Since the last time I spoke to SOLE México’s co-ordinator Oscar O’Farrill several years ago a lot has happened.
To be honest, I’d be surprised if great things hadn’t been achieved in the interim as it was obvious from Oscar’s passion and drive in the previous blog, that SOLE México was destined to make big waves in education.
For one, they’ve trained over 160 teachers. “It’s been exploding like crazy – it’s been amazing,” says Oscar. “There are now 11 people in the team where before it was only me! We’re now working in several states in Mexico and I’ve been able to see how SOLE works in public schools, elementary, high schools, teacher training – all over.”
SOLE México secured a state contract for training 100 teachers from extreme rural communities (including the middle of a jungle) and are now carrying out a follow-up programme where they visit each of the schools to help the teachers make SOLE an ongoing process.
Oscar says the importance of a follow-up to teacher training shouldn’t be under-estimated. “SOLE in theory is great, but to take it over a school cycle where many teachers want it focussed on their curriculum and expect regular evaluation, you have to design it around great Big Questions,” he explains.
“We’ve found that one session each week is not enough,” adds Oscar. “To me, SOLE is like Socratic Method 2.0 – basically going to the roots of the knowledge, sharing it and looking for it. Before they had only themselves and the teacher but now we have thousands of years of knowledge easily accessible through the Internet.”
From his experience, it can take several months to fully integrate SOLE as both students and teachers get used to a new way of learning. “You have to manage the change and watch over it because you cannot go from a totally controlled to an absolutely free environment overnight – mainly due to the teachers,” explains Oscar. “It’s a gradual process but I’ve seen that kids just do it – it’s natural for them and they feel more free. I always say teachers should not punish but make reflections on behaviour, acting more like a coach.”
SOLE México has a great team that goes into a private school to implement SOLE so teachers don’t need to, but that’s a lot of work, involving considerable human resources, so is not practical on a large scale. “I believe that if SOLE in Mexico wants to grow it has to be a social and economic project,” says Oscar. “Everybody who joins gets something out of it – the aim is to scale that up to make a nice social model, which is working so far.”
Later this month, they are running a three-day training programme for teachers that is 80% in person and 20 % virtual. “You cannot just put a regular teacher into a SOLE with no preparation or support,” says Oscar. “They will go crazy and the kids will be frustrated – it will be chaotic. You have to help them surf through the chaos. Once the
teacher has a rapport with each team and each kid then it works much better; you have to be comfortable in their environment and understand that you are just someone who structures it to allow learning to happen, rather than controlling it.”
By the same token, Oscar employs a simple, but effective technique to ensure that schools and teachers who cannot afford training are still granted access to SOLE. SOLE México charges private schools (which only make up 5-10% of schools in the country) in order to give away free places to public schools.
He also often finds it takes time to get the children to actually listen to each other and that’s when the facilitator role is so important. “I get teachers say to me ‘are there not going to be teachers anymore?’ but that’s not the case,” he says. “Their role is extremely important but they have to change the style and approach to the way they teach. It has to move from knowing everything and being an authority figure to a facilitator that doesn’t give information but tries to motivate, guide and enhance the learning in each group.” (this is from Sugata Mitra’s Minimally Invasive Education)
The SOLE approach includes appointing a ‘leader’ from among the students. “This is a really important role,” explains Oscar. “You want the teacher to give away their authority in order for a group to self organise – you have to empower the leader and make them really feel in charge. This is not just theory, it happens. The leader will take charge but you have to take special care as kids can be dictators! If that happens, as a facilitator you have to ease up the environment and make them realise a different kind of leader is required – one that is positive and encouraging – not a dictator!”
He also sees time and time again SOLE can level out the playing field for students, as each group goes at its own pace. “Some are fast to get to an answer so perhaps it’s not enough for them, but others with the same content take some time to get to it,” he says. “I’ve noted the different compounds of a SOLE: the power of knowledge in teams, the socialisation and how it involves planning, designing, communication, inter-social skills – everything really,” he says. “It’s like a mini society and it’s amazing to see how each team develops differently, even if they use the same resources to search for an answer.”
Oscar wants to make education more sociable and have a better understanding of digital and technological advantages as a tool rather than just a means. “We’re developing stuff that would have been unimaginable 30 years ago and I think we have to be careful about the ethics of all this,” he says. “The world needs this shift now – we need people able to work together for the sake of humanity and the planet. Society everywhere is really divided and broken and we have to do something about it. For me, one of the most important changes would be to make education more social.”
“Turning SOLE into a pedagogical strategy is helping to make that difference.”
He’s also working on a whole educational system with an elementary school in Mexico that combines SOLE, project based learning, emotional intelligence and artificial intelligence (AI). Out of this, he’s liaising with a company to build a software platform for AI within education. It’s a startup called Clever System whose goal is to create a low cost innovative school based on technology for the public and private sectors.
Oscar is currently out of the country, studying for a Masters in Cognitive Psychology at FLACSO (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences) in Buenos Aries, Argentina, where he won a full scholarship.
“I’m happy because I’m a guy that likes to achieve stuff and put my mind to it to find a way to make it happen,” he says. “Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t. Fortunately so far I’ve gained a lot, even by failing. There’s a lot of things that I want to do in my life and for the last four years SOLE has been one of them and it’s going good.”
On 17 October 2017 SOLE México will be taking part in BETT Latin America. Once he heard you could present using any format, Oscar decided, in true SOLE style, to do something a little bit different. He’s planning to have a global call during the 40 minute session, hopefully Skyping in Sugata Mitra and some key rural SOLE communities from around the world. If you’d like to be involved in this, let them know.