How to make SOLE more social

Helen Moyer hates the word “teacher” despite the fact she’s been one for seven years.

“I remember teachers from my own school days standing in front of the class just relaying facts and I never wanted to do that,” she says. “I want to create an atmosphere where the children see me as a learner as well and SOLE is perfect for that. It’s completely changed the way I teach.”

Williston School, where Helen works, is also a supporter of P4C (Philosophy for Children), which she finds aligns well with SOLE principles. For the past few years they have been working towards letting the children own their learning, embracing new technologies and pedagogical approaches.

Being on the Isle of Man (which is located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland – pictured below) means educators enjoy more freedom to experiment than most: they have their own government, no OFSTED inspections, and can create their own curriculum.

“We’re pushing boundaries all the time and the difference SOLE has made has been incredible,” says Helen. “It’s created a level of curiosity and an ability to share their learning collaboratively which is nothing short of amazing. It’s like the love of learning has been re-ignited within them.”

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Helen was first introduced to SOLE three years ago when one of the IT staff returned from a conference where Sugata Mitra was speaking and suggested they try it out.

But the first few attempts weren’t exactly a success. “It was complete chaos and I thought ‘what on earth am I doing?!’” says Helen.

One of her challenges was the amount of high level needs pupils she had in her class, with dyslexia and autism especially prevalent among the students.

So she got in touch with Sarah Leonard, an experienced SOLE practitioner, who at the time was working at Masham School in North Yorkshire. When Helen explained the students were just not ‘gelling’, Sarah put her onto the idea of ‘social SOLEs’ where you focus on an issue affecting the class dynamics rather than a Big Question.

They decided to research dyslexia and autism and in the process learned that a lot of children think very differently from each other. “At the end of the SOLE they were valuing their input in reflection time and it completely changed the dynamics of their friendships,” explains Helen.

“It’s had the most profound effects and now the class is not hierarchical – instead they say ‘I’ll take a bit of your brain and yours and let’s use the internet as well’. It’s definitely given them ownership of their learning.

“I stand back so much more now and let them crack on, giving them little questions to help them delve deeper but nowhere near as much planning as I used to. But the level of questioning has to be quite efficient to be able to draw them in – it’s not an easy ride as a teacher by any means and it can be exhausting!

“I find it’s like being a conductor, getting everyone’s opinions and bringing them together.”

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An example of a social SOLE at the school was when one class was really struggling with friendships. They decided to look at what makes a true friend – such as fairness and loyalty – and explore what that means.

“It was extraordinary,” says Helen, who came upon the idea for the SOLE after doing a bit of research to see what the children valued in a teacher. “They wanted a teacher to be fair – to be equal and make sure everyone gets equal amounts of time, so we focussed on what fairness meant to them,” she explains.

By the end of the exercise, Helen was blown away by the level of understanding her eight and nine-year-olds demonstrated. “Their conclusion was that fairness is about giving people what they need at that time, which is pretty amazing for that age group.”

Helen admits that taking that step back as a teacher is both ‘exciting and liberating’ and also ‘really scary’, but once she did, she saw the value in the learning process.

She has been using SOLE in her class for 18 months and each child, without any prompting, said on their individual reports that the best way they learn is through SOLE. It has now become a regular feature in the classroom, especially in maths, where she will often use a ‘mini SOLE’ to bring in a new concept like division.

“As teachers we put a lid on learning, such as by saying ‘Today we’re going to do space’, but with a Big Question there are no limits.” – Helen

From the Big Question: ‘What would the world look like without insects?’ a little boy who struggles a lot in her class said that humans would be extinct. He could also logically justify his thinking process. “You’d never get to talk about things like that in a regular class,” says Helen.

Her advice for teachers thinking about trying SOLE for the first time this term is to simply ‘throw yourself into it’. She suggests using SOLE initially as an observation tool to see how they learn best, whether it’s in small or big groups etc. and taking time to listen to the vocabulary the children use.

“Some teachers are desperate to guide the children a bit too much and you have to try to stop that,” says Helen.” The SOLE process is chaotic for everyone involved and crashing and burning is part of it, so celebrate the epic fails, enjoy it and save your energy for the end!”

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Helen stresses the importance of having a phrase to use that encourages further questions or investigation, so that if they’re struggling with a concept you’re not tempted to answer it for them.

By way of illustration, when the headteacher came to observe one of her sessions, she told Helen she’d used ‘that’s interesting’ about 150 times! “It stops me answering their questions!” says Helen. “I also go round and magpie their ideas and say ‘tell me one amazing fact you’ve learned in the last 5 minutes’.

“It’s about listening to the children 100% then reeling their threads together to create a pattern that they can go away with and explore further.”

She also finds that inviting the children into the question really helps to get them engaged. For example, she’ll often make it personal and use a story about her own boys to prompt a session. 

“I’ll say something like ‘we had a very interesting conversation around the dining room table and we don’t know the answer to this question’,” she says. “They then become so driven to find an answer to help me at home. That motivation really draws them in and evokes curiosity.”

Helen has the same class again this year and will be taking part in research with Sugata into the use of SOLE and P4C to see how valuable each approach is to the other.

When Sugata visited the school in July he explained that SOLE ‘can’t be watered down’ as then it simply won’t work, in answer to concerns that it might be used by teachers as an alternative to preparing a lesson.

He’s returning to the Isle of Man in January 2018 to help train headteachers. “It’s about making sure it’s about quality teaching and how you maintain that rigour with SOLE,” explains Helen.

With 32 primary schools and five secondary schools on the Isle of Man there’s huge potential to explore the effect of SOLE across the board.

Helen says she’s hoping to go into secondary schools to introduce them to SOLE. “It has the potential to completely change the dialogue within the classroom, and that’s what’s really exciting.”

Find more about Helen in our Community Member section.

Isle of Man photo © Andy Radcliffe and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

A little bit of paradise

A new venture in rural Goa aims to transform how India approaches mainstream education.

Paradise School Goa’s director, Shilpa Mehta, was born and raised in the UK, re-locating to Goa when her daughter was just two-years-old. When India-Fire was of school age, she decided to set up her own local primary school. Shilpa’s approach to education has been influenced by Maria Montessori’s teaching, which she became interested in before she moved to India.

Now her daughter has turned 12, she’s taking on another educational challenge: to set up Paradise School Goa – a secondary school in a 400-year-old mansion based purely on Professor Sugata Mitra’s SOLE (self-organised learning environment) principles.

The seed was sown for her latest venture while attending a conference in Jaipur as a Google Educator in 2015. She realised that schools could be communities of collaboration and support, not just places of mass instruction: this was the kind of school she wanted to set up.

When she discovered Professor Mitra’s TED talk shortly after, Shilpa felt it was ‘just like Montessori – but with computers’ and it spurned her on to create Paradise School Goa, with the aim of bringing SOLEs into mainstream education.

“SOLE is a very simple, but powerful idea,” she explains. “I just thought ‘this can really work – let’s go for it!’”

Shilpa met with Professor Mitra in the UK and told him her story. Inspired by his encouragement (he is an advisor to the school) and support from colleagues at SOLE Central in the UK, she is now a partner in Newcastle University’s dedicated SOLE research centre, helping to gather research data.

The school opened its doors in September, with the dedicated SOLE room officially opened by Sugata on 14th October 2016. Housed in the former ballroom, the space allows for the maximum amount of interaction and movement, which is ideal for self-organised learning.

“India is ready for this new type of education,” explains Shilpa. “Here in Goa, I can carve a creative path, set the example for others. I don’t want to set up just another school but a really good one from the ground up that can make a difference, adding meaning and value to childrens’ lives.”

Paradise School is about giving children the skills for 21st century living, and Shilpa maps the curriculum to the IGCSE curriculum (she will also be aiming for International Cambridge Board accreditation).

Paradise School is located in Aldona, Goa, India.

Students Teaching

If our students could teach us, how would their achievement levels change?

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.

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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.

Bringing Einstein into education

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!

‘Pure SOLE’

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.”

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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.”

Broadening vocabulary

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.”
– Einstein