn’t rush into it though – he spent seven months researching SOLE before he took the leap. “I thought ‘let’s try it once and see how it goes’,” he says. So the 6th grade English teacher picked a question off the list of Big Questions  What is irony?

“I followed the pattern word for word and it was fairly brilliant,” Steven explains. He ran the SOLE on the Friday of a long weekend and on the following Tuesday, he pulled the kids aside for 1:1s to see what they remembered. The concept had stuck for almost all of them.

“What impressed me was that they didn’t all have the same answer – they were able to build their own understanding around it,” he says. For example, one girl had found a video online that showed the difference between surprise and irony which made it clear to her. It showed that if a person trips and drops a cake, that’s not irony, but if they’re wearing a medal that says ‘champion cake carrier’ then that is!

A lot of these children were what Steven refers to as “struggling”. They didn’t trust teachers, but in a SOLE were happy to be able to do things for themselves. “There was another kid with ADHD and he was all over the place, but he took in the idea that if you’re stranded on a desert island and you hit the plane with your flare gun that’s rescuing you, then that’s irony!” explains Steven.

Unfortunately, the principal of the school in New Jersey, USA was pretty traditional and didn’t like the idea of children being able to learn on their own, despite all the videos and notes Steven had gathered, and their relationship deteriorated. “I learnt that evidence doesn’t mean much in terms of trying to convince people of things,” laughs Steven.

“I was as hard-headed as he was to push things forward as he was to keep things traditional and it all went to pot,” he explains. When he became so depressed that he was crying in the car before work, he knew it was time to go.

So in June 2016 he quit his job to set up a non-profit organisation, SOLE at Home and has spent the last year developing his idea to bring SOLE into public libraries.

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He invested in some computers and a few other supplies to create the SOLE Hour. “I basically hustled,” Steven explains. “I went around the libraries saying ‘there’s this great programme, you’re gonna love it’. I didn’t know then it was true as I’d never done it!”

His lucky break came in Belleville when children’s librarian Michelle Malone took a chance on him. “She was very welcoming and open minded which was great as you’ve got to be ok with a little bit of chaos,” he says. “That was a pretty good selling point for her as she was open to that kind of learning.”

What really appealed to the libraries was that SOLE offered a new and different approach to learning STEM subjects, which is a big deal in the US (and elsewhere) right now.

Once he had Michelle onboard, more people were willing to try and he now works with over 20 libraries on a regular basis, running drop-in SOLE sessions around Big Questions.

He learnt by trial and error, running lots of SOLEs to discover how to do it better. It’s changed with the audience over time, as he gradually realised this was something people could easily do on their own, with a little guidance.

The ‘at home’ element of his organisation’s title is where he’s eventually aiming for. “The big idea is to go to people in their homes with a loose curriculum to help teach families about SOLE – say 10hrs or so in 1hr sessions – and bring a few families together with one computer and three or four kids to talk about a Big Question,” Steven explains.

By way of explanation, he shared with me a line from the radio interview with Sugata that really stuck with him – “Wouldn’t it be great if a family got together to look up about the Hadron Collider – that would be a pretty good night!”

Steven also took inspiration from a visit to SOLE NYC in Harlem where Natalia Arredondo was running a SOLE lab. “What she did on a limited dollar was amazing and the idea to use smart tvs was a genius move,” says Steven. “That moved me more in the direction of how it could be – to go into people’s homes and give the kids help with school, using curriculum-related Big Questions.

“There are plenty of families in cities across the US who are pretty impoverished and this is inexpensive and fairly accessible. They could work together to do for themselves what the schools can’t,” says Steven. “The aim is to let them know this is an option and it’s something you can use.”

He was recently introduced to a non-profit low-income housing project. The hope is to have a small community where 7-10 families meet once a week to take part in a programme which will help improve children’s reading skills. “I’m very hopeful for that to happen,” says Steven. “There’s a lot of people who live supported by non-profits, especially in cities, and it would be a great thing to bring those families together.”

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During his 16 years as a school teacher Steven realised there’s very little conceptual learning happening in schools. “The more I’ve come to understand from the little we know about the brain is that most of the population needs conceptual understanding for anything else to happen,” he says. 

His aim is to show families the kind of questions they could ask and a way to talk about it – teaching philosophies rather than the ‘how tos’ so they can develop it and use it themselves.

“It’s like a local version of online community where people can turn to each other for help and support instead of paying ridiculous fees for tutors or feeling completely strapped because they can’t pay for them,” explains Steven. “This is something they can handle on their own and that’s a real comfort.

“I’ve been sitting across from the table from those parents for years and you can see it in their eyes – they have so little control over what’s going on.”

He’s met a few doubters about the whole SOLE approach along the way and understands where that’s coming from. “Parents only want the best for their children and we’ve come to believe we know what learning looks like over many generations, whether that’s real or not,” Steven explains. “That’s why some people see SOLE as a ‘dangerous’ intervention. Our lives don’t allow us to sit back and think about what learning looked like for thousands of years of humanity before us.

“A lot of that is ego driven – the idea that we have more control than we think we do – and that’s the biggest obstacle to anything. People think they can control what children learn. But children have always had choice in what they learn – they may have decided not to listen to your lecture, instead memorising the number of goals Messi has from the last seven years, for example.”

Steven says to illustrate his point that if you walked in on one of his SOLEs about clouds in Closter, NJ recently you’d probably think there was a lot of running around and foolishness going on, but not much actual learning.

But in the end they seem to learn just as much – they were exploring how clouds stayed up in the air.  “The kids we consider foolish learned as much as the earnest ones in front of a computer,” he explains. “The hardest point is letting go of the control and that’s hard as we’re raised to believe that we can control what goes on in life.”

He’s come a long way from the teacher he was, sitting listening to a radio programme  in February 2013 that changed the course of his life. When he initially wrote to Sugata after the TED Radio Hour slot about his idea he was amazed to receive a reply. “He was so gracious and gave me really good feedback, passing me on to Suneeta (Kulkarni, who, along with a core team of other volunteers, manages the Granny Cloud).

“She gave me a good talking to, in the nicest way! At that point I was thinking of going down the private tutor line and she gently explained that this wasn’t really in keeping with the philosophy of what SOLE should be.

“That one email changed the direction of everything I thought this could be and should be. If I didn’t have that in my pocket I probably wouldn’t have quit and I’d still be at the school, still miserable. It was one of those pivotal points in life that you don’t realise at the time.”

To find out more about SOLE at Home and how you can support its work, visit www.soleathome.org