An Introduction to SOLE

(Self-Organizing Learning Environments)

by Leo Heska
April, 2013

Introduction - Evolving education

It's often said that institutionalized schooling as we know it is suited to a bygone day. American schools emphasize socialization, which in practice means uniformity and compliance. This may have once been useful and/or sufficient, but nowadays employers complain of graduates unable to organize their own work, perform with minimal supervision, make and carry out a plan given a general direction; or unskilled in "critical thinking." Sometimes some schools, aware of these complaints, attempt to teach self-direction or critical thinking - unfortunately without much apparent success.

Visionaries have plenty of ideas, like this from Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-chief of Science magazine:

An outstanding education system imparts values that support good citizenship, while empowering adults to be life-long learners and problem solvers who can make wise decisions for their families, for their communities, and for their workplaces. Such an education system must continually evolve to remain relevant to the interests and needs of each new generation.
What a great vision! Start out doing great things, and then evolve. But evolution is not so easy in practice.

It's not just institutional or bureaucratic inertia. Consider a school district that over the decades has not only spent hundreds of millions of dollars on "big box" schools, but along the way, razed all their small community schools and sold the land they stood on. Now suppose you realize that the whole concept of big box schools was oversold, and that their promised advantages 1) did not come true, and/or 2) are more than outweighed by disadvantages. What can you do? Not much, in fact - you can't afford to bulldoze everything and start over. To decentralize (or "deconsolidate" to use educational jargon) would take several decades.

Other constraints limit school systems' ability to evolve in directions such as:

This is not the place to list all the constraints, but they're real. Taken together they make evolution of school systems, much as we may desire it, difficult and slow.

Existing alternatives to institutional education

While institutional school systems largely fail to evolve, much educational change (and much educational excellence) instead happens in their alternatives. Consider Montessori schools for example. Though they do vary, Montessori schools tends to offer wonderful learning environments, and kids learn better. For example, 9-year-old Montessori kids typically read at the level of 12-year-olds in public schools. But excellence is different from evolution, and it's difficult to say how rapidly Montessori schools may be evolving. After all, Montessori education is over 100 years old and many of Maria Montessori's core principles are still followed today.

Homeschooling's another alternative to institutional education. It varies even more than Montessori, depending as it does on the choices made by each individual family; some of whom don't believe in evolution at all. However, many homeschoolers do tailor education not only to the needs and abilities of their children, but also to the "real world" (as they see it).

And, of course, nowadays there's online learning, rapidly being adopted by homeschoolers, public schools, and universities. For pure information delivery, sites like Khan Academy are hard to beat. Universities of course have been offering online instruction for over a decade, which differ from on-site courses primarily in that lectures are delivered over the internet and collaboration between students is done online. These paid-for courses, led and graded by instructors, have been fairly popular. And nowadays, growth of free university-level courses is rapid. In these courses (sometimes known as "MOOCs" for "Massively Open Online Courses"), students proceed as a group through a structured, calendar/syllabus-based course of study, much like a standard university online offering. The difference is that either a computer grades students' work, or sometimes students grade each other.

SOLE - a new alternative

Dr. Sugatra Mitra (a physicist and educational researcher) has invented a new alternative that he used to call "minimally invasive learning" but now calls SOLE, which stands for Self-Organized Learning Environment. In a SOLE workshop, children use the internet as a resource for learning, and in very large part, organize themselves and structure their own learning.

Briefly, a SOLE works like this:

At first glance, the SOLE method can look like "throw out the teachers, give kids access to the internet, and let them learn for themselves." It can seem to play into an anti-teacher or even anti-human mentality. But this is inaccurate. Mitra himself makes clear that SOLE does crucially and integrally involve humans, other and older than the children who are learning. But the role they play is rather different from the classic role of "teacher."

The adult (and/or older child and/or teen) helpers, guides, or facilitators are present but do not play the usual teacher role. Rather, these helpers, who generally do not know the answers to the questions asked of the children, guide and facilitate. Mitra suggests they act "like a grandmother." Specifically, encouraging, praising, saying things like "Well, I never knew that" or "I never knew that when I was your age." Perhaps they might reframe or recast a question, commisserate, suggest that a child find a way to work something out (for themselves), suggest "I wonder if you could go a little deeper/further," or "I wonder if you could look in a different place," or direct a child's or group's attention to what another group is doing. Just the kind of gentle, supportive direction you would expect a grandmom to give. Sometimes giving the kids small hints when they can't figure something out for themselves, but only as necessary, and all the while with the intention, expectation, and direction that the kids are to do this themselves, relying on the helper only as needed. "If you need me, I am here to help you in any way I can. I care about you and I do want to support you. But my goal and my hope is that you will do as much of this for yourself as you can."

There are good reasons for many of the guidelines listed above, which Dr. Mitra developed based on his own experience. For example, if video screens are too small, then the team of 4 children can't all see the screen. If video screens are too big (for example projected onto a wall) then children, including from other teams, get distracted and lose focus. The fact that children can leave their group and join another prevents kids from dominating others and/or making their lives miserable. If teams are too small (or if every child has their own computer) then the interaction does not develop, that seems crucial to the success of this learning style. Also, individual children offered "easy" versus "hard" questions tend to choose "easy," whereas teams tend to go for "hard." The fact of one computer for every 4 children forces them to share, negotiate, invent their own rules and roles, and develop their own learning strategies. This collaboration (or as Dr. Mitra puts it - this "self-organization") seems essential to the learning experience.

Dr. Mitra has developed and tried out his SOLE method in a variety of environments and countries. During his research and development, he and others have found that

. . . within a few months, given free and public access to computers and the Internet, irrespective of who or where they are or what language they spoke, children could:
  1. Become computer literate on their own, that is to say, learn to use computers and the Internet for most of the tasks carried out by lay users.
  2. Teach themselves sufficient English to use email, chat and search engines.
  3. Learn to search the Internet for answers to their questions.
  4. Improve their English pronunciation on their own.
  5. Improve their mathematics and science scores in school.
  6. Answer examination questions several years before they might normally be expected to be capable of doing so.
  7. Develop their social interaction skills and value systems.
  8. Form independent opinions and detect indoctrination.*

Note that last point about indoctrination. The internet provides plenty of propaganda, distortion, slop, and outright falsification. It's quite interesting that children as young as 7 are able to learn to see through this. However, there's a connection between doctrine and indoctrination, which presents a possible concern.

Parents who believe in, and want their child to believe in, certain religious doctines, may not want to send their child to a SOLE workshop in which they may come to see (or "see through") those doctrines as indoctrination, and thereafter disbelieve or disregard them. At bottom, SOLE is designed and intended to enable and accustom children to think critically, think for themselves, become independent thinkers. In my experience this is just what many parents want; but other parents may see it as anathema or a path to heresy.

Provisional, interim, tentative thoughts

In advance of running SOLE workshops and learning from the experience, it is still possible to make some observations.

Dr. Mitra is nowhere suggesting that we just toss kids in a room with computers and let them learn. Certain roles traditionally (hopefully) performed by teachers, computers can't do. For example, quoting Mitra, "computers can't care." The positive encouragement and involvement of an older person guiding and facilitating, (or "acting like a grandmother" as Mitra puts it) is critical to success; measurably so.

Besides the older guide/facilitator, social organization and learning are also critical to SOLE's success. It seems to be crucial that the kids collaborate with one another, constructing not only their own knowledge, but also their own "knowledge acquisition methodology."

Results seem quite impressive. Dr. Mitra designed some pretty good tests, to see how well kids actually learn in a SOLE. Mastery and retention both seem high. Also kids in a SOLE seem to delight in tackling really big and hard questions, normally considered well beyond the capabilities of children their age. In a sense and to some extent, a SOLE seems to multiply children's abilities and intelligence.

SOLE is an evolution that matches current reality. It involves a new breakdown of learning responsibilities. Time was, one person, the teacher or schoolmaster/schoolmistress, was responsible for nearly every responsibility. They were source of information; they also kept order, evaluated, monitored, judged, and (ideally) encouraged and guided. A SOLE delegates much of the information delivery to the internet, which is an information-delivery mechanism. SOLE further shifts much of kids' organization to themselves. It is up to them to form and reform teams, make, enforce, and revise rules, create roles and fit them to kids' capabilities, deal with disagreements, avoid behaviors such as freeloading and hogging, and so on. What's left for the guide/facilitator (Mitra's "granny") All that's left for the grownup or "older kid" working with the younger kids, is the "granny" role previously mentioned - but this is very important!

SOLE offers perhaps the greatest educational freedom possible, next to unschooling. Yet it does not degenerate into anarchy or sloth. Somehow, it seems to encourage kids to really "put their heart (as well as their intellect) into it."

There is room for interesting experimentation in this area. Partly to see if Dr. Mitra's apparently impressive results hold up with other groups and leaders, and in other environments. But also, simply to learn and innovate. How well might a SOLE work in math education? What kinds of questions are most amenable to this style of learning? How often and for how long (both in hours and/or in months or years) can kids enjoy it? Benefit from it? What kind of offshoots or consequences might emerge? What innovations work, and how?

Personally I would like to find out answers to these and other questions. SOLE's interesting and seems like it might not be just another educational "flash in the pan," making use as it does of both a new technology (the internet) and the power of collaboration.

References

As far as I know neither Dr. Mitra nor anyone else has written a book or made a (feature-length) movie about SOLEs. However there is a lot of written material and some good video documentaries/reports to read, view, or audit to learn more. Including these:

Video, Stills

The following four videos, viewed in order, can give you a pretty good introduction to SOLE's origins and how it developed. (Please note that the technical quality of some of these four videos is not so very high):

  1. How the Hole in the Wall Started
  2. The Hole in the Wall
  3. The Hole in the Wall In Action
  4. SOLE Demonstration

Here are another four videos, and also some still photos, (strictly amateur quality) of one of our SOLE groups:

Our photos and videos

If you really like videos and have an hour to watch one, this one is perhaps the most complete video description/presentation of SOLE:

Into Something Rich and Strange

If you prefer to read and/or don't have a full hour to spare, here is the text transcription of the above video:

Into Something Rich and Strange - Transcript

Here's Dr. Mitra's 2013 TED talk:

Sugata Mitra at TED - Child-Driven Education

Here'a ten-minute segment of the talk:
Sugata Mitra at TED - Child-Driven Education (portion)

Text

Here is an article that introduces SOLE.

Here are several papers written by Dr. Mitra and others, regarding SOLE and related experiments, explorations, and studies.

Here are two resources specifically designed to support people who want to run a SOLE workshop themselves:

And lastly, here is a very rough, preliminary set of SOLE questions I extracted from the above documents, plus augmented myself. Some of these I have used when running/trying out SOLE workshops. In general I find that it's true; kids love the hard questions. However, you need to bear in mind their age and how much they already know. In a workshop with 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds, children focused much more on Pythagorus' family relationships, than on his famous theorem.

SOLE Questions


*This quote and list adapted from two sources (they vary slightly) - see Limits to self-organising systems of learning and the SOLE School Support Pack listed above.