SOLE – first steps


Independent, invested and excited learners – that’s the dream. Unfortunately, it’s often not the reality. Sat at home during a half-term “holiday”, I always have grand ideas, planning new projects that the kids will work through, building lesson upon lesson on their discoveries until it reaches a brilliant crescendo and I pat myself on the back for enabling them to make such outstanding progress. In reality, 2 lessons in and they usually haven’t reached a lot of the goals set and the whole thing is looking a bit shaky. Why does it seem to happen sometimes? To my mind, it’s because our pupils just don’t seem to be able to organise themselves, their time and their resources without being guided at every stage. 

Now, using SOLO has been a big game changer here for me, both in terms of designing lessons and enabling pupils to self-assess and set their own targets. Others have written more comprehensively than I could on this subject (check @globalsolo and HookED for a start). However, I was still looking for ways to develop my project-based SOLO ideas further. 

A chance meeting between a colleague with another teacher at a kids birthday party led me to SOLE – Self Organised Learning Environments. I don’t want to spend an age explaining the idea now, check out Sugata Mitra’s TED talk or the associated SOLE toolkit for a run down. I just wanted to share my thoughts after my first few SOLEs. I’d also like to quickly mention the inspirational John Stanier (@JohnStanier1) who spent an afternoon with me discussing his experiences before I took the plunge. 

My first SOLE – blast off!

One of my favourite topics came rolling around – Earth and Space with year 8 covering the Solar System, distances in space, satellites, day and night and so on. Perfect. When the pupils arrived for the first lesson of the topic they were enthused by the spacey image on the board – kids love space – and were keen to crack on. On the whiteboard was a simple title “The Solar System”. Rather than launching into my usual Sagan-lite routine, I simply announced “there’s your title, you’re doing me a 2 min presentation on it in 45 mins. Off you go.” The kids were told to get into groups of 4 with access to an iPad per group plus a big pile of spacey books. I held my breath. 
It was a real eye opening experience. All the pupils immediately grouped up and started to discuss what they needed to find out. Because I hadn’t given them any set direction, their ideas were varied – how big is it, how old is it, where did it come from, what’s it made off?  They got stuck in straight away and seemed to be churning out much more work – notes and diagrams – than usual. When asked a question, I usually launch into a discussion through which the pupil and I reach the answer together. The first question asked was “Is Pluto still a planet?”.
Rather than my usual “well what makes a something a planet?” I came back with a “You tell me”. The pupil duly found a copy of Sky At Night and came back to me with a complete answer, and more importantly they were really chuffed to have done it on their own. Another pupil commented “my book says it is still a planet”. “So what are you going to do?” I replied. “Uh, get a book with more up-to-date facts in it of course!”. Wait a minute… What’s that… Evaluation of secondary data! Bingo!
I was amazed by the work going on. Every kid was engaged. There was loads a noise, but all of it was cosmological. At the end of the research period, we used Audioboo to record our 120s of info. This was the best part. Rather than just the same old facts being mumbled through 8 times, we were treated to 8 vastly different view points on what the important details of our solar system were. When it formed, how it formed, how we explore it, where we’ve been, where we plan to go, exoplanets. It was fantastic. Every groups had reached my intended ‘traditional’ outcomes, but every group also delivered something unique that we all shared and were all the wiser for it. We had lift off. 

Same class, SOLE number 2 – into orbit. 

Two weeks later and it was SOLE time again with the same group, this time the subject was satellites. I posed the question below…

The big question

This time though, our SOLEs had a little more structure. The same resources were supplied but I asked the groups to use my SOLE framework to record their ideas. Only one member of the group was allowed to write on the page, meaning those researching would need to communicate their findings. Finally, one member of the group had to act as an observer and simply use a mini white board to prepare a directors commentary of the SOLE. 

SOLE frame

If you fancy using the above, get it here
We had a little chat about the fact that the £35 000 000 launch cost of a satellite could buy a lot of other things (£1 000 000 each for the class which would apparently mostly be spent on shoes) before I said that they would be giving me their answers on one side of a4 to be photoed and posted on a padlet wall in 50 mins time. Off they went. 
They immediately grouped up, mostly based on friendships but I also noticed a little bit of “get Billy in our group, he knows about…” going on. I pleased to see that some class members remembered the last experience where having a nice chat didn’t necessarily get the job done. Again, I saw critical analysis of a lot of resources I’d made available and I was pleased to see that the groups didn’t immediately rely on their single iPad. I was also chuffed to see the analytical nature of their thought processes. To find out if satellites were worth the cash, what did they need to know. What question did they need to ask before they could answer the big question. 

Research underway

The ‘narrators’ took to the role with enthusiasm, particularly when noting “Dave’s doing nothing”. This aspect of self management by the groups was fantastic – I’d told them any personnel issues should be forwarded to me as a last resort. 

Directors commentary

As usual, the keenest pupils got stuck in but the most interesting observation was the response from the ‘lads’ who usually take this sort of opportunity to slack off. Because they hadn’t been given a rigid set of instructions to follow, they were free to take it where they wanted, and we had a fantastic discussion about Sky TV satellites, the cost per person and the fact the if the government wanted satellites, they paid with our taxes so it had to be of benefit to me, the tax payer. 

Answering the big question

The SOLE frames really helped the kids when it came to completing their final answers and the scribes were pleased that all group members could chip in on making the artefact. We left the answers on desks and wandered around reviewing each other’s work. As before, everyone approached it from a slightly different perspective, which meant we all got a lot more out iof it than a simple “find out what we use satellites for” task. To document the lesson we posted our images onto the padlet wall. 

Question answered – ignore my workbook!

The final part of the lesson involved some reflection on our SOLEs in the space provided on the frame. I was pleased to see the comments were related to successes and barriers to making greater progress. Discussion with the pupils afterwards revealed that a lot of them wouldn’t necessarily choose to work with their best friends again if they wanted to get the most out of the lesson – very mature attitudes from my year 8s. As always with a SOLE lesson, I’m amazed how much the pupils seem to enjoy the set up, how much work they actually do when given freedom and how much I enjoy the sessions. 

SOLE review

This has gone on a bit, so I think in summary, as a result of our SOLEs:
  • Kids are definitely displaying their skills as independent (from me) and collaborative (with each other) learners;
  • Using SOLE frame really helped them organise their time/work balance;
  • Analysing the question really helped focus direction of research;
  • Use of scribe meant researchers had to communicate effectively and vast majority of chat was spacey;
  • ‘Narrator’ recording activity made them think about their contribution as they didn’t want to get “written up for being lazy”;
  • Record of SOLE really aided their reflection at end of lesson. 
One final thought however. At the end of this lesson, I was so energised by it all that I (unplanned) decided to carry out a SOLE with my following year 10 class posing the question “how do I see myself in a mirror”. After 4 years of a more ‘traditional’ approach they were (for the most part) clueless as to what they should do. One group brilliantly researched an experiment, went and gathered the equipment, came up with the law of reflection and applied it to forming an image, but there was an awful lot of “you haven’t told us what to do”. My take home message here was get them while they’re young! 
Let me know what you think!
Ps. On a personal note, I’m amazed I’ve mange to write this without once resorting to a SOLE-based pun. 

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