When you enter the classroom, it’s nice to imagine that you’ll be faced with groups of motivated and engaged students desperate to soak up new information. But could you ever envisage students who were sufficiently engaged that they taught themselves? And if so, would they learn more effectively?
Self-organised learning environments (Soles) are models of learning where students do just that. Professor Sugata Mitra’s award-winning 2013 TED talk on Soles, “Build a School in the Cloud”, continues to divides the world of education (bit.ly/TEDMitra).
Mitra famously put a computer in the wall of a Delhi slum, and left the children there to teach themselves. He argues that learning emerges when you allow students to self-organise. Applied in a UK context, lessons consist of the teacher or lecturer asking a “big question”, then leaving students to form groups, research using shared computers and relate their findings back. The teacher, still pivotal, plans the big question, facilitates around the findings, sums up, cross-relates, corrects, interprets and contextualises.
Mitra has a physical presence at Newcastle University, but also works through the virtual network that he envisioned: the School in the Cloud. Cathy Ellis, who is based at Highbury College, has worked with the researchers to consider how Soles can rise to support the FE sector. She argues that UK vocational education and training can apply schemes such as Soles to help students to foster the skills of creativity, collaboration, problem-solving and troubleshooting through agile and on-demand approaches. This, she maintains, is what will deliver the kind of “self-programmable” and resourceful workers that the UK labour market increasingly requires.
A more pressing issue for many colleges, though, is how to deliver high levels of attainment on low budgets, particularly in GCSE English and maths, where time and student motivation may be lacking.
One teacher at the centre of a two-year study in a Gateshead school concluded that with Soles, “Information is gathered quickly [and] can come to the aid of teachers with little time to complete a topic. A Sole is a useful way of introducing a new area, but it is equally useful at the end.”
Faced with demotivated students doing GCSE retakes, Dr Anne Preston, a research fellow at Mitra’s Sole Central in Newcastle, advocates big questions that stimulate interest and engagement. Aibhin Bray from Bridge 21 at Trinity College London proposes big maths questions such as “When and why should we estimate?”; “What do good problem-solvers do when they get stuck?”; “How do people use data to influence others?” In a Sole context, these questions can help learners to develop digital competencies and linguistic skills, as well as literacy, information-seeking and retrieval skills.
Take Soles one step further, and students start to formulate their own questions. Preston argues that this level of empowerment leads to more intrinsic and long-term motivation, which provides good groundwork in preparing students for the workplace or for further study, as well as for spearheading their own lifelong learning and development.
For colleges that have higher levels of overseas students, research by Varinder Unlu at International House London finds that Sole methodology can increase confidence and fluency in non-native speakers through decentralised collaboration, peer teaching and learning. Another notable insight was how students became responsible for their own motivation, rather than the teacher providing this for them.
Soles also have their critics. Many point out that a good number of teachers already set small groups a variety of questions in class for unstructured exploration. In some research, the effectiveness of Soles is often tested by what has been learned, rather than what an exam board needs students to know. Advocates of Soles might argue that this begs the more philosophical question of whether teaching and learning prepares students for the realities of the future workplace or whether it is too focused on skills for exam success alone.
Then there is Ofsted. In an outstanding college, this approach may be seen by the inspectorate as an innovative approach to building greater engagement around learning. But in a college that is less than outstanding, should senior management teams attempt a strategy like this or improve teaching and learning in more tried and tested ways?
Richard Bradford is an FE college governor and managing director of digital marketing and development consultancy Disquiet Dog @DisquietDog
How to create a self-organised learning environment in your college:
Students are given a big question or are challenged to think of their own.
Students choose their own groups or can change groups at any time.
Students can move around freely, speak to each other and share ideas.
Students can explore in any direction that they choose: there may be no single right answer to the big question.
Groups are expected to present what they have learned at the end of the session.
Students tend to work in an environment that is different from a normal classroom, with relaxed seating and one computer with internet access per group.