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.

Introducing: Khud

This blog was originally published on the Khud website on 6th June 2015; it is reproduced here with our thanks.

Khud is a small experiment hoping to make a big impact. Khud’s mission is to give underprivileged children in Pakistan (and maybe beyond?) a fighting chance.

The Pakistan education crisis has multiple insane dimensions. To boil it down quantitatively:

*25 million children do not go to school
*1.25 Million teachers are needed

Qualitatively the news is not good either. The children that are in school are not exactly getting a great education. The rote-learning based system does not prepare them to tackle the world in a truly productive way.

Khud is not going to reinvent the wheel. We plan to take insights from:

*Socrates and his method around letting students arrive at their own conclusions
*Maria Montessori and her approach that encouraged children to play and teach themselves
*Sugata Mitra and his approach around self organized learning

The plan is to start this experiment in a school on the outskirts of Lahore. Make mistakes, gather data, learn – be agile. Then scale.

Khud - map

Wish us luck. Share our story. Connect with us.

To keep up with the story, follow Khud on Twitter: @salahkhawaja

How do we remember and why do we forget?

Sugata Mitra, founder of School in the Cloud, posed an intriguing question on You Tube: How do we remember and why do we forget? His question was more than just a question. It was a Big Question, and it kicked off Skype in the Classroom’s Big Question Challenge in 2015 — an opportunity for select educators around the world to submit their own Big Question videos which students then answered by forming SOLEs.

Rebekah Davis, a teacher in North Carolina, says her students used self-organized learning to answer Sugata’s Big Question and “surprised themselves with how much they were able to learn in such a short amount of time.” Here’s some of their results:

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Elisa Farrell, a third grade teacher outside of Dallas, Texas says her students used SOLEs to answer Sugata’s question as well. “We’ve had research lessons before,” she says, “but seeing their approach to this question (being deliberately hands-off!) was a good eye-opener on future topics to cover.”

Some of those future topics Elisa mentions could be created by you, or your students!

There’s also further inspiration for Big Questions from Sage Franch:

Or this one from Mark Wood:

 

The Granny Cloud on tour: first stop, London!

“The Granny Cloud could become to learning what Skype is to instantaneous video-conferencing.” – Prof Sugata Mitra

Anyone accidentally stumbling upon a gathering occurring just off Liverpool St in London last Saturday could have been forgiven for thinking they’d walked in on a reunion of old friends.

In fact, most of the people in that room – who had travelled from all over the UK and Europe to be there – had never actually met in ‘real life’, but had shared many hours together online, as part of the Granny Cloud*.

The Granny Gathering, organised by Liz Fewings, was a day filled with food, laughter and ideas and the chance to chat with Newcastle University’s Prof Sugata Mitra about the School in the Cloud and how the ‘grannies’ are a vital part of its future.

Technology – the most challenging part of making the School in the Cloud work on a daily basis – was even on our side as we managed to have an excellent Skype connection with Suneeta Kulkarni, research director for the School in the Cloud, who joined us for the entire session from India.

From hearing about learning hairdressing (with truly hair-raising results!) and construction via the Internet in further education from PhD student Cathy Ellis (who is researching the use of SOLEs in this environment), to how children in the USA and Ghana come up with the same answer to a Big Question, there was plenty to discuss.

For example, how YouTube is bringing about a revolution in how we acquire skills. Sugata was imagining a future where retired lawyers and plumbers could be called upon online and raised the question whether this could be a natural extension of the Granny Cloud.

“I often turn to the Internet as a last resort,” he said.“But for a generation now, it is the first thing they turn to. If we take the existing Granny Cloud, we have a lot of people who have lots of skills – should we just restrict ourselves to teaching children if we have these skills to share?”

As part of this, he asked the group for their opinions on helping out with Newcastle University’s PGCE programme to help young teachers understand how self-organised learning environments work. Those present were keen to explore this at a later date.

Sugata spoke about how SOLEs make something happen that we really can’t pin down quite yet as it’s very difficult to measure. “It’s the way they level out the playing field for children whose circumstances are very different and show huge differences in traditional comprehension tests,” he said.

He also shared many anecdotes with us all, such as the children’s response in the USA and Ghana to a question about why the Blue Whale is the biggest creature on the planet. They both came up with similar reasons, such as it having space to grow, but in the USA, one child added that it was a ‘bit like when the Irish came to Texas. They grew bigger because they had the space!’

It was also a time to reflect on how fragile a SOLE environment can be and how easily the learning dynamic can be affected by phrasing a question in a certain way or using a particular word. Sugata gave an example of how his intention was for the children to look into how homo sapiens evolved through learning to cook after showing them a TED talk on the subject but, because the facilitators of the session said ‘go ahead and research the brain’ rather than ‘I’ll leave you to research the topic’, the children simply researched the brain and missed the cooking point entirely.

There was talk about how the role of a ‘granny’ was very different in the UK’s School in the Clouds than those in India and how this was evolving – in some cases they are now helping with homework in the UK!

All the ‘grannies’ present had had issues with technolog and Sugata agreed that this, rather than the pedagogy, is the biggest challenge of the project. When problems occur, it’s worth remembering that in some of the more remote Indian locations, the connection is via a dongle about nine foot away precariously hanging out of a window at the mercy of a gust of wind or passing bird!

Another of Sugata’s ideas was to create more of a drop-in Granny Cloud rather than just structured sessions so children could search for an available granny online and then dial in for a quick chat. “Of course, you would not be able to have any lesson plan and would need to be able to react onthe spot – rather like if your doorbell rang and 15 children came in,” said Sugata. “It’s the digital equivalent of looking in the fridge to see what you’ve got to offer them! Key to this approach, he stressed, was not to overload existing ‘grannies’ but to boost the numbers available.

Jackie Barrow said she was concerned about how many people applied to be ‘grannies’ and then lost interest and there was a discussion about how this could be addressed. Steps are already being taken to follow-up in these instances, but there were ideas for a ‘digital staff room’ or similar space where people could drop in to ask for advice and support each other more.

Several of the people present admitted, even after years of being a ‘granny’, they still felt nervous each time and realised this could be a huge barrier for someone new to the project.medium_052b8623-edd2-4fa4-b75b-96172eeb8eb3

There was also a general consensus that, as in the tradition of Iyengar yoga, it was important to have knowledge passed down so there was an universal approach to being a SOLE ‘granny’, to help avoid it ‘splintering if it gets too big’ and losing sight of why the Granny Cloud exists in the first place. Those who had been part of the project for many years wanted to share how much they had learned from Suneeta’s wise words and direction during this time and how valuable it was to have her to guide them.

People also spent some time chatting about whether it was right that children could request a particular ‘granny’ and the possible repercussions of negative feedback. It was generally agreed, however, that it might be useful for some sort of constructive feedback mechanism to be put in place so ‘grannies’ could continuously tailor their sessions to better meet the needs of the children.

Liz Fewings also asked those present if they would be interested in setting up a charity to help raise funds for some of the SOLEs operating outside of the School in the Cloud (some of the ‘grannies’ have already successfully raised funds for equipment in several locations) and there was a general consensus that this would be worth following up. Do get in touch with Liz via this platform if you want to know more about this.

And, in the tradition of self-organised learning environments, we all picked up some new knowledge, such as how the Granny Cloud perfectly reflects the technology it uses. Skype works on a peer-to-peer basis so there is no centralised server. Instead, each small computer looks for another nearby to help out to pass it on, so one syllable of what we say could be handled by a computer in Hong Kong, the next in New Zealand and so on.

“It appears seamless and continuous,” explained Sugata.“This reflects the true nature of peer-to-peer in that lots of people with little money can collaborate and produce the same end result as a large corporation with a lot of money. At the moment there is no full-time person whose job is the Granny Cloud and that still makes me quite happy.”

However, he did raise the issue of whether there was a need for a more formalised approach in future: should we have a Granny Cloud Charter for example or trademark it? Big Questions to discuss at a later date….

*For those new to the project, the term Granny Cloud refers to the many e-mediators across the world who enable this project to work on a day-to-day basis.

Many people think you think you have to be an actual granny to take part, but this is far from true! We have both male and female volunteers of all ages in the Granny Cloud but what they all share is a universal ‘grandmother approach’ which perfectly complements the self-organised learning environment.

By providing unconditional encouragement and being appreciative of the children’s efforts, irrespective of whether or not they understand what they are trying to do, these ‘Grannies’ help to create an environment where children can thrive and grow in confidence.

The Granny Cloud was initially formed to provide educational support for children in remote, disadvantaged settings in rural and urban areas in India. The objective was that children would become confident and become more fluent in English, which would help their studies.

Today, it is also an integral part of The School in the Cloud project where the Grannies also help to set children off on their own adventures by providing ‘Big Questions’ to stimulate a child’s natural curiosity.