Can children learn without going to school?
Should students have more power to choose their own work at school?
How will students learn in 2026?
Can SOLE offer a solution to the 21st century classroom or is it still in search of pedagogy?
If you didn’t have to go to school, what would you learn?
What will schools look like in 100 years?
A few weeks ago Jeff McClellan helped facilitate what he describes as a ‘monster SOLE’ – 260 people self-organising to answer the same question at the same time. In fact, this happened twice in one day when 520 adults from 27 branches of Cleveland Public Library came together to reflect on how to engage people in using the library in different ways. The energy and the enthusiasm of the people taking part that day were clearly inspiring.
This ‘monster SOLE’ is what McClellan talks about when asked for a highlight from his SOLE experiences, but it’s clear he’s struggling to choose just one memorable moment from the last 6 months. He could just as easily have described his delight at the fact that schools in the Cleveland Region had performed over 1,000 SOLEs by the end of May (a whole month earlier than they were aiming for).
Or he could have talked about what it’s like to experience a Friday afternoon at Oak Leadership Institute when every single student – from Kindergarten through to Grade 8 – takes part in a SOLE at the same time, with different questions for each class based around one central theme.
Or his excitement about the number of collaborations he has been involved in, such as with Dr Gina Weisblat at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, who decided to incorporate SOLE into her teaching of community healthcare workers, health professions affinity community (HPAC) afterschool programs across the state of Ohio, in their AmeriCorps program. Or the fact that John Carroll University now uses SOLE as part of its Non-profit Master Degree Program by integrating it into the Masters Course in Quantitative Statistics and Non-profit skills for Cultural Competency.
Or the success of some training he ran at the end of a busy school week of testing, when he was asked to talk to a roomful of tired teachers about the non-cognitive factors influencing student success. He decided to run the session as a SOLE and was rewarded with a re-energised staff body: when they presented their findings at the end there were teachers rapping and doing skits – it’s hard to believe a formal lecture would have inspired such enthusiasm!
I could go on, but you get the point: the introduction of SOLE across the Cleveland Region has been pretty phenomenal both in terms of how many teachers have given SOLE a try and also in terms of how many members of the community have wanted to get involved.
The really incredible thing is that there is no requirement for teachers to try SOLE, it is not a top-down policy, McClellan simply introduced the concept and then waited for people to come and ask him about it. Which they did. Lots of them. He suggests that there are two reasons why it’s being so widely used: it’s so easy to implement and it’s incredibly engaging for students, and he speaks with evident pride about the way that he has seen regular SOLE use beginning to change the learning identity of students from passive consumers to learners who are actively creating their own opportunities.
The 1,000 SOLE mark was a key mile stone for Cleveland, but from here McClellan intends to look beyond how many SOLEs are happening to focus on supporting its implementation on a bigger scale. He is entirely approachable when it comes to offering advice or guidance on SOLE – encouraging anyone with questions to contact him – but he wants to move beyond that to empower others. He hopes the next step will be to create a support network where teachers and districts who are trying to support others in implementing SOLE have the resources to do so.
Given the success of SOLE Cleveland so far, it will surely only be a matter of time…
It’s all very well Sugata going into schools, shaking things up and then leaving the teachers to it, but what’s it like from a headteacher’s point of view?
Headteacher John Grove shares his thoughts after Sugata visited his school, Belleville Primary School in Clapham, London, to carry out SOLEs (self organised learning environments) with Years 3, 4 and 5 (seven to 10-year-olds).
“The SOLEs that took place were not quite like the ones we’re used to,” he says. “Sugata wanted to try something a little different and see if the children could answer higher level questions from Science A-Level and GCSE exam papers by working in SOLEs. He had recently conducted the same experiment in Jakarta and Gateshead and we were excited to see how the children at Belleville would fare.”
John says to begin with the children were a little uncertain about their ability to answer an A-Level or GCSE question. However, once Sugata asked the class if they thought they could come up with an answer if they were able to use the internet in groups, they felt a lot more confident!
He describes what occurred during the visit as a ‘pure SOLE’. “By this I mean one with an open question, not one restricted to a specific class, topic or theme,” he explains. “It was also ‘pure’ in the sense that the adults did not participate or even tour round the classroom. We try to keep our SOLEs pure – our questions, however, relate to the topic or theme that is currently being covered by the class and are usually done at the beginning or the end of a topic or unit of work.”
All classes involved in SOLEs at the school consist of around 30 pupils, and each class has eight or nine iPads between them. The children organise themselves into groups of about three or four, with the option to change groups at any time. During Sugata’s visit, the children also had a number of teaching staff observing them from a distance and nine external visitors from other schools, mainly headteachers.
“Having so many adults observing the children could potentially change the dynamic of the SOLE,” says John. “However, the children remained unfazed throughout. We have multiple visitors at Belleville and therefore the children are used to being observed. I introduced Sugata and told the children to imagine the observing adults were invisible, and in turn, the adults were not allowed to speak to the pupils during the hour.”
As usual in Sugata’s recent experiments in this field, an ‘assistant professor’ was chosen (following a mini election) to be the go-between if any problems arose. John explains that because they all voted, they were therefore happy to listen to him.
There were three different questions for each age group which ranged from: explaining how vaccinations prevent infection (Year 3); to putting themselves in the position of a consultant dealing with a 15-year-old with Cystic Fibrosis (Year 5); and a scenario that involves homeostasis, where the body temperatures of a team of wildlife experts are falling as they shelter in a cave (Year 4).
John says it took a matter of minutes before the Year 5s discovered there was no known cure for Cystic Fibrosis, but that antibiotics could be used to treat it. When it came to presenting, some groups focused heavily on the medical descriptions, while others went further, recommending that the consultant should encourage the boy to have a heart and lung transplant, but also stress that he would need to wait until this was available.
“Sugata told the Year 5s that they were able to answer an A-Level question nine years ahead of their time,” says John. “Needless to say our pupils were very proud of themselves.”
Initially, John thought the younger Year 4 pupils may need more time as their three-part question around homeostasis was arguably harder than the previous one. “Despite this, during the presentations every group managed to answer all three questions, explaining in detail what homeostasis is and giving examples of other physiological processes,” he says. “One group even mentioned the link between the physiological and the psychological, which Sugata found particularly impressive.”
Many of the youngest group (Year 3) took to Google images initially to discover how vaccinations are administered and soon went on to explain that a vaccination is ‘medicine you put in a syringe which is used to stop diseases and take germs away’.
After the Year 3 groups had presented, Sugata asked the children if they could summarise what they had learnt. One child said they did not know there was an ‘immune system’ but they had heard of the word ‘immune’. “It was evident that the children were also beginning to broaden their vocabulary as well as expanding their knowledge,” says John. “Following each SOLE, the observing staff and visitors were all in agreement that the children’s capability to tackle such advanced questions and reach the correct answer each time was extraordinary.”
Using the Internet in exams
Sugata also asked one of the classes to think about why they need to wait until secondary school or college to answer questions they have the scope to answer now. He told them to think about what could possibly happen nine years from now – would they be allowed to use the internet in their GCSE and A-Level exams? Sugata left the children to ponder by telling them: “You might be able to access the internet with a tablet, or maybe by then it’ll be your watch, or your glasses! That future is coming soon.”
After the SOLEs had finished, Sugata met with over 20 teachers to discuss the day. “This was incredibly valuable as the teachers had the opportunity to fire questions and in turn Sugata provided his insight, experiences and knowledge of his SOLE approach,” says John. “One teacher asked what to do if they were doing a SOLE and the children just couldn’t reach an answer, to which Sugata said that he would go back to the wording of the question, as that is probably where the fault lies.”
Sugata then left them with a quote from Einstein which he believes should be on the walls of every school:
“I don’t need to know everything;I just need to know where to find it, when I need it.”