What is the purpose of my SOLE sessions? Are they a new take on English lessons, or something more?

A few weeks ago a new student came to SOLE Japan’s weekly high school session for a trial. We introduced ourselves and chatted for a bit, mostly in English. I explained the SOLE method to her:

  • A Big Question (BQ) is presented to the students.
  • The students work in groups researching answers to the question on the Internet.
  • The students prepare and deliver an English presentation of their findings.

The girl is smart and quite proficient in English. After I introduced the BQ, she and the other students huddled at the computers and got stuck in.

At SOLE Japan, parents and educators are welcome to observe. It so happens that this girl’s mother is a very experienced English teacher in the Japanese public school system, and she was present, watching her daughter.

After 10 minutes or so I realized something was wrong. The girl was staring hard at dense English text on the computer screen, and wasn’t taking notes. I went to check on her.

“What are you researching?” I asked.

She said “I’m not sure.”

I said “You don’t have to read English web sites, you know. This part of the SOLE session is entirely free. You surf the net in any language you like. “

Her mother then said “I told her to use English websites. It’s a better way to learn English, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback. One the one hand, the mother’s advice was interfering with self-organization: but on the other, both she and her daughter were stakeholders whose opinions needed to be respected. I tried to be compromising.

I told the mom: “The English practice will come during the presentation portion. The research part is freestyle by design.” I told the girl “Your mother is right; reading English web sites is an excellent way to improve your language skills. But for now, focus on answering the BQ more than practicing English reading skills.”

Everything worked out. The girl and her mom both learned a lot during the session and the girl has signed up for more SOLEs.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that session and the Big Questions it posed for me as a SOLE practitioner.

  1. What is the purpose of my SOLE sessions? Are they a new take on English lessons, or something more?
  2. Does freedom to surf the Internet in Japanese have an effect on my students’ English language  learning?

I will discuss here the first question, and will leave the second for a later post.

I ran my first session here in Japan in 2015 with a one-off SOLE in my freshman English communication class at Meijo University. The campus’ beautifully equipped computer room was available one day, and I thought I would give the SOLE method a try. After watching Sugata Mitra’s TED talks and reading up about SOLEs, I thought it would be an excellent way to facilitate situated language learning. As the students filed in to the computer room, looking a bit bemused (“Why are we studying English here?!”), I did not know quite what to expect. I put them in groups, explained the procedure and the session started.

90 minutes later I was convinced that the SOLE method could be, and should be, applied in a Japanese university English-language context. It was a big success. The students – all of them – seemed totally engaged with their study. None of the groups wanted to stop when the bell went; one group stayed an 40 extra minutes.

The reason for the success of the lesson may be a combination of factors. A SOLE is an entirely student centered activity. It’s active learning, dialogic learning, situated learning, content based learning, and inquiry based learning self directed and scaffolded by peers. It was also a novelty, which may be a partial reason for its popularity that day. Anyway, it worked, and my students were able to practice relevent English through their PowerPoints and subsequent presentations.

A few months later I opened SOLE Japan, my little weekend school dedicated to practicing the method with junior high, high school and college students. I settled on the basic format laid out at the beginning of this post. The SOLE portion of my sessions sets up the English presentation portion, where students learn language skills that have immediate benefits – bettter scores on English exams at school. A friend teaching at Nanzan International High School partnered with me for the first sessions. He was experienced in presentation techniques in language learning. We observed some excellent development of English skills. 

It’s important that students do well on English tests as a result of my sessions. This is for marketing purposes as much as academic ones. My stakeholders – the students and their parents – want a return on their investment in time and tuition fees.

TEFL is important, given that I’m a native English speaking teacher and my stakeholders have expectations of English Language Learning. But SOLEs are bigger than that!  Every time I run a SOLE there are interesting – amazing – results seen in the content of the presentations. Multiple young minds working in a roughly coordinated matter to process information on the Internet can produce highly advanced resources very quickly.  The students teach me a lot, and each other too.

I  was lucky enough to be invited to join a Skype conference call in 2016 with several SOLE practitioners around the World. Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Spain and SOLE Central (UK) were represented, among others. I was thrilled to hear their stories and humbled by their ambition. Sugata Mitra’s notion that learning is a self organizing phenomenon is inspiring; the hive mind that is self organized around the Internet can teach itself. If 2 or more people discuss something, SOL is happening on some level. And the Internet is alive with countless discussions happening 24-7. Teachers are becoming obsolete. School systems have to redefine themselves, they are archaic. We are at a point where learning outside the boundaries of institutionalized education offers far more opportunities than traditional schooling. Self organized learning is a part of our relationship to the Internet, and something that is shaping culture.

I suppose my school SOLE Japan is unnecessary too, except that it’s highlighting the cultural shift mentioned above. Students don’t need to come to my school to do a SOLE; they can do one anywhere, any time.

But I can offer them English and presentation skills: training better done (at least for now) with a coach than through self or peer study. So the answer is “Yes. This is a new take on English lessons.” There’s no shame in admitting it; I reckon I have the best method and one of the best schools in the country, and all it takes is the realization that I am largely dispensable.

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