Gettin Some SOLE

Educational researcher Dr. Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiments have shown that, in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other, if they’re motivated by curiosity and peer interest.

In 1999, Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected PC, and left it there (with a hidden camera filming the area). What they saw was kids from the slum playing around with the computer and in the process learning how to use it and how to go online, and then teaching each other.

More recently, Sugata has inviting parents and teachers globally to setup their own Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) by downloading his toolkit and creating their own learning environments.

Self-directed learning is not new. Malcolm Knowles published Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. It reads like a text published last week, talking about the changing landscape of life and learning in an information age, the value of place-based learning, the need for teachers to be mentors and facilitators and project-based learning. Learner-centered education.

                    This is Mitra's 2013 TED Prize talk.

Knowles wrote that the most critical part of a curriculum is helping students learn how to learn for themselves. That seems obvious but he makes a point to contrast this as very different from learning how to learn from teachers. The latter consists largely of skills like listening, remembering, taking notes and taking tests to prove that you have done so.

Okay, that is a pretty harsh view of classrooms, but compared to self-directed learning it is quite different. The goals of SOLE or self-directed learning is to prepare for a lifetime of learning, unlearning, and relearning as knowledge changes from year to year or decade to decade.

Do most students ask great questions, establish their learning goals, devise a personal learning plan and leverage their existing knowledge? Probably not. Teachers do it for them.

Knowles was writing before the Internet and YouTube, Wikipedia, Google, online learning, MOOCs, Skype, Google Hangouts, blogging, and social media. Taking Knowles self-directed model of connecting with local resources and connect it to the Net and it might come close to Mitra's vision.

It might frighten teachers and schools to envision learning in the absence of any direct input from a teacher. This environment is no small feat to create. It needs to stimulate curiosity, allow learning through self-instruction and offer peer-shared knowledge.

Mitra is now a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University (UK). He likes to call this approach "minimally invasive education."

Could it be as simple as putting a computer in front of kids and letting them go?  No. And I don't Knowles or Mitra means it to be. The desire is to make schools prepare students to be self-directed learners by making their curriculum more student-centered.

Download the SOLE Toolkit on How to Bring Self-Organized Learning Environments to Your Community


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