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March 18, 2021

Students Lead Their Learning. Here’s How.

As a science teacher, the idea of self-organizing organisms makes a lot of sense to me. In nature, we see organisms working together as communities to ensure survival of the group. Wolves and orcas hunt in packs. Honeybees and ants are notorious collaborators. Dolphins and humpback whales hunt in coordinated attacks on their prey.

In education, though, this idea of self-organization among groups is novel. I was introduced to the notion when I watched the TED talk by researcher Sugata Mitra about his “Hole in The Wall” experiment. The experiment involved installing computers with access to the Internet into a wall near a slum in India. When children approached the computer and asked, “What is this?” Sugata replied, “I don’t know. Maybe you can figure it out,” and left the children to form their own answers.

Self-Organized Learning Environments

What Mitra discovered through careful research is that children, when left alone, learn based on their curiosity in ways that differ from traditional teaching paradigms. The children in India naturally learned from one another, created peer groups, collaborated, and formed loosely organized groups that facilitated learning. Not only did they learn, they also developed their own language to explain what they learned.

This discovery triggered his pursuit towards what is now known as Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE).

In 2013, Sugata Mitra won a million dollar TED prize, and with the winnings he formed what is now known as the first School in the Cloud. His dream was to create a learning environment where children, no matter how rich or poor, could engage and connect with information and mentoring online.

Focusing On the Big Question

There are now over 100 SOLE schools worldwide. I recently visited a SOLE school in Harlem, during a Schools That Can Forum in NYC. At P.S. 197 John B. Russwurm school, there’s a SOLE lab run by Natalia Arredondo. I was immediately impressed by the way Natalia began with a Big Question. The students began the lab by asking: “Why do we need an education?”

Sometimes the big question is one that no one in the world actually has the answer to, such as “Do trees talk to each other?” It’s vital that children realize that scientists are always working on trying to answer questions and that a scientist could spend her entire life working on a question to be solved. And it’s always good to remind students that scientists often learn through collaboration.

The students in Natalia’s SOLE lab were encouraged to add any other questions they were interested in answering that afternoon. After they voted on their Big Question, they dispersed into groups of two to four. Students had set out to self organize.

Only a few rules exist in the SOLE lab:

  1. Choose a group
  2. You can switch groups
  3. Walk around and see what other groups are doing and report back to your group (sharing)
  4. Report (in any media) your findings

“Let The Learning Happen”

Now, as a teacher, classroom management is always on my mind. But Natalia reassured us that though there might be chaos at first, ultimately order would emerge. Let the learning happen was her motto.

Once the students began working in their chosen groups, they sat on collaborative benches in front of computer screens in a semicircle and began to research and write about their findings. Like ants working towards cutting down a leaf to bring back to the colony, students engaged in the question; paraphrased ideas; googled images, definitions, and vocabulary words; and asked each other questions about the meaning of education. At the end of the lab, each group presented their findings by sharing their answer.

Natalia simply asked them in response: “Do you think you answered the question you were given?” This reflective questioning allowed the groups to deeply consider the many facets of interpretation.

How, you might wonder, does this novel approach to teaching and learning help science teachers?

The similarities between the shift in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and SOLE should not go unnoticed. As we delve further into NGSS to focus on student-driven storylines and to select activities that align with the new standards, the SOLE approach may hold insight into creating learning opportunities that quench our students’ innate desire to explore, create, build models, and solve challenges.

How might you facilitate a Self-Organized Learning Experience for your students this year?


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