You got to have ‘SOLE’
Me and Mrs Jackson were delighted to be invited to the launch of the SOLE research centre Newcastle University this week. The centre has been set up partly through the $1million TED prize that was won by its director, Sugata Mitra. Sugata is well known for his ‘hole in the wall’ experiments and subsequent work in developing the idea of SOLEs (Self Organising Learning Environments). Now I must admit I have always been fairly ambivalent about the idea that children, left to their own devices (no pun intended) would spontaneously begin to learn, given some technology to facilitate it. However, it often just comes down to what people mean by ‘learn’. Critics of Sugata’s work (and there are many!) show evidence that the idyllic view of children of all ages teaching each other higher level subjects simply wasn’t true. They state (Donald Clark for example) that bigger boys dominated the computers embedded in walls and mainly played games on them. That may or may not be true but that is not the point, in that situation, those boys learned how to play the games (and maybe the other children learned to keep away!). But if that was the only thing that was learned from those experiments it is perfectly logical to suggest that introducing such a way of working into our schools would have the same effect and standards would be driven down and the curriculum barely addressed (unless it appeared in Call of Duty perhaps).
However, Sugata also speaks about the effect of the Granny Cloud. These are volunteers who support learners using SOLE centres or web spaces. they don’t teach the children, they encourage them.
Put the two ideas together, access to technology that facilitates learning opportunities and someone to hold your hand and encourage you when things get tough. To me it resonates hugely with the work I do every day in classrooms using mobile devices. That is NOT to say that the answer to world wide poverty and illiteracy levels is to give every child an iPad. But taking the underlying principles that the SOLE research suggest are important, both situations have very similar properties. The way that classroom practice changes through use of the iPad from the teacher standing at the front, to acting as a strong facilitator is a noticeable feature of the schools that have worked closely with me over a prolonged period.
Now let’s come to this morning. I spent an hour with 11 children who had just been given iPads the week before in class. The children were eight or nine years old and afterwards I was told that they were several ‘severe behaviour issues’ within their ranks. Perhaps the teacher could have told me that before I wandered off to a room with them on my own…not that it would have made any difference as any teacher who has worked with me will tell you! These children were singled out as the rest of the class had had iPads for a few months and were already well versed in them; these children had been separate for various reasons. The teacher asked me to get them up to speed with Explain Everything as she was keen to follow my pedagogical model for supporting long term learning that becomes more and more independent.
I began by asking them why the iPad was going to help them learn, setting off with a learning focus, not a technology focus and got some dialogue going, culminating in my second brain analogy that children like to latch on to. I then opened Explain Everything and was about to show them some ideas when I wondered if I could get a SOLE going in front of me. I stopped. I quickly knocked up text, a cut out selfie, an orbiting star, a different coloured star, a different font and a highlighter. “Off you go,” I said. “Oh in fact, one thing. NOBODY is finished until you ALL can do everything you see on the screen. Go!” They looked at me blankly, there were mutters of ‘but how do you…’ then they forgot about that and started pressing buttons. The following 45 minutes were fascinating to watch.
For the first few minutes they all pressed a few buttons, looked miserable and gave i easily. Where one or two had their head in their hands, I encouraged them, “Why don’t you try pressing a different button?” Gradually there were shouts of “Yes, I know how to do it.” In one or two instances, particularly between two girls, this resulted in an exchange of information….the rest were still flying solo. So I intervened. One boy turned his screen to me and told me that he had worked out how to do the rotation. “Why are you telling me?” I asked ” I already know, your task is to make sure that everyone who doesn’t know how to do it, DOES know.” He immediately tapped the lad next to him on the shoulder and showed him what to do. What was striking was that often they were dead keen to show their learning to people around them but by and large there were only two or three of the children who would stop and listen. At one point, a boy who had worked loads out was heard to say, “You just asked me how to do it and now you aren’t listening!” I think many teachers would sympathise with that comment.
The group did start to organise themselves though…but only through my intervention as a facilitator. I constantly told children to ask one of the others who I knew had worked that bit out. For the last few, hard to find features, the group were pretty much working as one and when a boy worked it out (how to create a highlighter pen), there were several willing listeners.
I extended the task at that point to getting a picture of the earth and moon from the internet, creating a rotating orbit diagram and providing a voice over. I noticed that several of the children didn’t immediately try to tackle how to do this, they just played around with what they had already done. It took my intervention to get them on task with a gentle reminder that they all needed to do it.
So what did I learn?
- The children did self organise themselves but it worked much better if that process was facilitated, nudging them to share ideas and listen to others.
- The children were largely on task, especially the first task, although once they had some knowledge of how to do things some did get a little sidetracked.
- The children were very engaged with their task and were very vocal about what they had learned. They displayed an attitude that the techniques they had acquired had been ‘hard won’. They went back to class to immediately show their usual teacher what they had done without being asked.
- They needed clarification at some points as to what they were trying to achieve and gentle nudges towards where the answer lay.
If I had not been there, if I had given them the task and left them to it, I suspect little would have been achieved. It was the constant encouragement, hints and reminders of the task that kept them going in the right direction. I look at resources like Showbie and iTunesu that allow teachers to direct students to the relevant materials; and Explain Everything where they can be given interactive activities, scaffolds and reference points for what to do. And I look at how I use iBooks to throw relevant resources directly in the path of students and then watch learning conversations and activities grow around them. All of these result in more engaged learners who really ‘get into’ their work, often in very creative ways. It is abundantly clear to me that SOLEs are potentially another aspect of the pedagogical shift that we are seeing through the use of personal mobile devices like tablets. The team at Newcastle are very keen to engage with the work that we are doing, possibly centred around the challenge days initially, as it has struck all of us how similar the ways of working are and this would benefit from closer academic scrutiny.