SOLE? It’s like learning a new language

SOLE is increasingly being used in many different settings, including some where it might not seem a natural fit, such as Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).

Traditionally an area which relies on individual learning or teacher-led in a classroom, it was little surprise that Prof Sugata Mitra caused a bit of a stir when he gave a keynote speech about learning needing to be far more self-organised at an IATEFL conference.

But this was actually the catalyst for a pilot study carried out between SOLE Central and International House in London to look at the potential for using SOLE to help adults learn English as a foreign language.

Although this was only a small study, early findings suggest that while SOLE is not suitable for teaching higher level grammar, it can be effective in terms of language fluency and confidence, especially with less able students. One particular student whose command of English was notably lower than the rest seemed to flourish in this environment. After just four weeks, he was able to stand up in front of the class and give a three minute presentation without any difficulty.


Eighteen multilingual students with an average age of 24-years-old from various different countries – including Japan, Colombia and France – took part in daily one hour-long SOLE sessions over a four week period in 2015. The sessions were run by three International House teachers who had between six months and eight years’ teaching experience.

They followed the usual Big Question format where the teacher sets the question then the students are given 40 minutes to work in small self-organised groups to come up with the answer, following up with a short presentation of their findings.

To make it feel less like a traditional classroom, the furniture was rearranged and softer, more comfortable seating was added, with tea, coffee and biscuits on hand. Students had access to mobile phones, an interactive whiteboard and four laptops, along with poster paper and pens.

The usual method of the teacher leaving the room was used, although some students found this unsettling. When the teacher did remain in the room, this effected the group dynamics, making the students ‘not as lively’ as normal.

Students completed comprehension tests in week one and four, and there was little change between their scores, apart from the student mentioned earlier, whose mark increased from seven to 24. “This might suggest that using the SOLE approach in this way could be more effective with those students who are starting from a much lower point, but obviously we need to explore this further with a much bigger sample size,” says Newcastle University’s Dr James Stanfield, who jointly led the study.

A mixture of Big Questions were used, with some related to language learning, and the most engaged session resulted from one about the cause of the financial crisis in 2008.

Varinder Unlu, from International House, who carried out the study with James, explains that it was certainly a challenge for the teachers involved. “One in particular had misgivings about not being able to correct or guide, but actually found that this method of allowing independent, unsupervised study can work well, as long as the question or task is engaging and thought-provoking enough,” she says.

Further research is now being planned between SOLE Central and International House.

If you’re thinking of experimenting with teaching EFL through SOLE, here’s a few tips which may be useful:

    • Focus an initial lesson on grammar beforehand so everyone can start from the same base level
    • Remain in the room to reassure the students, help maintain order and ensure the students are making an effort to speak in English
    • Remember that a language teacher’s role is crucial – not only in setting an appropriately challenging question but also in the review and feedback stage to encourage more debate and language use.
    • Include variety – the same Big Question format can be less interesting for older students

Although SOLE was originally developed within a primary school setting, researchers and educators all overthe world are also exploring its relevance to secondary, further and higher education. If you’re carrying out SOLE experiments where you live, do share what you’re up to with the School in the Cloud community on Facebook or Twitter.

Watch Sugata’s follow up interview at the IATEFL conference.

Being a ‘granny’ is not as easy as it might look

The Granny Cloud has been up and running since 2009 when Sugata first put out an appeal in a UK newspaper for grandmothers with a spare hour a week who would like to talk to children in India and help them with their English skills.

There are a handful of loyal stalwarts still remaining from those early days, many of whom form a self-organised core team to help to recruit, interview and advise new recruits.

But there are far more who have fallen by the wayside, often daunted by the prospect of actually being a School in the Cloud granny once reality sets in.

Dr Suneeta Kulkarni, research director for School in the Cloud based in India, says she can completely understand how they feel. “It can seem completely overwhelming to start with,” she admits.

“There’s a lot more tech available now than when we first started and I know that can put some people off, but this is not the crux of the interaction. If you’re comfortable with it, then use it by all means, but it may actually hinder the process if it’s a brand new group not used to computers or the English language.

“It’s really just about chatting with the children about whatever takes your, and their, fancy. When you start with a new group you need to get a feel for their environment, who they are and what they like. I’d always say don’t go in with a plan – just go with it. Just say ‘hi’ and take it from there. At the end of the day, the primary aim is to have fun, and that goes for the granny as well as the children!”

Suneeta often advises new grannies to think of those initial sessions as a bit like turning up at a family gathering where there just happens to be a group of children who are really keen to talk to you!


Jerry Rothwell, the School in the Cloud film

Conversation is key to these interactions and each granny has his or her own style – that’s what makes it so interesting for the children at the other end of the connection. Some like to read stories, others create craft activities or even tell jokes. 

There are grannies who like using online activities such as puzzles or videos to start a discussion, and others who experiment with new resources as they are developed, but often plain flash cards work just as well (and sometimes better, especially when there is limited connectivity).

“This shows the robustness of the interaction,” explains Suneeta. “You might be doing something most other people wouldn’t think twice of doing but it still seems to work. It’s important to find your own comfort zone – some work better with older children and are happy discussing a wide range of complex topics, others are more comfortable with younger groups.”

Suneeta, who is out of her own comfort zone when it comes to water, uses her own fear as an analogy for new grannies finding themselves worried about jumping in at the deep end. “Sometimes it’s just a question of getting in,” she says. “I’m scared of swimming but wouldn’t mind sitting on the edge and splashing my feet in. You can always wade in – you don’t need to dive.”

The Granny Cloud could do with more male role models as they give a different dimension to the interaction. Suneeta says often male grannies are more likely to not feel that confident dealing with the children, but they’re actually doing a great job and the children love chatting with them.

These dedicated individuals are doing something positive and contributing to these children in a way we cannot yet fully appreciate – only time will tell. But even this early on, educators can already see the children’s search skills improving with just one session a week, so it is already making a difference.

The grannies share their sessions on Facebook and on a learning blog, which is designed to help with feedback and ideas as well as helping with ongoing research to understand better how this all works. 

However, it can sometimes add to the feeling of being overwhelmed, as less confident or new grannies may feel they cannot possibly do anything like that. “It’s not about making people inadequate, simply a case of ‘this is what I did and it might help others’,” explains Suneeta.

“Each granny is different and each group of children is too – that’s what makes it fun. You have to find what suits you and just go with it without worrying about what somebody else might be doing. And if you’re ever stuck or overwhelmed, there’s usually one of us online who would be happy to chat with you and share our expertise.”