We had a visit from Sugata for a couple of days to Island School. He spent a day looking at aspects of our curriculum, and then presented to the whole staff, before a workshop with a smaller group on SOLES. If you don’t know his work, then google him and see the TED talks on The Hole in the Wall and others. SOLES are Self Organised Learning Environments, which have occupied a lot of his more recent research. They are interesting to us, as we have established group activity and collaborative learning at the heart of our new curriculum and I believed or hoped that working with Sugata would help illuminate our way forward with these ideas. What I found was as challenging and controversial as I had hoped, with some fundamental differences between the way we plan our groups and the way he would advocate. It has been a fascinating challenge to us and one that should make our practice better.
Perhaps I should explain what we do at Island School, then look at the SOLES and highlight the differences. Skip this bit if you know about Explorations.
A few years ago we introduced a middle school course called Explorations. The aims were to do the things that the more traditional courses did not do so well. The emphasis was to be on collaboration, understanding our place in the world, research based enquiry, transfer of skills and communication. You can guess that we have already plenty of courses that require students to work and be assessed individually on their grasp of content that is set by exam boards. Explorations was to be different.
The content is drawn from the Cambridge IGCSE course in Global Perspectives. This is good because it allows a lot of freedom in choice of research question. We choose one of the 20 global issues, students frame their question, do their research and respond to the question. There is a lot of scope for learning and using enquiry skills here. We blended this with our ICT programme. We use the IE Award because it focusses on use of skills in a real context and because most of the writers of the course come from Island School! This means that students can use their IT skills for their response to the research question.
Conscience is one of our key skill areas, by which we mean understanding the effect of ones actions or inactions on the world around you and taking responsibility for that. Obviously understanding the issues of the world is at the heart of Global Perspectives too, but we insist that one of the units the students take on has real action at its heart. For example a group of students might produce a promotional film or create a website for a local charity related to the global issue they have researched.
None of the above is particularly different from the way most schools would deal with these issues. The key difference for us is that the collaborative groups of students are all mixed age. Typically there are 6 students with 2 each from our years 9, 10 and 11. This means they need to learn and practice the leadership and collaboration skills to make the group a success. The year 9s learn from the hard working aspirational year 11s. They take on more responsibility in year 10 and become the leaders in year 11. Leading the group involves finding ways to make everyone’s contribution valuable. These are incredibly important skills and they are often left out of mainstream education and consigned to the extra-curricular domain. In Explorations, we want to teach these skills as part of the academic programme.
Sugata Mitra’s SOLES are based on collaboration as well. He has had great success in using this structure to encourage students to learn to work together and tackle deep problems through combined research. You can see why they are of interest to us, and why we thought his work relevant to the Explorations course in particular. The most interesting things we found are the fundamental differences between the SOLES and Explorations.
|In Explorations||In SOLES|
|We choose the groups of students who will work together, and the size of the group.||The students decide who to work with, and the groups naturally evolve to a workable size.|
|Each student has a computer. We are a one to one school.||The computers are limited to about one to five students with big screens.|
|Students stay in the group they started in.||Students can change groups at any time.|
|Students choose the research question.||The teacher sets a question for the whole class.|
|The teacher supports and encourages, giving advice on collaboration, research and response techniques.||The teacher does as little as possible, responding to most questions with “I don’t know, but when you have found out can you tell me?”|
|Research projects take several weeks.||SOLE activities rarely run over a day, and are often less than this.|
|Assessment criteria are fixed by the exam board.||There are no fixed assessment criteria.|
|Groups are always mixed age. This is done by design.||Groups are the same age. Even if the class is mixed the freedom to self-organise means that they will gravitate to the same age.|
Sugata says he is continually amazed by how much students can research and learn if they are left to do it without interference. He has many entertaining stories of these successes in his classes and, increasingly, round the world. One might say that the self-organisation allows students to get into a comfortable learning environment with as few obstacles to their learning as possible. They learn because the question they have been asked is inherently interesting.
In Explorations, we put students into an uncomfortable learning environment and challenge them to find ways to behave that will work. It is noticeable that they do not like this experience at the start of the year, but speak positively about what they have learned at the end of the experience.
Which is the better approach? Or should we do some of both? Sugata noted that if we start SOLES with middle school students then, initially, they need help and support in make these a success. If they have done some since the senior primary school years, they can just get on with it perfectly successfully.
We are thinking about these questions now. Perhaps we will introduce some more SOLE like activities in the earlier years to see what effect this has on their work in Explorations. If we can free ourselves from the constraints of the IGCSE assessment model, perhaps we can do both within Explorations, but at different times. The assessment model for SOLEs would be more like we do in Elements courses (see elsewhere). Assessment is by evidence and conversation, rather than judgement and grade. I am philosophically much more comfortable with this than the rubric and criteria model, which stifles creativity and removes responsibility.
Loots to think about. Exciting as always.