Urging students to teach themselves

Sarah Leonard

The Hole in the Wall experiment, carried out in the slums of India by education professor Sugata Mitra in 1999, suggested that children, without direction, will seek out new knowledge. More than 15 years on, primary school teacher Sarah Leonard explains why she embraces his approach

Imagine having a 20-minute end-of-lesson discussion with 30 eight-year-olds, where you talk about everything from Donald Trump to colonisation, ageing, the end of the world and DNA. It’s the children who sparked the discussion, and the children too, who have sought answers. All the teacher had to do was think of the questions that would fuel their imaginations. This is the joy of Sugata Mitra’s Self Organised Learning (SOLE) approach – part of his School in the Cloud programme.

So, what does a SOLE lesson look like? Put simply, I ask the children a fabulously open question, they organise themselves into groups and answer the question using the internet. I don’t help them. I don’t guide the children, and I certainly don’t give them the answers. I trust the children to challenge their natural inquisitiveness to go and find out for themselves.

In fact, my class tell me one of the reasons they love this method so much is that I leave them to do it by themselves. They love that they don’t know what they will find out or how they will end up answering the question. The genius part is that because they have discovered it, they remember it – they literally own that knowledge.

I trust the children to challenge their natural inquisitiveness to go and find out for themselves

For me, SOLE is a no brainer. My wonderful students have become experts at seeking knowledge online. They have learnt how to interpret information, sometimes way above their reading level, to come up with an answer. I don’t stand at the front of class saying: “Let me tell you about the different types of rocks”, instead I say: “Tell me, why doesn’t the ocean bed sink into the Earth?”

Isn’t this why we go into teaching – to inspire children to become collaborative and independent learners; people who always want to know more?

I have been teaching for nearly 17 years, and have tried many approaches in that time. But when I heard Professor Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk, I was instantly inspired. He asked us to turn the idea of learning on its head, allowing the children to tell us what they had learnt and what they still wanted to learn.

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Sarah Leonard pictured with Professor Sugata Mitra

It works; I am now empowering my students to constantly learn and discover, not just between the hours of 9am and 3:30pm. It feels innovative, fresh and embracing of technology. We teachers need to help the children see that technology will provide them with the jobs of the future, jobs we can’t even imagine. Who would have thought you could 3D print parts of a human body and grow tissue on them? Yet, in education we still think children should spend their time dissecting a text for subordinate clauses. Surely we want to turn their thinking towards the future. We want children to find ways to question and search, while confidently and safely using technology. In short, I want the children in my class to create what they can’t yet imagine, and to be able to discover it by themselves.

I want the children to create what they can’t yet imagine, and to be able to discover it by themselves

I don’t rely completely on the SOLE method; I use a variety of teaching techniques. There is a place for them to sit and listen to me, there is a place for my class and I to discuss word types, and there is a place for them to use their knowledge of tables to answer a challenge. But, there is a huge space for self-organised learning in my classroom. “Let’s SOLE it” is one of our most used phrases, alongside, “wow that is incredible!” and, “what will we discover next?” The world is innovative and I like to think my classroom reflects that.

Just when I think I cannot believe how much my class has discovered, I take a step back and look at them. They have learnt how to listen, and I mean, really listen to each other – they want to understand and learn from their friends. They respect each other; they want to add to someone else’s learning. They want to respectfully question another group’s source. They want to work as a team. My class clearly sees that the internet has given them the tools, but they have impressed me with how they have found the answers. I now have a class of incredible learners, collaborative thinkers and creators of the future. I am beyond proud.

Sarah Leonard is a year 4 and 5 teacher at Masham Church of England primary school in North Yorkshire. She began using the SOLE method in 2015 

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