By Dinah Whitton.

Imagine a world with self-organized learning and educators only serving as guides. While some might call this unschooling or perhaps a familiar aspect of homeschooling, this social experiment threatens traditional educational methods. A Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) enables children to work collaboratively on the internet to learn without direct assistance from a teacher.

The idea that children require a teacher in a traditional classroom to learn was challenged by Dr. Sugata Mitra in 1999. It all started in a New Delhi slum where Dr. Mitra and his colleagues literally placed computers in a hole in the wall nearby their office. The computers were equipped with hidden cameras and internet access for anyone to use. Within a short time curious inexperienced children gathered and figured out how to use the computer and even started teaching others. The first “Hole in the Wall Experiment” proved successful and prompted Dr. Mitra to place more computers in various towns and villages. Over 30 Learning Stations were scattered across India and provided the same conclusion: children can learn without traditional teaching methods. Dr. Mitra presented his bold theory at the 2013 TED conference and received the first one-million dollar TED Prize. The first School in the Cloud was opened to high school students in Killingworth, England.

SOLES at Work

Natalia Arredondo was among the many educators intrigued by this new model of learning. As an experienced special education teacher in New York, Natalia was compelled to contact Dr. Mitra. Since she worked in an inquiry-based school, she applied the SOLE model to the dual language classroom she piloted. “I tried it with all learning abilities and I was blown away,” said Natalia. “The more they asked questions, the more they were able to do.” Using only the internet, the students collaborated to answer “Big Questions” – interesting and challenging questions to stimulate the discovery process. Mentors are also included in the “Granny Cloud” in some SOLE locations. The Grannies connect with the students through Skype to foster their natural curiosity concerning their Big Question. Some Grannies have also helped students learn another language over a series of sessions. With the continued success Natalia invited local school principals to personally witness students in action. “One principal was amazed to see how engaged the children were and how they didn’t complain about reading for an hour.”

Natalia became the coordinator of the first North American SOLE lab in Harlem, New York, and is a PhD candidate with a focus on SOLE.

Homeschooling with SOLE

Since SOLEs can be initiated by anyone regardless of location, Natalia believes this is especially ideal for homeschooling families. “SOLE advocates self regulation and you decide how to do it,” said Natalia. Parent-educators can also present unanswered questions based on a unit study. This method promotes the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Although the recommended age ranges from 3-12 years old, a mixed age group encourages the children to use each other’s strengths to succeed. Younger ones who may not be able to read can use their curiosity to build the momentum while older children record the findings. There are only four rules: 1) Find a group; 2) You can switch groups; 3) Share – see what others are doing and report to your group; and, 4) Present your findings in any way. “Competition is eliminated and not enforced; so, it’s like putting a puzzle together,” said Natalia. Sessions typically last for 90 minutes with each group’s captain providing the communication between the adults and children. The School in the Cloud recommends using large computer screens so the children can easily see and interact. In addition to internet access, a reliable firewall should be established. A trusted adult can be in the room to redirect children if anything inappropriate appears.

What’s Next?

Homeschooling families can easily incorporate the SOLE method of learning within their groups and even at the local library. Many libraries are equipped with smart boards and multiple computers to support this initiative. With the daytime flexibility of homeschooling families, librarians would likely welcome such a positive use of the library.

The great thing about children is they never seem to run out of questions. You can easily use their curiosity to make a positive impact on the community. Natalia recalls one SOLE session where children asked questions about the mounting garbage in their neighbourhood. Once they learned the effects of discarded straws in the river, the children stopped using straws and had a greater awareness of their environment. “Children’s questions come from a very authentic place,” said Natalia. “They can transform what they learned into applied knowledge.”

What’s your Big Question? We’d love to hear about your family’s adventures in a self-organized learning environment. Whether you’re using the SOLE method or your own creative version, connect with us online to share your findings!

HSLDA: the partner in your success.

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