Why can you hear sound around corners but not see around corners?
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.
Sugata recently appeared on BBC World Service’s The Forum programme to talk about SOLEs and his idea for school exams in the future. We thought you might like to hear some of what was discussed on this blog.
“It’s important to understand the sense in which I use the word ‘self organising system’,” says Sugata. “It’s not organisation of the self. I find increasingly that people mix it up with self-regulated or self-directed learning and that’s not what I’m talking about.
“A self organising system is basically a concept that comes out of maths and physics which is that if you allow a system to be chaotic then, under certain circumstances, you get spontaneous order.
“I think I’ve seen that happen with children quite accidentally; initially I had not a clue that was what was happening. Yet over the last 15 years, in instance after instance, I’ve seen groups of children who simply don’t know any English confronted with the internet in English and making sense of what they see.”
Sugata also talked to BBC host Bridget Kendall about how hole-in-the-wall developed into School in the Cloud in a way that would not have been possible before the Internet, and how it has changed the way children learn.
“When a group reads together they somehow read at much higher levels of comprehension than an individual child,” he explains. “This was not something I’d seen before. The limitations of reading in print means you can’t easily read the same book at the same time in a group, but you can on screen.
“We’ve seen instant amplification of comprehension – as soon as one stumbles, another one steps in to help, creating this spontaneous order.”
Sugata says that this instantaneous feedback from peers, not teachers, taps into the universal idea of emergent order out of a chaotic situation.
His 60 second idea to pitch to the presenter and fellow participants Sir Ken Robinson and Professor Scott Klemmer was for the internet to be allowed into exams.
He argued that schools need to be able to assess children’s ability to live in the world today, not the Victorian age. “For probably the first time in their lives they have to enter an exam room and demonstrate that they can live without the Internet. Why?”
Sugata went on to point out that if the internet was allowed into exams, this would cause the whole education system to change to better reflect the world we live in.
“If you need to know something you can now know it instantly– today’s children have not seen another world,” says Sugata. “The standardised education system of putting facts into their brains and then examining to see if has been retained doesn’t mean anything to them. ‘Why do I have to know how to multiply by hand with pen and pencil?’ they ask me.”
This special Forum edition Cloud Education: The Future of Learning was about the big challenges facing education today and how we ensure everyone can learn to the best of their ability. It explored these questions and more with future learning, educational and creative leader Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK and Scott Klemmer, Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science and Engineering, University of California, USA.
Listen to the full programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02qm95w