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.

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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.