SOLE translates into a better future for Mexico

My grasp of the Spanish language is limited to ‘hola’ and a few rusty phrases leftover from travelling many years ago, so it was a bit of a shock to suddenly find myself in the middle of a Spanish-speaking classroom. 

‘How would you like to join a SOLE in a few minutes?’ SOLE México co-ordinator Oscar O’Farrill typed on Skype as we were about to start the interview.

I was prepared for asking the questions, rather than being on the other side, but when you work with self organised learning environments you have go with the flow from time to time! Naturally, it was complete chaos, but the smiling, excited faces made it clear from the outset how much SOLE means to these children.

Oscar has been running SOLEs since 2013, initially in a community centre in Tres Marías, Morelos, and for nearly a year in a public school in San Luis Potosi, a small rural community about four hours from México City. Despite many ongoing challenges, SOLE México is going from strength to strength, with exciting plans on the horizon.

Oscar, whose eclectic career includes working in human resources for Coca-Cola and representing his country in ice hockey as a teenager and later as a rugby player, is at the heart of plans to expand SOLE across the country.

A back injury cut his sporting career short and he turned to coaching instead, but always had an interest in psychology, which he went on to study at degree level. “I’ve always been amazed about learning processes,” says Oscar. “Every day I think ‘how does learning happen and how can I make it better?’. My mind is 100% thinking about how the mind works. It’s my passion and I want to find out more.”

For Oscar, SOLE brings together all the factors of coaching, team work and psychology that are important to him. “There’s amazing potential for SOLE in México and thanks to technology finally coming into classrooms, we can reach the furthest places in México where it is most needed,” he says. “What I love most about SOLE is how almost anything can become a Big Question – you really don’t need much to start.”

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Oscar says it takes several months before the children are accustomed to working in a SOLE environment but then they pick up valuable skills in leadership, team working and presentations at a rapid pace. “It takes some time to ‘unlearn’ the traditional approach to start learning in a SOLE,” he explains.

Oscar has also has been ‘granny’ for many sessions. “The Granny Cloud is an amazing way to collaborate in this worldwide effort to redesign education, but as the blog said ‘being a granny is not that easy’,” says Oscar. He added that despite the obvious language barrier, he has seen how non-English speaking children and a non-Spanish speaking granny can communicate. “It may take some time but with patience, joyfulness and motivation, it can surely happen,” he says. “Of course, it is really helpful if you’re a bilingual granny, but that’s certainly not essential!”

Oscar’s team has persevered with getting local schools on board, despite initial reservations. “We’ve visited many schools to give demos and everybody likes it but I can see the fear in their eyes,” he explains. “It seems that some of them are not ready to experience it. But some of them agree it’s a waste of time to continue learning the way we have for hundreds of years.

“How will this be of use to children in the real world in 10 years’ time? Children need to be able to develop personal skills and be able to search for answers, work in teams, have critical thinking, global networking, communication skills, be creative and, of course, know how and why to use technology. These are abilities and values that children need to be better in the future.”

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However, Oscar concedes he also has to take a pragmatic approach. “Traditional teaching methods are difficult to get rid of, so there will be those who are just not ready to have something like this yet, but they’ll get there sooner or later,” he says.

One of the recurring questions he gets from school principals and teachers is ‘How does a SOLE evaluate progress?’ As a result, SOLE México is carrying out research and experiments into this issue with the help of the pedagogy department at Universidad Iberoamericana, led by Dr Cimenna Chao.

“Everyone around the world has the same question – ‘how do we evaluate this?’” says Oscar. “I know I’m not that experienced and nobody knows exactly the right way to do it at the moment – that’s why we’re still carrying out research. But I think each country should be prepared to customise its own SOLE learning process to make it work.”

As private schools in Mexico are reluctant to provide funds, SOLE México is now perfecting the design of a sustainable model to ensure that SOLEs can reach even the poorest public schools.

One such school is the one I ‘beamed’ into, where Veronica Ojeda is constantly looking for new methods and ways to help the children improve. She was the only teacher who came forward after Sugata’s visit to México willing to take a risk with SOLE, so Oscar has been working with her ever since to make it happen.

To put the cost of education into context, there are several different levels of private schooling, ranging from 5,000 to 13,000 pesos a month. An average basic government salary in Mexico is between 5-7,000 pesos a month. A teacher working in a public school earns just 65-70 pesos a day.

So what’s next for SOLE México? Oscar and his team, as you probably won’t be surprised to hear, have big plans. There are now five partners in the team, with expertise covering everything from entrepreneurship to educational technology and psychology, and they already have 38 investors interested in supporting their project through crowd equity funding. They are also about to link up with a start-up dedicated to bringing low-cost internet to remote rural communities in Mexico.

Soon, SOLE México will also start working with a NGO as part of its citizenship programme to bring SOLEs into Mayan communities, where Spanish is their second language. They’re aiming to have 10 SOLEs running as part of that project from January and hopefully open a SOLE centre next year.

We’ll let you know how they get on via social media – you can also follow them on Facebook.

Main photo credit: Blanca Parra

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.