SOLE and chips

Jacqueline Emkes

Jacqueline (Jacq) began teaching in 2004. After completing her MEd at Cambridge, she was appointed Specialist Lead in Education (SLE). Working closely with Bedford Borough Council, Jacq has collaborated with schools across the region, across all ages and stages. She is an Ambassador for British Council e-Twinning, and has a keen interest in forming partnerships between schools and universities. Fellow of the Royal Society Improving Arts, she is an enthusiastic action researcher, with a particular interest in the MESH initiative. Gadget-mad Jacq teaches at Biddenham International School and Sports College (BISSC), Bedford UK and is also an independent e-learning Consultant.

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What is SOLE, and how can it be used to innovate education. Taking the the lead from Sugata Mitra, e-learning consultant Jacqueline Emkes illustrates how she’s utilised this learning method to achieve inspiring results.

I am a roving e-Learning Consultant based at Biddenham International School and Sports College (BISSC) in Bedford. In 2012, I was asked to take a lead on 'SOLE' learning sessions with a group of home-educated children on the PLACE Scheme, a parent -led and community based support programme for home educating families. It is commissioned by Bedford Local Authority and administered through BISSC. To be eligible for the scheme children must be on the Elective Home Education Register of the local authority in which they live.

SOLE stands for Self Organised Learning Environment. Sugata Mitra proposed, in his TED talks, to invite children to ask big questions that lead them on an intellectual journey to pursue answers rather than only memorising facts (SOLE toolkit 2013).

The plan for our SOLE sessions is to organise the children aged 8 to 12 into small groups of about 4, assigning one computer to each group and then ask them to answer a BIG question. The teacher becomes ‘invisible’ and leaves the children to find answers for themselves, organise themselves and present their findings in a ‘Grand Presentation’ to parents at the end of the session.

Inevitably ‘normal’ behaviour rules go out the window. Children are soon found scrolling the internet lying on the floor, under a desk, on top of a desk, perched on a table; anything goes, it is all learning! The children can move around freely, help other groups and indeed swap groups.

The BIG questions might be anything relevant to the curriculum demands or indeed not at all. The children tend to divert from the lesson plan with ease! My Scheme of Work is copious but if Nelson Mandela’s passing is the topic they want to research, who am I to dictate otherwise?

I find myself needing to pose ‘BIG’ questions with little or no warning. One young boy arrived at SOLE desperately upset that his dad had just departed on a business trip to USA. A quick switch of plan from World War 2 generally to ‘Who or what was Pearl Harbor’ got everyone thinking about how the US had become involved in WW2. The boy cheered up to think of all his new found knowledge to tell Dad on his return.

We started with a group of 10, and numbers fluctuate around that as families come and go. The parents usually stay with their children in organised activities at PLACE and indeed siblings tend to stay too. After gentle persuasion we decided that for the SOLE session to work we would have to ask parents to wait outside or elsewhere. We started with the PLACE topic ‘Light’. For each session I brought a few items to start things off - so milk and torches started the session: ‘Why is the sky blue and sunset orange’?

We began with one PC per group, along with crayons, paper, scissors and glue. The children engaged with the ideas straight away and quickly decided that the end of each session was to be called the ‘Grand Presentation’. Internet skills quickly developed through guidance on where to look, ‘safe’ searching, reliable sources and age appropriate sources.

The first few ‘Grand Presentations’ were in the form of posters. A great start but perhaps we could do better? In the spirit of an ‘ethic of excellence’ (Berger 2003) we decided to instil a passion for quality aiming for nothing less than the best.

Using the (free) safe social learning platform Makewaves (MW), the children started to upload their work to share within the group. They are encouraged to critique each other’s work, in a kind and helpful way, by leaving comments. They can show off their work to their parents and siblings.

To date, such critiquing has been so kind so enthusiastic – positive feedback is their mantra! It has been left to me to try to give more constructive improvement comments. This had particular relevance to a story written by one 10 year old girl. Her marvellous story, written entirely voluntarily, was critiqued by our Principal, improved upon with her family members’ assistance and ended up becoming an outstanding piece of work worthy of a top GCSE candidate.

We raised our quality further by managing to acquire four iPads, thus putting the microchip into SOLE. With little or no instruction, the children quickly taught themselves the rudiments of animation, filming, sound recording and audio.

What amazingly professional presentations emerged from this! Our topic at the time was WW2 and conflicts more generally. Using Lego, the internet and much much more, the children researched their topics and produced answers of such high quality the parents thought we had brought them in. Ethics of excellence indeed. They quickly worked out how to upload movies, pictures and write stories on the MW app on the iPads which speeded up the whole process considerably. For my part, I can quickly moderate, award badges and ‘go live’ using the MW app on my own phone and iPad, anytime, anywhere. Badge missions have become a big incentive for the group, although we have tripped up a bit when others uploaded for members of the group. I will have to work on that one.

So what next? We hope to link with schools in Europe and have started with a Turkish ePal exchange. To achieve this, we hope to use iPads and Makewaves to share our work linking through the eTwinning portal of the British Council.

One year on and in September 2014 PLACE started once more. Our first session of SOLE took place on Friday 12th September. I had spent some time organising a scheme of work based on the PLACE topic for this term; ‘Food and Drink’. My lesson plan for Friday was to begin with a reminder session on ‘safe’ internet use, an interactive quiz using iPads and Nearpod, based on sugar in foods, a ‘get to know each other’ Bingo game and, to finish, a session on writing blogs. Well, that was the plan! Needless to say, in true SOLE fashion, the children had other ideas.

Once we had all got over the excitement of being back, we started on the interactive quiz with a reminder that ‘Minecraft’ was for free time at the end of the session, not during. All was going well, with the youngest boy in charge of the lesson – seizing control of the activities through my iPad which collated the results. How he chastised and urged on the rest of the group to get on with the task in hand! It was fabulous to see his reading skills have improved, and his ability to identify names of others from the control iPad helped his class behaviour techniques!

In a sudden about-turn-diversion from sugar in foods and drinks, the subject of the summer craze ‘loom bands’ arose. The boy produced a bag of his own creations. Others remarked on my watch (held in place by a stray loom-band acquired over my summer break), girls and boys of all ages had creations to explain, show and tell. In a bid to try to stick to at least some of my lesson plan, we embarked on a safe internet research session to answer the question ‘Who invented loom bands?’

This we extended to ‘What is the effect on the environment of loom bands?’ Remembering my oft repeated warnings to avoid Wikipedia for more reliable sources, the children found answers, wrote blogs to explain all that on MW. The session ended with the young leader standing at the front of the room not only presenting the findings, but also giving a practical loom band lesson to everyone else, including parents and myself. So off we went on yet another SOLE session of discovery, independent research, deep thinking and presentation of findings with an artefact too! There was I thinking I could plan a lesson. Ah well; next time maybe?

Oh I should add:

A few hours after this, the first SOLE of the academic year, I was introducing myself to my new 6th Form Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) class. As many of you will already be aware, this is a two year course followed by A Level students in addition to their four subject choices. The objectives which I had carefully planned to introduce are to research a particular question, produce a dissertation or artefact and present the findings to an audience. My copious lesson plan for this next part of my teaching day was primed and ready.

As you are probably now beginning to realise, it was only five minutes into my spiel at the start that I caught sight of that ‘loom band’ holding my watch together. With a grin, I used my SOLE group as an example of a small scale research project. Using similar warnings to avoid Wikipedia and look for reliable sources of evidence, we began a discussion to work out what constitutes ‘good research’. Those sixth formers left their first lesson pinging loom bands and animatedly discussing the merits of a good research question.

So - ooops! - once more, lesson plan out the window. Oh well I will try it all again next week.
Ah I almost forgot, homework for EPQ students this week is to write a short essay and presentation (and/or produce an artefact) for an audience to answer the questions: Who invented loom bands? What is the effect on the environment of loom bands? Mmmm there is a moral to this story somewhere….

Have you used any similar methods in the classroom? Let us know in the comments.

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