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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

SOLE: Motivate Students to Teach Themselves (and Each Other)

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What if we asked our students questions (straight from our curriculum), and then we let them, in groups and with the internet, find the answers themselves?  That’s what Dr. Sugata Mitra suggests might motivate and inspire students to learn and teach one another on their own, without adult interference.  Winner of the 2013 TED Prize, educational researcher Dr. Sugata Mitra has shown with his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments that, “in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other, if they’re motivated by curiosity and peer interest” (http://bit.ly/N0esFy).  

The Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) proposed by Dr. Mitra lets students organize themselves in groups and learn using an internet-connected computer with little teacher support. What would that look like in your classroom?

In my 8th grade Digital Media classes, creating a SOLE environment was easy: I built a website of resources and let them choose what they wanted to learn.  Movie making, 3D architectural design, animation, coding, blogging, infographic design, computer game design: a wealth of online tutorials allowed my students to pursue their own passions and teach themselves (and each other) whatever they wanted to learn.

But what would a SOLE look like in an academic course, like my English 8 classes? Could I motivate my students to read critically and write effectively on their own?

In November of each year, my students write their own novels (thanks to the support of the Young Writers Program of NaNoWriMo). In the past I have spent September and October giving my students assignments to help them prepare for this writing project: plot outlines, character descriptions, setting details, etc. But what if I asked them to research how to write a novel on their own?  What if I let them, in SOLEs, search for answers to questions: how do I write a novel? How do I create complex characters? How do I plot my story?

I think the answers they find will be more powerful than the ones I spoon-feed them.  What about you?  What questions could you ask your students to find on their own? How could your students self-organize, with whatever tools they need, to learn the curriculum?

Comments (29)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

said elkaoukaji's picture

the more motivated the students are , the easier the tasks will be for them, and therefore the teacher will play his real role as a facilitator only.

Elizabeth's picture

It is the delightful role of an educator to instill creativity and curiosity into fresh minds. I appreciate this SOLE method, particularly because it is becoming necessary for students to be self-motivated in their education, especially in this digital age. They have a vast array of knowledge at their fingertips. When I think about how technology and the Internet has helped to re-shape the college realm (where more and more, online college classes at the undergraduate and graduate level are becoming the norm), it makes sense to be preparing our students to interact with assignments in order to learn practically. I look forward to trying some of these methods with my students.

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Adri's picture
Adri
Eager to take my classes to the real world! =)

Nice ideas! What about working with the concept of 'flipped classrooms'? You may be able to 'lose control' little by little and allow stds to develop their SOLEs with your help (perhaps for the first task but later on, they will search the Net on their own)

Rafranz Davis's picture
Rafranz Davis
Instructional Technology Specialist, Arlington TX

I love the idea of a SOLE. I think that most teachers still fear this and more so at the secondary level. We've yet to collectively understand that the days of being the only one in the room with "the information" are all but over.

Before we can get there, you are so dead on with learning to ask better questions. We have to ask questions that even we do not know the answers to. For example, in math, instead of asking kids to solve, give them an answer and have them create the path towards getting there. Share paths like a class wide map and collectively evaluate for consistent patterns. Who says that kids have to write down "the rules" first? They can get there and will come to the consensus on their own if we can let go of our own inhibitions and allow it.

(1)
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

I agree that this can be a difficult shift to make, and we do need to work hard to come up with better questions to ask our students. I love Dan Meyer's approach of working to bring about perplexity in his curriculum and his students -- it isn't easy, but how much better for our students if we can set up questions/problems/projects so that the students are curious, perplexed and interested in figuring out the answers! Check out Dan's work here: http://blog.mrmeyer.com/

(2)
Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

Laura--Dan Meyer was my high school Geometry teacher!!! Wow what a small world it is! He was the hands down the best math teacher I've ever had (and math is NOT my expertise). But his real-world approach to teaching and problem-solving just made sense for me. Like you said, it fosters curiosity and critical thinking. Definitely worth checking out his blog!

Bill Ferguson's picture

I have used SOLE in my class for the last 18 months. My kids are absolutely loving it. They are happy to not have to "read and answer questions" which unbeknownst to them they are doing anyway but differently because they are researching. The benefits? Improved reading levels, stronger research and presenting skills, and stronger social skills. All of my students are reading at Grade level.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Sounds great, Bill! I would love to hear some more specifics about how you're creating that SOLE environment. Can you share examples? What kinds of questions are you having your students research? Thanks for sharing!

Pardeep Goyal's picture
Pardeep Goyal
Blogger, Marketer and Co-founder of Education Startup

Awesome post!! I was surprised when I first watched Dr. Sugata Mitra Ted Talk, from that moment I am big fan of his work. Great to know that you are implementing SOLE in your teachings.

Rafranz Davis's picture
Rafranz Davis
Instructional Technology Specialist, Arlington TX

I love the idea of a SOLE. I think that most teachers still fear this and more so at the secondary level. We've yet to collectively understand that the days of being the only one in the room with "the information" are all but over.

Before we can get there, you are so dead on with learning to ask better questions. We have to ask questions that even we do not know the answers to. For example, in math, instead of asking kids to solve, give them an answer and have them create the path towards getting there. Share paths like a class wide map and collectively evaluate for consistent patterns. Who says that kids have to write down "the rules" first? They can get there and will come to the consensus on their own if we can let go of our own inhibitions and allow it.

(1)
Elizabeth's picture

It is the delightful role of an educator to instill creativity and curiosity into fresh minds. I appreciate this SOLE method, particularly because it is becoming necessary for students to be self-motivated in their education, especially in this digital age. They have a vast array of knowledge at their fingertips. When I think about how technology and the Internet has helped to re-shape the college realm (where more and more, online college classes at the undergraduate and graduate level are becoming the norm), it makes sense to be preparing our students to interact with assignments in order to learn practically. I look forward to trying some of these methods with my students.

(1)
Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

I've had preK to graduate level classes using it- but with varying degrees of complexity, of course. Ideally, instruction looks like the top of a Dolly Madison cupcake (remember those?)- a series of loops. Each "loop" is a problem for kids to solve, but the space between the loops includes a lot of different activities and teaching methods (whatever the teacher chooses) to connect one loop to another in terms of the content learned and the skills/ dispositions practiced in the previous loop. We call it "reflect and connect."

I'm curious, was the hard time you mentioned a productive hard time- were they struggling a bit but figuring it out- or was it more non-productive, with you having to step in and do for them? If it's the former, then we'd say it was great learning (so long as they had time to reflect on what they learned from the struggle). If the latter, then that's valuable learning for you because you gain a sense of how much structure they need the next time.

Kids love doing this kind of thing- you're right. The tricky part is (as one teacher just reminded me) getting from the abstract idea of it to the real day-to-day practice of it. There's a bit of a paradigm shift required on the part of everyone involved and that can take time.

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Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
K-4 Technology Facilitator from Northfield, New Jersey
Facilitator

Hi Laura, thanks for the kind words, the kids loved it and never got tired of it, in fact, they continually asked "are we going to blog today" every time I saw them. I have a secret weapon: we got one of my second grade teaching colleagues, Mrs. Sindy Baker, set up with a classroom blog years ago and she really, really leverages it in her ELA classes:

http://blogs.ncs-nj.org/bakerbears/

So one of my five classes was TOTALLY into it as they were familiar with the platform and the task.

We introduced this fairly late in the year and I am not aware of any substantive carry-over into other instruction but I do know they were talking about the scenarios quite a bit outside my class. I take great pride in relating to my students and think the prompts were pretty effective.

My overall goal with this initiative is to get kids comfortable responding in writing to an online prompt - just as they will have to do on the state tests. I am looking forward to expanding on it next year!

Best, kj

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Hi Kelly,
I love how you set it up for your 4th graders to do the research and learning on their own! I think that's a great way to spur motivation. And think of what they learn when they have to work through all the information to find the answers -- skills outside of the content material, like digital literacy, logic, analysis and problem-solving.

I appreciated it when Dr. Mitra said, "Don't try to make every lesson, every day a SOLE opportunity. Try once a week, see how it goes." He seems to acknowledge that not all curriculum would work well that way, and we all know that students need variety, right? I imagine there are a variety of ways to offer SOLE-type activities, plus there are times when a more traditional, teacher-directed lesson would be appropriate and effective. What do you think?

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

What a great article, Keith! Thanks for sharing it. And we see them addressing the same question that so many teachers have when considering a SOLE classroom:

"The no-teachers approach makes sense, as nearly anything you need to know about programming can now be found, for free, on the Internet. Motivated people can easily teach themselves any language they need to know in a few months of intensive work. But motivation is what's hard to come by, and to sustain -- ask anyone who has tried out Codecademy but not stuck with it. That has prompted the creation of "learn to code" bootcamps and schools around the world. Ecole 42 takes a similar inspiration but allows the students to generate their own enthusiasm via collaborative (and somewhat competitive) teamwork."

I think the trick for us is building those "collaborative/somewhat competitive teamwork" opportunities for our students, helping them to build motivation and enthusiasm for their work. Sometimes it seems to work like magic; sometimes not so much. Have you tried any kind of SOLE projects with your students?

(1)
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

I agree that this can be a difficult shift to make, and we do need to work hard to come up with better questions to ask our students. I love Dan Meyer's approach of working to bring about perplexity in his curriculum and his students -- it isn't easy, but how much better for our students if we can set up questions/problems/projects so that the students are curious, perplexed and interested in figuring out the answers! Check out Dan's work here: http://blog.mrmeyer.com/

(2)
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Dr. Mitra's model does include the use of the internet for students to research and learn on their own, but I think there are other ways to create SOLE without computers. For instance, I love Kevin Jarrett's example above where he gave students a pile of "junk" and asked them to work together to build a vehicle. They were learning, creating and problem-solving together, but they weren't using the internet.

If you want your students to research a topic but the computer lab isn't available, what if you provided resources (books, articles, magazines, etc.) and asked groups to find the answers? I don't think SOLE is always about research, either; I imagine it is also about problem-solving, which doesn't require technology. What do you think? Do you see ways SOLE might work for your curriculum and students, even without computers?

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