Just what is a self-organised learning environment, and how can it help teachers? School In The Cloud’s Sally Rix explains how the idea changed her career tremendously.
Up until a year ago I was a History teacher, a job I adored. I know this is preaching to the converted, but working with teenagers is just the most interesting, funny and challenging way to spend your time,and I absolutely loved it. However (and I doubt this is particularly surprising to anyone reading), I had grown increasingly frustrated with our system of education.
Cue some life-changing CPD (seriously!), as my school invited professor of Educational Technology Sugata Mitra to come and talk to us about self-organised learning. As I sat there listening, I found myself vigorously nodding away as he shared his observations about the current education system (to the amusement of those colleagues sitting around me). I know that many people reading will have heard of Sugata and typically, to have heard of him is to have a strong opinion about him, but I’m not here to try and convince you about the more contentious parts of what he says. Rather, I want to share with you the alternative learning process that he offers, a process which gives students the opportunity to become enthused by learning and fired by curiosity. The process is SOLE (Self-Organised Learning Environment) and it’s possible in any subject, in any classroom, with almost any age group.
A SOLE works like this:
It’s a fairly straightforward process, but here are some suggestions for getting the most out it:
- Set the environment up carefully. It’s great if you have an area dedicated to SOLE, but that’s not always practical. To create an appropriate environment, make sure that the seating encourages collaboration. It doesn’t matter how – group the tables, let students rearrange the furniture – but make sure it’s easy for them to work together. Students also need access to the Internet, but limit the number of computers available – if they have access to one computer each they are likely to drift off to work alone; ideally you want about one computer for every four students.
- Pose a question you are genuinely curious about. It’s one of those strange quirks of teaching that you spend much of your time asking questions you already know the answer to. Not only do you know the answer but, however much time a student has spent on their homework, you’ll still be able to give a better answer than they can. It’s just one of those natural advantages you have when you’ve got a degree and you’re talking to an 11 year old. And yet we hope that students will get excited about learning something and be diligent about sharing it, even though they know that we knew the information already! In a SOLE, the question should be something that you don’t have an easy answer to, so that when students are sharing their findings, you’re learning something too. It’s so motivating for students when they realise they’re on a genuine process of discovery and you’re right there with them.
- Google your question (other search engines are available!) The success of a SOLE session relies on the quality of the question posed, so once you’ve thought of one, spend some time searching it yourself. Ideally it should be big and open, leaving students to explore a number of different avenues, so you don’t want to find that the top search result links to a website dedicated to answering your question! This will also enable you to look at the kind of information students are likely to find, so you can see if they will touch on the areas of the curriculum you were hoping for.
- Say ‘I don’t know!’ A lot. At the start of your session make sure that students know they are free to self-organise, then try to step back completely. It can, of course, be incredibly difficult to do this, especially if students are asking for help. Try saying ‘I don’t know’ whenever they ask a question to encourage them to rely on themselves and each other rather than on you. If you do decide to intervene at any point, phrase what you say as a question rather than an instruction.
- Remember that good SOLE learning is likely to look very different to the usual. Stepping back and letting students assume responsibility offers a really useful period of observation, but it can take time to work out what engagement looks like in a SOLE. Seemingly diligent behaviour can result in little more than a pretty presentation, while some apparently distracted students might offer very thoughtful answers or even critiques of answers given by their classmates. Things are not always what they seem so keep an open mind!
- Praising and challenging are not mutually exclusive. Make sure that students have the chance to fully share their findings in the debrief and encourage them to question each other. While this process should be characterised by praise and encouragement, students can (and should) be asked to justify their answers if they offer inaccurate or incomplete information. Ideally they will challenge each other, but while they are still developing the skills to do this it is beneficial that you model the process for them.
- Don’t expect to get it right first time! For many students, SOLE is a whole new way of learning and it can take time for them to develop the appropriate behaviours and attitudes. Be prepared to give them a little time to work these out and don’t be disheartened if you your first SOLE session doesn’t go quite as you hoped! Like all aspects of teaching it takes time to get it exactly how you want it. But it’s worth it.
I said that the CPD where I first learned about SOLE changed my life – I wasn’t joking. I spoke to Sugata afterwards and mentioned that I’d been half-inspired to do a PhD. He answered that there might be an opportunity coming up to do just that at Newcastle University, which is how I ended up here today. I love teaching, I can’t imagine doing anything else long-term, but I’ve had an incredible year starting my research into SOLE. One of the things that makes it so enjoyable is the contact I have with people, from all over the world and in numerous different contexts, who tell me that SOLE has helped not only to change the way they teach, but more importantly the way their students learn. If you’re even just a little bit curious, I really would recommend that you give it a go.