Mutual Understanding

How can we create a mutual understanding and respect amongst different civilisations so that war and terrorism become less likely?

Time Travel

If you could travel into the future and our education system was “the best it can be”, what would that look like? What would that feel like? How would your life as a student be different from today?

As if by magic

Some people think what happens in a SOLE is a little bit magic; they might well be right. But if you happen to drop by the Chandrakona lab lately, magic is exactly what you’ll see.

When faced with a science question they couldn’t answer these Indian children did what comes naturally to them: look to the Internet for help.

A small group of boys turned to YouTube to teach themselves about chemical reaction and science so they could learn magic tricks to perform for their ‘Grannies’ over Skype.

And as their next session approached, they gathered the materials they needed to take to the lab: one water bottle, a rubber balloon, a funnel, a little baking powder and some vinegar and water.

Firstly, they filled a quarter of the bottle with water. Then they put some baking powder into the balloon using the funnel. After they had put the funnel onto the water bottle and mixed the vinegar in the water, they were ready. “Now we will show the magic,” they said. “The magic is the balloon will blow up automatically.”

The boys then fitted the balloon onto the mouth of the bottle, causing the baking soda in the balloon to fall down into it, mixing with the water and vinegar. The balloon then automatically blows up, as predicted!

“All who were at the lab including the kids clapped when they saw the magic,” says co-ordinator Joydev Goswami. “They were very much excited because their first experiment which they had learned from YouTube was successful. They told the Granny that they had wanted to work out how to blow a balloon without air pressure.”

Those present were really impressed not only by the tricks, but by the level of understanding shown by the children about what they were doing. For example, one was able to explain that when ‘the candle goes out the oxygen runs out’ during one particular experiment.

Chandrakona has had its fair share of challenges over the past year, as is the case with all of our remote locations. Lizards laying their eggs in the CPUs is just one downside of building a lab here! It is also extremely hot for a substantial part of the year, so the introduction of an air conditioning system last summer brought with it welcome relief for both the co-ordinators and the children.

There have been some cultural issues to iron out as well: the appointment of a young local man as co-ordinator did not go down well with some of the parents of the young girls. They were concerned about them being on their own in the lab with a young man, so a compromise was sought where he now has a wonderful assistant co-ordinator, Sumita, an older lady from the nearby village.

Everyone was relieved to find an agreeable solution, as in a short space of time Joydev has become an integral and enthusiastic member of the team. We look forward to hearing more about how Joydev and these budding scientists get on in the future!

Chandrakona is in Kiageria Village, District Paschim, West Bengal, about 170km from Kolkata. It was established in March 2014 as one of the TED Prize labs. There are nearly 2,000 people living nearby, with approx 800 of those children under 16. Children come to the lab from nearby villages, either on foot or by bicycle. Agriculture is the main industry – largely rice and potatoes. Previously, the children had heard about computers but had never used them. In schools, Bengali is the medium of instruction while English is taught as a subject.

Inspiring future community leaders through SOLE

You’d imagine trying to get 1,000 high school students engaged in the same activity at the same time would be challenge enough. But not for Jeff McCellan: he decided to add a little extra chaos to the mix by making it a SOLE (self organised learning environment) as well.

Jeff has been using SOLE in classrooms across the Cleveland region for over a year. When one of his funders said they were interested in exploring this pedagogical approach to engage large numbers of students around issues that matter in the community, he thought big.

So they set about the task of gathering 1,000 students from Cleveland and North East Ohio to focus on just one question: What is in your heart and mind about the ownership of power in your community? This question goes right to the heart of a community still reeling from a recent incident where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot in a park by police in Cleveland.

In March 2016, 45 different schools came from 15 different districts, along with about 20 community members, including representatives from the mayor’s office, and took over an entire building on the Cuyahoga Community College Metro Campus.


After gathering everyone together in a lecture theatre and an auditorium to set the scene, they broke out into 37 different rooms where SOLEs happened simultaneously around the Big Question. The biggest room had 40 students; the smallest 20, so as you can imagine it was pretty lively! There was one SOLE facilitator in each room, as well as a high school student acting as a support facilitator.

“We were interested in hearing what students thought about where power lies within their communities,” explains Jeff. “One of the aims was to give them a question that would be open enough to give them the freedom to do that – we didn’t want to focus on a particular concern or point to a solution for them.

“There was no protocol forced on them to do anything and that’s the beauty of SOLE – it’s such an open process,” he adds. “You just take something that’s interesting to you and run with it.”

Jeff tried out a few different questions in classrooms beforehand with both children and adults before deciding on the final one.

There were huge variations in the students’ answers, which are currently being collated. Some showed a really creative approach to tackling the question by performing songs or poems to illustrate their research findings.


Dr James Stanfield, lecturer at SOLE Central, Newcastle University, UK was visiting SOLE Cleveland last week. “It was awesome! I was really impressed by the scale of the event and the enthusiasm the students showed for SOLE,” he says.  James is now working with SOLE Cleveland to develop a number of joint research proposals that will help to build upon the great work being carried out here.

One of the key strengths of bringing so many students from diverse backgrounds together in a SOLE in this way was to give them the chance to hear other people’s views. “It’s one thing tackling a question like this in your classroom with everyone from the same neighbourhood but a very different experience if you’re all mixed in together with one kid from a very rural area sitting next to someone from the biggest urban centre in our state,” says Jeff. “People’s perspectives vary greatly, and that’s what makes for interesting discussions.

“We wanted to set the bar high for these kids so they want to be more involved in their communities. Hopefully, it will inspire some of those students to take a more active role.”

Some of the teachers and students had already done SOLEs in their schools, others had never even heard of it before. “Imagine walking into a building where in every classroom you looked in, there was a SOLE going on! It was so much fun,” says Jeff. “It was amazing and I’m really happy with how it went – we’re now planning a whole series of them. There’s a lot of great questions out there that we need to engage kids around.”


SOLE Cleveland partnered with the Northeast Ohio Medical University’s (NEOMED) Health Professions Affinity Community (HPAC), supported by AmeriCorps, to reach students from extremely remote rural communities to the most urban places in Ohio. Staff helped to reach out to these schools and facilitate the SOLEs and will now work on evaluating the impact on the students and community.

SOLE Argentina

SOLE Argentina aims to promote the SOLE methodology so that it becomes a well-known pedagogical theory which is shared, implemented and experienced by Argentine teachers on a regular basis. We aim to promote and advance 21st Century skills amongst primary and secondary students and teachers and enable them to fully participate and succeed in an interconnected global society. Our ultimate goal is to design and implement a set of educational policies based on the main tenets of the SOLE approach. To accomplish our vision, we have built a network of public-private partnerships with education professionals, NGOs, government and civil society agents.

As well as working in close cooperation with SOLE Central, we are setting up a research hub in Buenos Aires, Argentina through IITA (Institute of Research and Technology and Learning), a University of Buenos Aires agency.

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.”


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.

Africa’s got SOLE

If you’d told Joe Jamison a year ago that instead of standing in front of his students as usual this term he’d be sitting on a dusty floor in an African village drinking from a fresh coconut, he probably would’ve laughed you out of his classroom.

But that’s exactly where he found himself this September, as part of his new role as pedagogy innovation specialist for Pencils of Promise (PoP). I spoke to Joe just before he went for the blog and his story touched so many people that I caught with him again to find out how it went.

“It was such a good trip but it’s almost too hard to put words around it,” says Joe. “I try to paint a picture to explain it to people and just can’t do it justice. Before I went, people working in international education told me what to expect and I couldn’t get my head around it and now that I know for myself, I’m having difficulty getting other people to understand what it’s like!”

Joe’s focus is on educational programs but when he saw the situation first hand in Ghana, he realised he had to take a few steps backwards. “I saw the structures they were using to teach in and realised I was looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in practice: just after physiological needs is to feel safe, so before learning is even a thought for these children we’ve got to step back and look at the basics first,” he says.

School facilities in Ghana are often pretty rudimentary: it’s not unusual for children to have their lessons under the shade of a mango tree with a chalkboard pinned to it. Joe tells me how PoP is doing a tremendous job by building safe, sustainable structures for students to learn in, with 56 schools currently operating in Ghana alone. However, many existing classrooms are often basic open structures consisting of just desks and chairs. Some are even potentially dangerous, constructed out of recycled, jagged metal.

Joe says despite these challenges, he was ‘astounded’ by the dedication shown by the teachers. “No matter where you are in the world a good teacher is a good teacher,” he says. “It’s all about building relationships and working with people and the teachers I met in Ghana are some of the best I’ve ever come across. They are fantastic and always want to learn more – they just lack the resources to do it. All we can do is give them the best training and resources we can to make their jobs easier.”

And he found this dedication also extended to the children. He had the opportunity to visit some of PoP’s ongoing builds and at one location he recalls how the junior high school currently operates under a tree with village life carrying on all around. “You couldn’t distract them if you tried,” he explains. “It was an eye-opening experience – they were so focussed on a chalkboard nailed to a tree. Every time I’m in a US classroom there’s probably about 25% of them that simply don’t want to be there, but all of these kids want to learn so bad.”

While in Africa Joe carried out teacher training for four teachers and one head teacher on how to run a SOLE session, most of whom had some knowledge of this approach but were lacking the pedagogical reasoning behind it. Rather than give them a traditional presentation, he decided on a whim to run a SOLE about SOLE instead.

“We were all a little apprehensive about it to start with and they were slow to start but once they got the ball rolling and understood what it was about, they were completely into it,” he says. Even the PoP staff – and this was new to some of them too – got involved as well.

“I wasn’t trying to be authoritative; I was asking questions and trying to learn from them as much as they were from me,” explains Joe. “There was suddenly a definite sense of everyone being in it together and then it really took off – the conversations we had are far more dynamic and in-depth than any I’ve ever had with teachers before. It was unbelievable how willing they were to put themselves out there and really get into the spirit of it. It made me so happy – I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Joe says when the members of the group presented and asked questions of each other, they had no difficulty being critical. “This surprised me a lot as I thought they would be more reserved,” he says. “Everyone just opened up and you could actually feel the spirit in the room of learning just happening.”

The Big Question Joe gave the group was: How can SOLE change the way students learn in school? and they had to pretend to be students during the session, which helped give them a better sense of their role as a teacher within a SOLE. Now those Ghanaian teachers are developing their own Big Questions based on their curriculum.

He told me how he had about 12 PowerPoint slides on the benefits of SOLE but only used a handful when there was something they hadn’t touched on. “They had grasped 90% of it and I just filled in the gaps with what the questions should look like and more about the teacher’s role,” he explains.


Michael Dougherty, CEO of Pencils of Promise, in a SOLE with teachers.

As SOLEs are constantly evolving, some educators are putting their own spin on the traditional style to ‘make it their own’ as their confidence grows. Joe is one such person and he explains to me where he differs from Sugata’s approach.

“Where Sugata likes to step back, I like to get in there and talk to every group and see where they are,” he explains. “I’ll pepper them with more questions such as ‘is this relevant?’ and ‘where can you go next with this?’ with the aim of gently pointing them in the right direction. They still have the freedom to go off and explore on their own, but I definitely help guide them.

“As a teacher I’m not doing this in a lab, I’m doing it in a classroom and it’s the same in Ghana. I’m accountable for these kids – they still have exams and set tests to work towards and they have to show improvement. If I can get SOLE into this at the same time that’s great but I’m not going to let them down.

“I want to help them be the best they can and by guiding the process a little I feel I’m doing that. I’m not telling them what to do (as that would undermine the whole SOLE process) – I just point them in the right direction.”

Joe says he learnt a lot from Sugata on how to consolidate student’s responses into a meaningful ‘summing up’ of the SOLE session when he came to visit his classroom for part of the Work Wonders Project and this also helped him enormously during his time in Africa.

One of his lasting impressions of Ghana was the warm reception he received after he touched down in Ghana’s capital Accra for his first-ever trip outside of North America. “Everyone was so great and welcomed me with open arms,” he says. “It felt like I’d known these people for years when in reality I’d only had a couple of conversations over audio Skype and email beforehand.”

Joe will return to Ghana in the Spring to see how the SOLEs are progressing. Alongside their existing literacy tests, PoP will also be carrying out retention testing in January on the same topic with two groups of 10 to 12-year-old students from both the 5th (Year 6:UK) and 6th (Year 7) grades. While one group from each will be taught using traditional methods, the other will be taught using SOLEs and how much they remember of the lessons will be tested four and 10 weeks later.

And as for Joe, it’s obvious he’s still enjoying his new role.

“This is what I’m supposed to be doing. Right here, right now. Not many people can say that.”
– Joe Jamison

One small step for a frog, but a giant leap for Cambodia

Have you heard the story about the frog in the well? Well, for Chantha Poeng this Khmer proverb perfectly illustrates why School in the Cloud is so important for Cambodia.

The Frog in the Well (Kong Keb Knong Ondong) knows nothing of great oceans and has a very narrow view of the world. He is king of all he sees and never jumps out; the well is ‘good enough’ for him.

“I want these children to stop being that frog – to get out and experience what life is like elsewhere,” explains Chantha. “This is a chance to experiment, to know and learn new things and have a conversation with the outside world.”

Chantha is the teacher at the School in the Cloud just outside Battambang. It’s the first time we’ve ‘virtually’ met and yet we spend a lot of our time laughing on Skype like we’ve known each other for years. It’s easy to see why the children are so keen to learn with her.

But she has a serious side too: she challenges the young people who come through these doors, encouraging them to be more than they ever thought possible. This approach is a sharp contrast to the country’s traditional, authoritative teaching methods which focus on teachers giving the answers and students learning by rote.

The School in the Cloud, which is run through the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), is based in a fantastic recycled classroom which includes glass bottle walls and painted tyres and is designed to inspire children to think differently about their education.


Just two weeks ago the Granny Cloud started to ‘beam’ into Cambodia for the first time, bringing much excitement and confusion along with it. Chantha tells me how the children ran to the wall, desperately searching behind the big projector to find where the granny was hiding, as they had never seen anything like it.

For the children who know a little English, they are able to talk with the grannies about the subjects they study at school and what they do in their free time, but for many others, it’s still very hard for them to communicate, although they all love a good sing song!

There are about 10 children at a time in the School in the Cloud, ranging from nine to 16-years-old. They choose their own topics and Chantha sets a Big Question.

When they first join, the children are asked what they want to be when they grow up and who their role models are. This question will be asked again at a later date to see if there are any changes. “Many say they want to be a teacher because that’s all they can think of, but we want to expand their aspirations through the School in the Cloud,” explains Chantha. “This is a new way of learning and we want to encourage them to explore it.”

To begin with, many of the children constantly turn to Chantha for help, but gradually they find their own way as she tries not to tell them much at all about the Big Questions they are tackling. “Suddenly, they say to me ‘teacher, I can do it without you!’ and I say ‘yes, you are doing it – now do you believe you can do it without me?!’” she says. “They are starting to understand it a lot better.”

Attempting a new way of learning is difficult for most people, but many of these children are from nearby slums where good quality education is hard to access. However, Chantha has already seen them start to change their minds. “They are moving from passive to active learning,” she explains. “They thought they could only learn from one computer per person but now realise that’s not true and are getting better and better at working in groups.”

The children are now talking to each other, collaborating, starting to build relationships and changing their behaviour. Where before they fought to solve a problem, now they are more likely to communicate instead.

“This is such an inspiring project – it is a first for me and for this country and I’m excited to be part of bringing about a whole style of learning, not just for Cambodia, but for the whole world,” says Chantha.

The Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) is a secular non-profit NGO helping children to break free from the cycle of poverty to become educated, ethical and empowered future leaders of Cambodia.