Sugata Mitra and SOLES at Island School

SugataWe 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.



Presentation from AISC

Various people (was going to say several, but it is best not to exaggerate!) have asked for the link to the Prezi I used at the AISC conference in Hong Kong last week.

I have tarted it up a bit with a path that includes the bits I had to leave out and some more stuff a=in some of the stops.

You have to click on the graphic and go to Prezi because Worpress still doesn’t use the type of embedding that Prezi uses! Get it together guys!!


Should numbers define what matters?

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“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Albert Einstein.

Have you noticed how we tend to split what goes on in a child’s education in school into two categories? Sometimes we call them the curriculum and the extra-curricular. The meaning of “extra” here is that it is outside. More recently people have preferred to use co-curricular, so it is “with” rather than “outside”, but still not the curriculum. Sometimes we just talk about lessons and activities. I suppose this implies that lessons are not active, and in many cases this may be true. However the converse which is that activities are not where students learn is definitely not true.

The big distinction, though, is that there are a range of things that students do that matter, and we show this by attaching a grade to them, a number or a letter. Alongside, there is another range of things that we do not grade, and so they do not matter so much. However much we might like to agree with Einstein, there is a very strong implication in all schools and all educational systems that things that are assessed are more important than things which are not. Why else would you hear students asking “Will this be graded?”, “Will this be put on the assessment system?” and “Is it on the exam?”

And yet, we all say how important the “extra” or the “co” or the “activities” are! We all encourage students to take part in all things that go on in our schools that are not in the assessed courses, so perhaps deep down we really think they are important and we recognise that learning happens everywhere, Why do we insist on practising assessment apartheid on these second class experiences?

Let’s stop all this by including everything a student does in an assessment system that allows them to showcase the evidence of their learning from wherever it comes. Give them the freedom to add anything from inside the school or outside the school (Heresy! Kids learn outside school too?) to the collection of evidence and let them ask for assessment comments from coaches and instructors, peers and collaborators and even (gasp!) parents. Let’s then take the next step of dropping the grading that reduces a wonderful child’s experience to a number.

An assessment system like that would be worth having!

If you think that the numbers are not a problem, try to assign a grade to the two wonderful pieces of Art at the top of this post in a way that really tells you something about them and doesn’t reduce them to ridicule.

Hong Kong Roofs: Joyce Hadiwibawa

Guernica. Pablo Picasso

Children and Adults have quite a lot in common

… so why do we insist on assessing them differently?

Well, we are all human aren’t we? There must be some very close similarities between a child and an adult, or is it really the case that there is a sudden point when one stops being a child and becomes a different entity all together? I am not talking about legally, but developmentally, can we say a child has developed into an adult on a 16th birthday, an 18th, a 21st or any other time? Surely this is a continuous function where the small differences occur gradually and with time. A close friend of mine is in his 50s and acts like a 16 year old on a regular basis.

What has this got to do with assessment you are asking?

What is good for adults is good for kids.

It occurred to me the other day, while we were working on our assessment system, that we should take lessons from the way we get assessed in adult life, and what helps us progress and improve our practice and our behaviours. We should apply these lessons to the way we assess students, hoping that what works for us, works for them too.

We don’t though, do we? When was your work last graded? When were you last placed on a rubric for your performance? When did someone last write a summative comment to you with no expectation or even permission for a response? I can say that this has not happened since I left University, and even then very very rarely. It is basically a school thing … for children!

Assessment as a conversation

Without the crutch of assessment to help me in life, it is remarkable that I have made any progress at all really. But if I have, what has made this happen? Conversations are a good start. I have had great conversations with people, some who have praised me, some who have pointed out my failings, and the best ones where  people have done both. The point about them is that, being a conversation, I have been able to reflect, respond and request clarification.

From assessment to evidence

But, without grades or rubrics, how do I know that I have done something of value? How do I demonstrate it to others, so they know too? The evidence is in the thing itself. I am proud of the Island Futures curriculum which is innovative exciting and revolutionary, but it is no good me telling you that, or someone giving it a grade or a place on the rubric. The curriculum itself is the evidence. Come to island School and see.

Creating the picture of myself

I can put together a list of the achievements I have been involved in, and decide how to display my talents. I can create the portfolio of the things that show the range of my skills and show you the evidence of them.

All this is obvious, but we still apply different rules for students. Let’s apply the same rules that work for us. Swap assessment for evidence, base the process on conversations and allow the students to put together their portfolio that shows the range of their skills.

What is good for kids is good for adults.

Let’s look at things in reverse. If we have a good assessment system for students, that is formative, empowering and developmental and doesn’t rely on grades and rubrics, can we learn from this?

There are still schools who base their staff appraisal, or performance management, or whatever it is called in your system, on the metrics of class results. That end up grading teachers as bad, good or outstanding, and sometimes pay them on this basis. Why not use the same system for the adults as you do for the students. If it works for one, it should work for the other.

What we need is an assessment system for students, that gives them control over what evidence they choose to demonstrate their skill development, which is based on conversations. In the same way we need an appraisal system for teaches that gives them control over their portfolio to demonstrate their development and is based on conversations.

These are the same thing. Is there a system out there that does this. I don’t think so. We will make one. When we have it, I will put it on this blog.

Happy grading!

The students themselves must be the measure, not the results of measuring the students

Guernica - Pablo Picasse

Guernica – Pablo Picasse

Go to an art gallery and look at a painting. Walk down the street and look at some architecture. Listen to a piece of music. Use your phone, a coffee maker or a car. Is it good? Is it beautiful, emotional or effective?

Some things are not good in this sense. I have seen some terrible paintings, heard awful music and driven dreadful cars. Some things are absolutely wonderful. I have been transported to untold delight by seeing a Rothko or a Gehry, hearing Stravinsky or driving my old MGB.

Assessment as the measure?

Assessment has two significant difficulties. Let us look at an example outside the world of education to explain this. Let us take a work of art, say Picasso’s Guernica. In order to understand this work of art we need to see it, to be enveloped in its majesty and size. If you are lucky enough to go to the Raina Sofia museum in Madrid, when there are few people there, and can just stand quietly in front of the painting, you are absorbed by it completely. The painting shouts at you about the horrors of war.

The painting carries so much more than any description of it. To think of writing an assessment of this is ludicrous. Can we give it a grade, a place on a rubric, a formative comment? The same is true of a students work in that any assessment is reductive. It is so much smaller than the work we are trying to assess. How can we avoid this tendency to reduction?

In looking at Guernica, we also need to understand its context and its background. A full understanding of the picture requires knowledge of the Spanish Civil War as well as a grasp of the artistic imagery used by Picasso’s cultural antecedents such as Velazquez and Goya and the particular force of the imagery such as the bull. Student work is often like this too.  A good teacher understands what has brought his student to this piece of work and what its context is. Particularly with our students we need to understand what they are trying to convey as much as what they have conveyed. Where are the difficulties in their communication of the ideas or the solution of their problems?

As well as being reductive, assessment is also distant. Let us follow a typical route for an assessment. The student does a piece of work. The teacher gives an assessment as a grade. This may then be used by a counsellor to support a college application, or a form tutor to summarise progress to parents. It is then read by the college or the parents and is already three steps away from the piece of work. As we know from the game Chinese Whispers, the distance a communication travels creates distortion.

How can we assess, but reduce the effects of reduction and distortion? The answer is for the students to be the measure of the work, and for the teachers to be the validation of the measure. Many schools are getting students write journals and blogs on their progress in a course. If this contains the work itself then the reflection on it is an assessment that is not reductive, because the work is there, nor distant because it is the students immediate response to their work.  The teachers role is now to validate and discuss the students own view of the work. If this appears in the journal or on the blog then the assessment is complete. There is no need for a reduction to a grade or a rubric.

See the section on this site about designing an assessment system with these principles at its heart.

All Assessment is Self Assessment

mirrorHow do you know if you have done something well? How do you know if you have done it badly? Think of something you have done recently. Was it successful? Could you have done it better? Was it a complete disaster? How do you know this?

I expect there are a variety of ways that you know that depend on what it was you were doing. Here are some possibilities.

  • Success defined by a simple result. Did I win the tennis match, complete the Sudoku or the crossword? Have I achieved the goal set out?
  • Other people’s reactions in terms of what they do. Did the class work well? Did the meeting move forward productively? Did the teacher improve their teaching?
  • Other people’s feedback. The class may fill in a response form. You may be told your teaching is excellent. A thank-you from a grateful parent. A peer praises your work.

Or, you just know. You finish what you have done with a buzz of confidence that you have done it well.

Rarely, in adult life, is the feedback a grade or mark given by someone else, but for students we must add this way of understanding their success as well. However artificial we may view this kind of feedback, it is the most common form in schools whether it comes from criterion based rubrics or norm referenced tests.

In reality, very often, our understanding is a mixture of all these elements. We combine objective measure, others behaviour, their comments and crucially our own personal feelings. All of these add up to our understanding of our success of whatever it is we have done. Professionally, and perhaps personally, we can’t help doing this. We judge ourselves and criticise ourselves all the time. How often has a teacher come out of a classroom and not thought about how well the lesson went? It is our professional obligation to do this, but fortunately it is our natural reaction too. We tend to be advocates of Socrates’ dictum “The unexamined life is not worth living”.

The point here is that the judgement of our success that matters takes place in our own heads. We take note of external factors, but add them together and construct the judgement ourselves. The judgement that matters is self-judgement because that is the only one that, in the end, will have any effect on what we do next.

In education there is still a tendency to see the assessment as the outcome. Much has been written elsewhere on the way in which a grade or mark closes down discussion and reflection. Assessment that does this has no real value in learning.

The point is that, if the student did not react to it, the assessment would be useless. The student needs to look at the assessment, wherever it comes from and understand it through the lens of their own learning. It is not the grade or the comment or the rubric that has the effect but the student’s reaction to it. The student’s reaction is the real assessment; hence the phrase All Assessment is Self Assessment. To paraphrase Socrates “The unexamined assessment is not worth giving”.

For more thoughts on assessment see the post “The students themselves must be the measure…

How structural change can inspire pedagogical change.

IB Asia Pacific Conference, Macau 2015

These are notes to accompany a talk I gave to this conference. Many of these ideas are, or will be, ellborated elsewhere in this site.

New curriculum demands, and new approaches to teaching and learning require teachers to change their mindset about how to teach and what it means to learn. This presentation draw on experience in IB schools in Hong Kong, Geneva and Singapore where structural changes have allowed teachers to reassess their pedagogy. Examples will show how teachers who want to change the way they do things are enabled to do so, and those who are reluctant are inspired to join in. We will see how creation of new environments has led to unprecedented discussions over pedagogy between practitioners, and led schools to be more reflective with the school becoming a centre for research by its own staff. Along the way, some common dichotomies such as assessment and evidence, control and trust, backwards and forwards by design will be looked at in the context of more complex models.

The Prezi for the session at the Macau IB conference in 2015 is here. Actually is pretty slow, so here is the link to a downloadable version that you can run without Prezi. Just unzip and click!

The links to some of the documents mentioned are as follows

The Island Time Manifesto

The Island Futures Manifesto

Elements courses The list of courses and some information is in the links on the right hand sidebar. There are different courses on each day, and they are listed in that way for students to choose options.


A vision of learning for Island School

Common Ground Collaborative and their Common Principles for Learning

Enough links.

In brief the key ideas behind the presentation are these.


Change cannot happen if we do not change the structure within which we are acting. Those who want to change cannot do so, or at least it is very hard, if they have the same constraints. Whether the structural constraints are exam boards, syllabi, the length of lessons, the department boundaries, the assessment system, the speed of the internet connection, the size of the classroom, the furniture in the room or any other element then you must change that to allow change to happen.

Those who do not want to change are forced to if the structure is changed. They simply cannot do the same thing if you put them in a different place.


Teachers are wonderful people who can be trusted to find positive exciting educational solutions when put in new situations. This is particularly the case if they are collaboratively finding those solutions. There is no more creative synergy than a group of teachers finding out together what they are going to do if they are teaching a mixed age group, or in a large room shared with other classes, or for a lesson lasting 4 hours, or designing a course with no pre-defined end point, or having the whole class using mobile devices or anything else. Sorry, I correct myself, there is one thing more creative, and that is a group of students responding to these changes. Be prepared for the unexpected and try to lose a little control!

Backwards and Forwards

Schools or courses that are based solely on a backwards by design approach are limiting the opportunities for creativity and for student responsibility for their learning. If you decide the outcomes first, then those are the outcomes you will get, or you have failed. If you start from the beginning and let the teachers take the course where they want, giving opportunities for the students to take the course where they want, then the endpoints are unknown and exciting.

I am not suggesting that there is no place for backwards by design, merely that there must be opportunities for other things as well.


Assessment is generally a reductive process. We take the work and reduce to a comment, a mark or a grade. Students must be given opportunities to show evidence rather than the assessment of that evidence. If somebody asks how good is your extended essay, the answer should be here it is, read it, rather than don’t read it, it was a B.