A philosophical approach to SOLE

For our latest blog post, we spoke to Sugata Mitra about his current experiment, which is bound to get people thinking! You can also listen to the interview in full.

Sugata: “When I think about children and values and beliefs I find most of the time these are actually impose – unlike, for example, a poem. You wouldn’t say to a child ‘you have to like this poem because it’s very famous’. You would say ‘do you think it’s a good poem?’

“In the English language we would say values are acquired. But I don’t see any acquisition going on here <in mainstream education>. I see imposition instead.

“When it comes to belief systems it can get even worse. A lot of our world’s troubles are because of belief systems. <But> if a belief system is editable then I think there’s not much wrong with it.

“In a way science is a belief system: people tell you there’s gravity and you might say ‘how do you know?’ and I would say: ‘here’s the experiments that show that gravity exists’, but then you are not going to do those experiments. You really have to just believe me, so it is a belief system but it is editable.

Children-led belief and value systems

“As time goes on our beliefs change and we say ‘they got it wrong and now we’ve got it right’. However, unfortunately there are other belief systems which our children grow up in which are not editable. They are usually written down 1,000s of years ago and they are in every culture. I’m a bit uneasy with books written several thousand years ago which are not editable and everything in them is supposed to be right. Therefore there is no question of asking any questions!

“So then I thought of an experiment. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue to do values and beliefs the way we do it now – all I’m trying to say is that can we just do an experiment to see is it possible for children to derive a value or a belief given the right kind of question?

“I’m working on those questions and obviously if children are working together to figure out the answer then that’s the heart of a SOLE, so it seems to be a natural fit. Can children who do SOLEs acquire a collective value by themselves which they kind of agree with and would it make any sense? Would they arrive at conclusions that we as adults of a particular culture or society would disagree with? If so, what would we do? Would we say ‘even if you believe the opposite you have to behave otherwise’?.

“These are all unknowns but I think that there is some merit at this point with Internet and SOLEs to look at this area of values and beliefs.

Philosophy for Children

“There is a subject called P4C (Philosophy for Children) which was started in Britain many years ago which I noticed hasn’t really done very well. I think I know why – it’s because it’s teacher-driven. Now if it’s physics or maths and teacher-driven then the teacher is just going to tell you the big findings and the big truths of these subjects.  But if it’s an area of belief and faith then different teachers are going to do different things. In fact, it might even be somewhat risky to do it, so perhaps that’s the reason P4C has been stumbling along.

“So, I was wondering if we could do a set of experiments with SOLEs and P4C and the acquisition of a collective value system by children. I know it sounds very ambitious but you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Sugata is currently carrying out these experiments with teachers in the Isle of Man, Argentina, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Inspiring families to learn together

Like many before him, Steven Delpome was inspired to try SOLE after hearing Sugata Mitra talk.

“I was listening to him on the TED Radio Hour and got fascinated by the whole idea,” he explains. Up until then I was a believer like everyone else that you tell children to do things, they practice, learn it and move on. Then the test says ‘they passed’ so they’re good.”

At that point in our chat, Steven pauses to reflect on what he just said: “I’ve moved on so far since then – that sentence makes so little sense to me right now!” he laughs.

Later that year he started experimenting a little in class to see what the kids could do on their own. He didn’t rush into it though – he spent seven months researching SOLE before he took the leap. “I thought ‘let’s try it once and see how it goes’,” he says. So the 6th grade English teacher picked a question off the list of Big Questions  What is irony?

“I followed the pattern word for word and it was fairly brilliant,” Steven explains. He ran the SOLE on the Friday of a long weekend and on the following Tuesday, he pulled the kids aside for 1:1s to see what they remembered. The concept had stuck for almost all of them.

“What impressed me was that they didn’t all have the same answer – they were able to build their own understanding around it,” he says. For example, one girl had found a video online that showed the difference between surprise and irony which made it clear to her. It showed that if a person trips and drops a cake, that’s not irony, but if they’re wearing a medal that says ‘champion cake carrier’ then that is!

A lot of these children were what Steven refers to as “struggling”. They didn’t trust teachers, but in a SOLE were happy to be able to do things for themselves. “There was another kid with ADHD and he was all over the place, but he took in the idea that if you’re stranded on a desert island and you hit the plane with your flare gun that’s rescuing you, then that’s irony!” explains Steven.

Unfortunately, the principal of the school in New Jersey, USA was pretty traditional and didn’t like the idea of children being able to learn on their own, despite all the videos and notes Steven had gathered, and their relationship deteriorated. “I learnt that evidence doesn’t mean much in terms of trying to convince people of things,” laughs Steven.

“I was as hard-headed as he was to push things forward as he was to keep things traditional and it all went to pot,” he explains. When he became so depressed that he was crying in the car before work, he knew it was time to go.

So in June 2016 he quit his job to set up a non-profit organisation, SOLE at Home and has spent the last year developing his idea to bring SOLE into public libraries.

child writing
He invested in some computers and a few other supplies to create the SOLE Hour. “I basically hustled,” Steven explains. “I went around the libraries saying ‘there’s this great programme, you’re gonna love it’. I didn’t know then it was true as I’d never done it!”

His lucky break came in Belleville when children’s librarian Michelle Malone took a chance on him. “She was very welcoming and open minded which was great as you’ve got to be ok with a little bit of chaos,” he says. “That was a pretty good selling point for her as she was open to that kind of learning.”

What really appealed to the libraries was that SOLE offered a new and different approach to learning STEM subjects, which is a big deal in the US (and elsewhere) right now.

Once he had Michelle onboard, more people were willing to try and he now works with over 20 libraries on a regular basis, running drop-in SOLE sessions around Big Questions.

He learnt by trial and error, running lots of SOLEs to discover how to do it better. It’s changed with the audience over time, as he gradually realised this was something people could easily do on their own, with a little guidance.

The ‘at home’ element of his organisation’s title is where he’s eventually aiming for. “The big idea is to go to people in their homes with a loose curriculum to help teach families about SOLE – say 10hrs or so in 1hr sessions – and bring a few families together with one computer and three or four kids to talk about a Big Question,” Steven explains.

By way of explanation, he shared with me a line from the radio interview with Sugata that really stuck with him – “Wouldn’t it be great if a family got together to look up about the Hadron Collider – that would be a pretty good night!”

Steven also took inspiration from a visit to SOLE NYC in Harlem where Natalia Arredondo was running a SOLE lab. “What she did on a limited dollar was amazing and the idea to use smart tvs was a genius move,” says Steven. “That moved me more in the direction of how it could be – to go into people’s homes and give the kids help with school, using curriculum-related Big Questions.

“There are plenty of families in cities across the US who are pretty impoverished and this is inexpensive and fairly accessible. They could work together to do for themselves what the schools can’t,” says Steven. “The aim is to let them know this is an option and it’s something you can use.”

He was recently introduced to a non-profit low-income housing project. The hope is to have a small community where 7-10 families meet once a week to take part in a programme which will help improve children’s reading skills. “I’m very hopeful for that to happen,” says Steven. “There’s a lot of people who live supported by non-profits, especially in cities, and it would be a great thing to bring those families together.”

During his 16 years as a school teacher Steven realised there’s very little conceptual learning happening in schools. “The more I’ve come to understand from the little we know about the brain is that most of the population needs conceptual understanding for anything else to happen,” he says. 

His aim is to show families the kind of questions they could ask and a way to talk about it – teaching philosophies rather than the ‘how tos’ so they can develop it and use it themselves.

“It’s like a local version of online community where people can turn to each other for help and support instead of paying ridiculous fees for tutors or feeling completely strapped because they can’t pay for them,” explains Steven. “This is something they can handle on their own and that’s a real comfort.

“I’ve been sitting across from the table from those parents for years and you can see it in their eyes – they have so little control over what’s going on.”

He’s met a few doubters about the whole SOLE approach along the way and understands where that’s coming from. “Parents only want the best for their children and we’ve come to believe we know what learning looks like over many generations, whether that’s real or not,” Steven explains. “That’s why some people see SOLE as a ‘dangerous’ intervention. Our lives don’t allow us to sit back and think about what learning looked like for thousands of years of humanity before us.

“A lot of that is ego driven – the idea that we have more control than we think we do – and that’s the biggest obstacle to anything. People think they can control what children learn. But children have always had choice in what they learn – they may have decided not to listen to your lecture, instead memorising the number of goals Messi has from the last seven years, for example.”

Steven says to illustrate his point that if you walked in on one of his SOLEs about clouds in Closter, NJ recently you’d probably think there was a lot of running around and foolishness going on, but not much actual learning.

But in the end they seem to learn just as much – they were exploring how clouds stayed up in the air.  “The kids we consider foolish learned as much as the earnest ones in front of a computer,” he explains. “The hardest point is letting go of the control and that’s hard as we’re raised to believe that we can control what goes on in life.”

He’s come a long way from the teacher he was, sitting listening to a radio programme  in February 2013 that changed the course of his life. When he initially wrote to Sugata after the TED Radio Hour slot about his idea he was amazed to receive a reply. “He was so gracious and gave me really good feedback, passing me on to Suneeta (Kulkarni, who, along with a core team of other volunteers, manages the Granny Cloud).

“She gave me a good talking to, in the nicest way! At that point I was thinking of going down the private tutor line and she gently explained that this wasn’t really in keeping with the philosophy of what SOLE should be.

“That one email changed the direction of everything I thought this could be and should be. If I didn’t have that in my pocket I probably wouldn’t have quit and I’d still be at the school, still miserable. It was one of those pivotal points in life that you don’t realise at the time.”

To find out more about SOLE at Home and how you can support its work, visit www.soleathome.org

SOLE = Socratic Method 2.0

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.

21st Century Classroom

Can SOLE offer a solution to the 21st century classroom or is it still in search of pedagogy?

SOLE Cleveland goes from strength to strength

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…

To learn more about Jeff’s work visit SOLE_CLE on Facebook and Twitter.