A Self Organised Learning Environment, and I wasn’t even there!

Sugata Mitra in his excellent and prize-winning TED lecture discusses the idea of Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLE). Essentially the idea is that children, given the Internet, can teach themselves and find the answers to big questions. He’s the founder of the Hole in the Wall computer in project. India. Watch the film to find out more.

There’s an idea I’ve pondered for a little while. I want to stop spoon feeding pupils. I want them to be confident to make mistakes. I want them to be able to solve problems independently. Actually some of this is quite hard to do as a teacher.

My year 10 class (age 14) have been learning JavaScript and HTML. I set them a problem; to create a web page that would convert a temperature to Celcius or Fahrenheit depending upon what the user requested. I gave them some of the code and also the formula. They worked on this problem for 5 weeks, 1 hour per week. I gave help only in extreme circumstances (if I felt an individual was just getting nowhere and was beginning to get down about it). They browsed, they debugged, they discussed and argued,and eventually they got it.

The more striking example came two weeks ago. I was out of school for a meeting so had left work for my classes. One year 7 class (age 11) were midway through a database project and had already created and populated their own databases. I set the work to carry out some sorts and searches on the table. I also asked that they provided screenshots of these and wrote about them to show what they had searched for and why this would help a user. I left the lesson plan on my desk with an example set of screen shots taped to the wall at the front.

On my return, the cover supervisor apologetically told me there had been a mix up with cover and she had only realised halfway through the lesson that they didn’t have a teacher. She was covering a rowdy year 11 class so only managed to pop in a couple of times but the children had seemed quiet and busy.

Next lesson I discovered the students had done all the work set. That’s relatively unprecedented for a cover lesson anyway, but they’d also taught themselves a new skill. Filters and sorts in databases aren’t rocket science but they hadn’t done it before and with something new I’ll ALWAYS demonstrate first.

What did this mean? Should I resign? Did the children need a teacher?  Could they just teach themselves from now on?

Well, no.  Ultimately there were certain factors I put in place for this to take effect:

  • example material on the board
  • video tutorials on the school intranet (very short tutorials, some only 30 seconds, teaching specific skills – I’ve been using these for years for self-paced learning)
  • ground work in the lessons before on this topic to design and create the databases and discussing how and why databases are used in society.

That was this scheme of work.  Last term year 7 created web pages using HTML and a bit of CSS.  They used Code Avengers to build up their own skills and I also showed them W3 Schools and encouraged them to find out new stuff for themselves.  One of my colleagues who is less confident with HTML effectively threw whole lessons over to W3 Schools and I think the outcomes from her class were better than mine!

So, I think Self-Organised Learning Environments have some benefit.  I do think Sugata Mitra is right in indicating that the structure of schools today is not as effective as it could be but I don’t think knowledge is obsolete.  Groups of children, given access to knowledge and the thirst to acquire it will teach themselves something.  Whether those Tamil children really understand the depths of DNA replication is questionable but I don’t think that’s the point.  They sort of got a bit of it.  I bet the day after he left they discovered Minecraft.

However what we as teachers do is set the frameworks in place.  The structure of learning is important and education as an internet-based free-for-all would result in a lot of surface-level knowledge.  That said, I think there is definitely something to be said for stepping away from the lesson sometimes and telling the students that any answer to a problem is fine, as long as it addresses the problem

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