Answering Big Questions Through Self-Organized Learning

By Sally Rix, School in the Cloud Community Manager

In a room in the northeast of England, a group of four children sit around a computer. One student points at the screen while talking animatedly. After a moment, another student jumps up and starts writing on the wall. The attention of the group swivels to the wall until a third student turns back to type on the keyboard, then reads something off the screen. Suddenly, the four students are all talking excitedly. This sudden outburst attracts the attention of students nearby and some come over to see what the group has found; a discussion ensues and suddenly the visiting students are rushing back to their own groups to share what they’ve just seen.  

At the same time, in India, something very similar is happening. Again, we have groups of about four children around computers who are discussing a topic, manipulating the mouse and typing on the keyboard, moving between groups, and pointing at their screens to draw attention to something. Here, the children are a little younger and the Internet connection rather less reliable, but the atmosphere of the room is the same—movement and noise and the feeling that we’re teetering on the edge of chaos.

The rooms look similar, but the contexts are completely different. The first is a classroom in George Stephenson High School, located in the middle of a small town in northeast England. The room doesn’t look like a classroom, although that’s what it is. The teacher is difficult to spot as she unobtrusively observes. These students are well-acquainted with technology and the facilities in the room are not novel for them, although the way of learning is. The room in India is not part of a school; it stands alone in the remote village of Korakati, which is located in the middle of the world’s largest mangrove forest. There is no teacher; instead, a “granny” is interacting with the children via Skype. The children here had never seen computers before this room was opened a year ago. This is still the only place where they have access to such technology, yet they are clearly familiar with a range of software and with the Internet. Today, a granny is Skyping in to talk with them in English and to tell stories and ask them Big Questions. On other days, they simply explore the computers, trying out anything from playing games to finding answers to their own questions using the Internet.

These children in diverse locations, with such different lives, expectations, and schooling, are undergoing a similar kind of learning experience—Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs). Self-organized learning was developed by Professor Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University on the foundation of his firm belief that learning will emerge spontaneously when children are encouraged to be curious and are allowed to self-organize. The two rooms described above are examples of the seven dedicated SOLEs that Mitra established in conjunction with TED, five of which are in India and two in the United Kingdom. Over the last few years, SOLEs have also been set up by enthusiastic facilitators all around the world, sometimes as part of existing schools and sometimes as a way of extending access to education to children who are being left behind by existing structures and systems. The facilitators provide computers with Internet access (always fewer computers than children to promote collaboration), pose a curiosity-stimulating Big Question, and then stand back while children self-organize to find their answers. While it is always noisy, even chaotic, when children share what they’ve found, the adults listening are often amazed.

Taken from the  SOLE Toolkit

Taken from the SOLE Toolkit

Those children who use SOLE within an existing school structure find it to be a totally different experience from those with which they are familiar. We spoke to children in the United Kingdom and in India and they explained that SOLE presents a big challenge, but they are determined to prove that they can do it. They enjoy having the freedom to work with whom they choose, which makes the potentially daunting task of answering a seemingly unanswerable question so much more manageable. The children in India often do not speak English as their first language, but their experiences with the grannies can be quite transformational. When we asked some children to write down their thoughts on SOLE, they insisted on writing in English and talked about how much the granny sessions had improved both their English and their confidence.

While SOLE may not be the only form of education that children need, it empowers them to harness their own learning potential, enables them to access information far above that which they might manage alone, and gives them the opportunity – often lacking in formal education – to work in an authentic 21st-century style. It also has the potential to broaden the horizons of the young people; some of the most awe-inspiring moments have happened when children in one of the SOLEs in India connect with children in the United Kingdom and they answer the same Big Question together via Skype. This exposure to a completely different culture can really open up the world. Although the children are often shy to begin with and need encouragement from adults to get started, their confidence grows as the session continues. They begin to get caught up in their own curiosity about the children on the screen in front of them until, suddenly, they are all laughing together and are keen to tackle a Big Question across international boundaries.

We asked a few students to share their SOLE experiences with us and one answer we received seemed representative of the experiences described by all the children we have spoken to around the world. Gouri attended the first SOLE, which was established in the village of Shirgaon in Maharashtra, when she was just 13 years old; she is now studying computer engineering at Mumbai University. She told us,

“Whole summer vacation I used to spend in SOLE. SOLE works for me with a real motto of self-learning. It was a journey of attempting new things, learning, doing mistakes, correcting them, and finally understanding what exactly we have to do.

SOLE . . . makes us confident. It helps to improve communication skills. Day-to-day [the] sessions [get] better. We were interested for each and every session and eagerly wait for [them]. New conversations, mediators, ideas, questions, and much more. It increases my interest [in] technology. We learn how to speak, how to interact, how to express ourself in front of others. Some other skills, like reading, searching for perfect answer etc. Co-operation of grannies makes us feel positive [about] improving personal as well as technical skills.”

This is a global experiment in SOLE, whereby we are coming to understand that, different as education systems around the world might be, the children who experience them have far more in common than we might assume; they share an innate sense of wonder and curiosity and they share the ability to teach themselves far more than we usually anticipate. You can help young people realize their potential by joining us on this SOLE adventure, as a facilitator or a granny. Take a look at our website for more information:
The SOLE Toolkit can be downloaded here.