It takes a village to raise a SOLE

SOLE NYC in Harlem has got its work cut out. Simply introducing the concept of self organised learning is a challenge in most schools, but at John B. Russwurm PS 197M they are also using it to engage particularly hard-to-reach students.

“I didn’t want to do this in a school where everyone was doing ok – I wanted to do it here because I knew it could make a real difference,” says Natalia Arredondo, who is the driving force behind SOLE NYC and is overseeing the research into reading comprehension, social skills and how young students navigate Big Questions.

Professor Sugata Mitra officially opened SOLE NYC on 14 October 2015 as the first dedicated American SOLE research lab. It joins five other labs in India and two in the UK that have all been created as part of his 2013 TED Prize wish to build a School in the Cloud.

New York’s schools are the most segregated in the whole of the USA, with students divided not only by race, but also by socio-economic status. SOLE NYC is in a high poverty and low income area, where most families live on well under $25,000 a year.

Jungle adventure

Most of PS 197M’s students come from less well-off African American families, along with those from Hispanic and Asian backgrounds. “Some kids have difficult home lives,” explains Natalia. “This can have a knock-on effect on behavioural issues and make it difficult for them to engage in class.”

Natalia sees her role as SOLE lab co-ordinator as also part counsellor, trying to talk to the students to see what’s going on and offer a bit of stability in their lives.

This SOLE lab, which is being funded through Newcastle University’s SOLE Central, will cater from Pre K (three to four-year-olds) up to 5th grade (12-13-year-olds) and will be run by a committee made up of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders.

The design the students decided upon that best reflected their idea of ‘adventure’ for the SOLE lab was a jungle, complete with an animal mural with clouds, monkeys and butterflies hanging down from the ceiling.

Classes cycle through the SOLE lab during the day, so that everyone gets a chance to be involved.

“I feel very lucky that everything has come together in such an amazing way,” says Natalia, who is one of Prof Sugata Mitra’s PhD students at Newcastle University and is currently living in New York. “I’ve been bowled over by the help the school has provided – custodians, teachers, construction workers and parents have all come together to help, often after school hours. They’ve made it their own project. It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child, but in Harlem it’s taken a village to build this SOLE lab.

“I’m confident about what will happen with the students but what I’m curious about is the teachers, as very few are into inquiry-based learning and it’s very much the opposite of traditional teaching.

 Whether the teachers embrace it or not is crucial and I think this is where the work will need to be done.”

Students take to SOLE surprisingly quickly

Natalia had already carried out several SOLEs in the school beforehand to get the students used to the idea of working in this way and was surprised how quickly they took to it. They have now been involved in 100s more.

PS 197M is a focus school, meaning it has failed to pass state examinations several years running and so becomes the district’s focus, with more support and visits from the superintendent’s office as a result.

Natalia carried out a lot of research and demonstrated in all types of schools in the area before deciding to locate it in Harlem. “Natasha (Spann, the school principal) has a passion for education – she just loves it but is in a difficult spot,” Natalia says. “I wasn’t sure if she’d go for this, as it’s a gamble, but in the end I just put it to her, stepped back, and did as Sugata would, sitting back and just letting it happen.”

How to make a jam sandwich, SOLE style

If the average adult sat down to work out how to teach basic coding, they probably wouldn’t naturally think of a jam sandwich.

But that’s exactly what this SOLE group of home schoolers did with their presentation to computer science teachers.

Anna the (real life) robot was given a set of instructions to follow to make the sandwich, which may have resulted in a lot of mess, but certainly got the message across about how to teach the subject far more effectively than a textbook.

Jacqueline Emkes, an e-Learning consultant and part-time maths teacher, runs SOLEs for home educated children at Biddenham International School and Sports College in Bedfordshire, UK.

They have been running since 2013, supported by the college and the local authority’s PLACE programme for children who are not in school but on the Elective Home Education (EHE) Register.

One of the biggest challenges Jacq faces is the diverse age range of her group – from eight to 12-years-old – which means she is often diverted from her original lesson plan. There are usually around 15-20 children, but the numbers fluctuate as families come and go.

“Inevitably ‘normal’ behaviour rules go out the window,” says Jacq. “Children are soon found scrolling the internet lying on the floor, under a desk, on top of a desk, perched on a table. Anything goes – it’s all learning! The children can move around freely, help other groups and indeed swap groups.”
Jacq’s SOLE makes good use of the safe social learning platform Makewaves where they can upload their work to create movies, pictures and stories to share with the group.

They are also encouraged to critique each other’s work (in a positive and helpful way, naturally!) and even family members and the college’s principal have been adding their own comments to help improve student’s work.


Highlighting just how spontaneous learning in a SOLE can be, one of their research topics which began with Roman toilets ended in a village in the Philippines. It led to the group finding out about Toilet Twinning, which helps to bring clean water and safe sanitation to the world’s poorest people by linking your toilet with one in Africa or Asia. They went on to hold a fundraising event for the charity which the children organised themselves.

“In all the chaos and buzz of a SOLE session parents sometimes wonder what on earth the children have learnt,” says Jacq. “It’s worth explaining that it’s a whole lot more than the answers to the BIG Questions: for example, it’s about working in a multi-age, multi-skilled group; resolving heated debate; and choosing an effective presentation tool.

“Our investigations are not limited by time pressures – the children can work it out until they are satisfied they understand. The ability to set ground rules, negotiate with each other and become socially adept are valuable skills. My input is largely technical as in passwords for iPads and logins for PCs – the children run the sessions themselves.”

Jacqueline says she understands why some parents can be sceptical as SOLE is a pretty abstract concept to grasp a lot of the time. However, she shared a short story with me which she feels helps sums it up:

“I was chatting with a parent and her eight-year-old son about SOLE and all our ideas and plans,” explains Jacq. “When asked ‘what do the children actually learn?’ I looked over at the boy and asked if he could explain something he had learnt, such as what in this room is influenced by Fibonnaci?

“‘Fib who?’ said the mum (and who could blame her?) ‘Well…’ said her son, ‘you see all those art pictures on the wall of this room? Well, the artists did not understand Fibonnaci’s numbers, that it should be a 1 or 2 or 3 or 5 (and so on). Those flowers have 4 petals painted on them so they are not true life, they are not nature’s numbers. That artist did not know about the golden ratio – it’s a ‘dud’.’

“The boy then went onto explain how he would redesign the reception hall as the windows were not quite right. The walls however, were fine apparently!”


Jacq says that over the past two years she’s learnt that key to a successful SOLE is creating an environment in which it can work properly.

“This includes minimal intervention by adults, which is hard for many teachers to accept or understand,” she explains. “It is moving away from ‘teaching’ in the customary sense towards allowing groups of children to self organise, then learning emerges on its own.”