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Guest Blog - Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE)

This is a guest blog written by my Stage 3 Co-ordinator and year partner Richelle Hatton. This post first appeared on the Stage 3 Learning Journey on 10 August 2016. It is a wonderful reflection on the experience Richelle and I had with our class. I would strongly encourage any reader to explore the possibilities and see if there is a place for Self Organised Learning Environments within your own context.

Educational researcher Sugata Mitra claims to have discovered accidentally that students can teach themselves. He put a computer in a hole in the wall in a slum district in India and walked away. Eight hours later he returned to find local children browsing the internet and teaching each other how to use the computer having never seen one before! You can watch his TED talk and hear about it straight from him. Totally fascinating.

The concept of SOLE - self organised learning environment - came from Mitra's research. He suggests that "if you allow the educational process to self organise then learning emerges". He proposes there are three requirements for SOLE to be successful: broadband, collaboration and encouragement. He has also produced a toolkit explaining how to implement the process in the classroom.

This week we had half of our students away at Band Camp. The other half of them were at school and we couldn't just go on with our regular program. We decided to try SOLE. We are a BYOT school so each student has their own device to access the internet. That's condition one. We want our students to learn the skills of collaboration so we give them plenty of opportunities to work in teams. That's condition two. We would encourage the students to give this a try and encourage them no matter what the outcome. Whatever happened we knew we would learn something! That's condition three.

We began with an introductory session where we showed them some of Mitra's TED talk and another video of SOLE in action. We explained the origin of the concept of SOLE and got them excited to try it for themselves.

We gave students the question: "What is the greatest threat to the ocean?" and a time frame for presenting an answer. We ran the SOLE over two 40 minute periods split by lunch.

Students organised themselves into groups and went to work. As teachers we overheard comments such as:
"We have only 9 minutes until lunch. We'd better get moving!"
"I found a really great website. I'll share it with you."
This was directed to a student who was wasting time - "We really need to focus, to get this done!"
"What do you think is the best way to present this?"

Each group made their presentation to the class. We had a range of answers to our question of what is the greatest threat to the ocean - pollution, plastic, global warming, overfishing, humans!

We were amazed at the quality of the presentations given the short time frame. We do this a lot in our regular lessons so students have good skills in this area but we usually give them MUCH more time to prepare. Obviously, short deadlines can be helpful! We gave verbal feedback about what we liked about the presentations.

The depth of answers was also encouraging. Through questioning, we could determine how deep students' understanding was. Some students understood quite a lot. Since students could make their own groups we had a very large group of eight boys. We were unsure how well this group would work but they had very thoughtful answers to the question.

We ran another session the next day and then surveyed the students to seek their feedback on the SOLE experience. They indicated their experience of SOLE was overwhelmingly positive. 5 on the scale represented "strongly agree".

Quotes from student survey 

I like SOLE because:

·                I was able to be responsible for my own learning
·                It is a fun way to learn and makes work harder without slacking off
·                You get to choose who’s group your in and the time limit pushes you to work harder.
·                You did not get guided much by the teacher.
·                I was responsible for my learning and I was able to learn, present and collaborate with people in any way I want. I LOVE BEING ABLE TO CHOOSE MY GROUP. I liked it because I was free to learn how I want to learn.

I found SOLE difficult because:

·                You only get a short time.
·                They were hard and new questions that I wouldn’t expect.
·                We didn’t have enough time to look at every website or resource.
·                We had to find out everything ourselves and no teacher helped us along the way.
·                I didn’t find it difficult.

As teachers, we also reflected on the experience. We can see great benefit for student motivation, collaboration and time management skills. The deadline to present an answer was integral to the experience but it doesn't have to be the final answer.

We can see how this could be an iterative process where students generate an initial answer to the big question which is presented to the group. Students receive feedback on what's great and how to improve their presentations. We could then generate secondary questions that flow out of the first question and the given answers. For example, for our investigation secondary questions could include: what is global warming, why is high acidity in the ocean a problem; if humans are the greatest threat to the ocean what does this mean?

Students could then investigate these secondary questions and present their findings. This would be followed by a return to the original question where students revisit and deepen their initial answers to include new, relevant information. Thus the learning is being built upon and deepened as students respond to feedback and revisit their thinking.

We're going to look for ways to include SOLE in our regular teaching and learning program.

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