SOLE Man

I love listening to TED talks.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.

The mission of this organisation is Spreading ideas, a goal dear to my heart.

I always find the talks fascinating, challenging and inspiring. I feel quite humbled by the fact that there are so many clever, creative and innovative people in the world. However, at the same time, I feel reassured, knowing that our collective future and the future of our planet is in such capable hands.

Recently I listened to some talks by an educational researcher, Sugata Mitra,  winner of the 2013 TED Prize.

The TED Prize is awarded to an extraordinary individual with a creative and bold vision to spark global change. . . . the TED Prize supports one wish to inspire the world.

Mitra’s wish is to build a School in the Cloud, a school where children learn from each other. He introduces the idea of the Self Organized Learning Environment and invites people around the word to help him achieve his wish by downloading a SOLE toolkit to bring these Self Organised Learning Environments to their own communities.

The toolkit is a step-by-step guide which is designed to “prepare you to ignite the fire of curiosity in kids at home, in school or at after-school programs.”

A SOLE is basically a small group of children learning together, using the internet to answer questions of interest to them, with minimal teacher intervention.

There was much in Mitra’s talks that I agreed with, such as

schools as we know them now, they’re obsolete. I’m not saying they’re broken. It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken. It’s not broken. It’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.

“Encouragement seems to be the key.”

“There is evidence from neuroscience. The reptilian part of our brain, which sits in the center of our brain, when it’s threatened, it shuts down everything else, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the parts which learn, it shuts all of that down. Punishment and examinations are seen as threats. We take our children, we make them shut their brains down, and then we say, “Perform.”

much that intrigued me, such as the grandmother method

“Stand behind them. Whenever they do anything, you just say, ‘Well, wow, I mean, how did you do that? What’s the next page? Gosh, when I was your age, I could have never done that.’ You know what grannies do.”

much that inspired me, such as

“I think what we need to look at is we need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then she stands back in awe and watches as learning happens.”

and much that I wasn’t sure about, that led me to question, such as, 

“Could it be that we don’t need to go to school at all? Could it be that, at the point in time when you need to know something, you can find out in two minutes? Could it be — a devastating question, a question that was framed for me by Nicholas Negroponte — could it be that we are heading towards or maybe in a future where knowing is obsolete? But that’s terrible. We are homo sapiens. Knowing, that’s what distinguishes us from the apes. But look at it this way. It took nature 100 million years to make the ape stand up and become Homo sapiens. It took us only 10,000 to make knowing obsolete. What an achievement that is. But we have to integrate that into our own future.”

As well as listening to TED talks, I also love reading about philosophy, especially the inclusion of the study of philosophy in the school curriculum.

While following up this philosophical interest, I came across this great blog post by Michelle Sowey, “Can you kill a goat by staring at it? A critical look at minimally invasive education“.

I couldn’t resist the title, of course, but imagine my delight when I realised that Sowey was critically appraising Mitra’s SOLEs from a philosophical standpoint.

Sowey saw much to agree with in Mitra’s talks, but for her also, the talks raised many questions.

These are points of convergence that Sowey saw between  Mitra’s approach and that of philosophical enquiry in the classroom:

  • both are curiosity-driven
  • both involve collaboration of students
  • both seek to engage children’s interest in big questions
  • both support children in exploring ideas and sharing discoveries
  • both offer the prospect of intellectual adventures that spring from children’s sense of wonder and their ability to work together.

Sowey went on to say:

“What’s more, Dr Mitra’s proposed curriculum of big questions includes many deeply philosophical ones, such as ‘Can anything be less than zero?’, ‘Will robots be conscious one day?’ and ‘What is altruism?’”

Then came the BUT:

Sowey went on to say

“There are two major points of difference, though, and it’s here that I see cracks in the veneer of minimally invasive education. It differs from collaborative enquiry in that (1) it features the internet as a principal learning medium and (2) it renounces the guidance of qualified teachers or practitioners.”

Sowey raised concerns including the need to develop in students the ability

  • to assess the credibility of internet sources
  • to challenge faulty arguments
  • to question claims that are dogmatic, propagandistic, biased, pseudoscientific or downright erroneous

She went on to say:

“We need to make sure that kids develop thinking and reasoning skills alongside skills in research and information awareness. For this, the support of a competent guide is indispensable, equipping children not only to assess the reliability of different sources but also to evaluate the many arguments they will encounter.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this.

She then goes on to say:

“To dismiss the infrastructure of schooling altogether because of traditional standardisation is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Surely it makes more sense to repurpose that infrastructure in ways that better nourish children’s curiosity, critical thinking and creative exploration.”

which makes perfect sense to me also.

Although I am not a fan of traditional schooling and have made that stance very clear in previous posts, I have expended a lot of energy in trying to establish what I consider to be a better approach. The goal of nourishing “children’s curiosity, critical thinking and creative exploration” was always high on the agenda.

I encourage you to listen to Mitra’s inspirational talks, and to read Sowey’s compelling article in its entirety.

Sugata Mitra “Build a school in the cloud

Sugata Mitra “The child-driven education

Michelle Sowey “Can you kill a goat by staring at it? A critical look at minimally invasive education

I will leave you with Sowey’s concluding statement:

“We need the incisiveness and probing of critical and creative thinking to get deep into the viscera of the facts and anti-facts, the experts and anti-experts. And we need the incisiveness and probing of good teachers to go deep into children’s thought-space: to discover what they’re understanding and what they’re not, yet.”

What do you think?

Please share your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “SOLE Man

  1. maryanne @ mama smiles

    I’ve noticed that my oldest daughter usually overcomes “blocks” in her understanding by talking to her peers, rather than through help from myself or her teacher at school. There is no question in my mind that children would benefit from more time to work and reason things out together than from being constantly lectured to.

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    1. nco04662 Post author

      Hi Maryanne,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Yes. It’s interesting, isn’t it? I think that sometimes, when a learner has just learned something, they are more able to remember the steps they took in learning it and are able to explain these to someone who has not yet quite grasped it. Sometimes we adults forget the small steps that need to be taken in getting from one level of understanding to another, or fail to see just where the misunderstanding is. The ability to talk about what one is thinking helps to expose where the understandings and misunderstandings are, and appropriate support, from peer, parent or teacher can be provided. I don’t like the sound of being constantly lectured to either.

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  2. Bec

    Hi Nor, thanks for sharing these very interesting insights on the idea of unguided student learning. I tried to post this comment on your re-blogged article, but it didn’t seem to work! So here it is again. Coincidentally, I had read an article on the same project on The Conversation, here it is:

    http://theconversation.com/cloud-schooling-why-we-still-need-teachers-in-the-internet-age-19872

    Michelle Sowey raised some very compelling points, and in fact many of them reminded me of what I have been learning about for the pedagogy of teaching critical thinking at uni. A strong theme in the literature on this (critical thinking in tertiary education) is that critical thinking is a skill, which has to be practiced and facilitated through guidance. (Another significant part of this is values awareness of the learner, and acknowledging when values create a filter for how information is interpreted, and turned into knowledge.) In this way, the learner is encouraged to explore and learn, and then the ‘teacher’ assists with identifying flaws or parts of an argument or assertion which require more analysis or self-reflection.

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    1. nco04662 Post author

      Hi Bec,
      Thank you very much for your insightful comment, also for the link to “The Conversation”. I hope others will follow the link and compare the thinking in that article with that of Michelle Sowey as well.
      I found the conclusion of the article very interesting:

      “Mitra’s work then doesn’t imply that teachers are obsolete. In fact, it means education needs good teachers who are much more than knowledge experts. These teachers are designers and they are Grandmothers.

      Teachers of this kind draw out the ingenuity and creativity of young people by challenging them, in groups, to do meaningful things.

      In this way Mitra’s grand vision for the future of learning can be seen as one that embraces the good teaching alive in classrooms today.”

      I like the sound of the course you are studying at university. I think you rightly say that critical thinking is a skill that needs to be practised and facilitated through guidance. That is precisely the reason for teaching philosophy in schools.
      However I also love Mitra’s ability to think differently, to see a “problem” and to suggest a solution. I think there is much to be learned by looking beyond the traditional approach for a better way.

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I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.

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