Where SOLEs fit in theories of learning

Some of the most popular and successful modern learning theories are listed above in the HoTEL (Holistic Approach to Technology Enhanced Learning) diagram. These are the theories that are effecting new approaches to education, and many of them shed light on how Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs) work.

I won’t bore you by going through the whole list, but let’s just look at a few HoTEL concepts and paradigms, starting from the bottom left corner of the diagram.

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are groups of practitioners who “share a passion for something they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better” (Wenger, 2015). Unless you are a hermit, you are probably involved in several CoPs. They are built into the fabric of our social and professional lives, and you can see them loosely or clearly defined by looking at your social media contacts. In my case, I participate in Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn and Twitter CoPs relating to education (my profession) and dogs (my hobby). About 95% of my contacts on LinkedIn and Twitter are in education, while on Facebook about 50% of my contacts are dog people. These can be subdivided into several special interest groups. They are fun, and very useful to me.  If you are reading this blog you a very likely an educator, and you probably know other educators; sometimes you talk, share helpful tips, advise and support each other. That’s what a CoP is. (Thank you for reading my blog, by the way; feel free to leave comments below!) In the Internet age, now that we’re all connected, CoP has become a fashionable term among social scientists and education policy makers. A good educator should encourage students to choose appropriate ones to participate in. CoPs in education can take the form of study groups; learners bounce ideas off each other and compare notes. It has been proven time and again that the most important factor leading to success in school is collaboration and support. CoPs are, more often than not, self organizing phenomena.

A clear example of the spontaneous formation of a CoP happened when Sugata Mitra conducted the Hole in the Wall experiments. The kids shared a common interest – they wanted to know how to use the computers. They helped each other. Self Organized Learning happened; the learning “environment” was more a community of kids rather than a physical location. For SOLEs to work, there must be peers with a shared interest. A well structured Big Question stimulates that interest, motivates kids, and CoPs form spontaneously.

The second item on the diagram is Situated Learning, which is all about learning in contextually relevant situations. This paradigm holds that deep learning is unintentional; it happens when we try to understand our environments, contexts and cultures. This is natural; we see it in the way an infant learns; even while still in the womb, it notices what is happening and starts to learn the language and rituals of culture. The infant becomes a toddler and learns how to walk, talk, play sports and socialize. The child learns how to navigate school systems and conform to cultural norms. He/she grows up and learns a profession, how to nurture a family, operate machines and govern. The adult becomes an example to the next generation of young people. Setting school aside, learning throughout our lives is a painless osmotic process. It is an instinct for humans. Fulfilling the need to learn is one of the joys in life.

Unfortunately, in most school systems, presentation of information without context is commonplace. Students are asked to memorize facts and formulas to which they see little contextual connection. They’re tested, then punished with bad grades if their memory fails. That’s not painless. Here in Japan, the school system has been labeled “Examination Hell”; not “Learning Bliss” mind you, or “Lesson Paradise” – no! It’s called “Hell”! Why does it need to be so terrible? A joyful system would be one where kids love study to learn, and where testing offers useful feedback. If schools are to become painless, they must reform and encourage deep learning; they must help students understand why learning is important. And that means somehow situating lessons. 

SOLEs are already situated in the “real World” because students can relate to Internet searching as a vital part of modern life (see “connectivism” below). But some SOLEs work better than others. The Big Question, vitally, must be something to which the students can relate. When the context is clear to students, they dive into their research, blissfully unaware that they are actually studying. 

All the other concepts listed in the HoTEL diagram can similarly be applied to SOLEs. But for now I will just concentrate on a selection of terms that seem to me to be at the heart of both modern education theory and Self Organized Learning Environments.

  • ZPDs
  • Scaffolding
  • Constructivism
  • Social Constructivism
  • Connectivism

ZPDs are Zones of Proximal Development. These are the zones that define the limits of what the mind can learn in a single instance. Learning a skill such as how to ride a bike implies many ZPDs. First the child must understand what a wheel is, then what a bicycle is, then how and why a bike should be used. Then he/she must be shown how to mount the bike without falling over, how to use the brakes, how to balance, etc. Each step in the learning process traverses a ZPD.

In the words of Vygotski: ZPDs are “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

Parents, teachers, mentors, and more capable peers demonstrate their expertise, while learners observe and copy. The people and cultures around us are mentoring us constantly, helping us to traverse ZPDs. This assistance is known as Scaffolding, a term originally coined by Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) to describe the ideal role of an educator. 

It’s rare for a learner to cross unscaffolded ZPDs: it can happen in moments of inspiration, or accidental discovery through trial and error. In such cases, the learner gains status and wants to share the new expertise by scaffolding for others. This must be what happened at the Hole in the Wall. One kid, thrilled after making a discovery through trial and error, might have said to another: “Hey, if you click on the little picture, something happens on the screen!” The listener would learn from the speaker and then share again with others. The discoveries made by individuals in that CoP accumulated, built on each other like layers of scaffolding, and quickly the group as a whole learned competency on computers.

What happened in the listener’s mind when his peer told him about clicking on icons? What exactly is the learning process? How does it happen? To a casual observer it might appear as if the knowledge was transmitted by voice from speaker to listener, and then manifested in the listener’s brain, sort of like an email manifests on a computer screen. It is more logical, however to conclude that there was a neurochemical/psychological process in the listener’s brain to remake the knowledge from scratch, in a personal way, to suit the listener’s own understanding of the computers embedded in that wall. Learning is a personal, subjective act. This is a massive, complex, cross-discipline topic (Kalbfleisch, 2015) but it has essentially been proven and it clearly points toward a paradigm shift in how we approach education.

“Scaffolding” implies holistic support of learning; the learner constructs knowledge on his/her own, facilitated by partners. It differs from old notions of “teaching”, where knowledge is directly transferred from teacher to student. According to constructivism, we are active creators of our own knowledge. Our contexts are unique. Our understanding of these contexts is subjective. So knowledge cannot be cut and pasted from one mind to another; each mind must recreate knowledge on its own, supported by scaffolding supplied by peers and mentors.

The theory has detractors and you can find them on the Internet. But arguments against constructivism seem to me to come from another era. An old-style teacher-centric view of education treats students as blank slates for teachers to write on. Sadly, that’s still the case in a lot of school systems around the World, but academics in education are leaving that behind. A quick google search, or google scholar search, of “arguments against constructivism in education” doesn’t show many new articles. Wikipedia (2019) refers to arguments against constructivism made in 2004 and 2006. The majority of web sites and articles discussing constructivism are positive; it is a popular and trendy approach to education. For my part, I believe the theory is right. But in fairness, I will cite an excellent paper on the limits of constructivism by McPhail (2015), who believes it doesn’t offer a practical definition of knowledge.

Anyway, the point about constructivism that should interest SOLE practitioners is this: students learn with scaffolding supplied through interactions with whomever is around them. Anyone will do, particularly if the learner is part of an active CoP. Teachers are not strictly necessary for learning. In other words, the radical premise of SOLEs as teacherless classrooms actually fits in quite comfortably with modern mainstream educational thinking. 

Of course, in a one-on-one situation, a learner has more opportunities to cross ZPDs when the partner is a skillful, knowledgeable and experienced educator. But a group of students working together in a community of practice can be as effective in scaffolding as any teacher, and that’s where Social Constructivism comes in. 

Social Constructivism emphasizes that language mediates construction of knowledge in social interactions. The best way to learn something is through deep conversation. If a teacher is cold, and talks at the students instead of with the students (as is very often the case in institutional education), the depth of social interaction is minimal and students will find learning difficult. But after class, if the students form a study group to discuss the content of the lesson, deep conversations can take place and learning happens. If we remove the initial teacher-centered lesson from that scenario, leaving just the study group to discuss the content of the lesson (which could be presented on paper, or online, or on video in a flipped classroom format), students can learn deeply and quickly. We are left with a beautiful example of social constructivism in action, and something that resembles a SOLE.

Social Constructivism is the theory that we construct knowledge in cooperation with those around us, so it stands to reason that more social contact would lead to more learning. But it also implies that we don’t need to know as much. It is enough to learn how to get information. All we need to know is out there in our networks, so why should we memorize all that data? Connectivism is a take on Constructivism for the Internet age. We do not learn things in a linear manner from one source, but are continuously supported in learning by our ever-changing networks of partners: our peers, mentors, students, parents, children and neighbors. Society acts as a hive mind. The sum of human knowledge exists in a kind of ether around us, stored in other people’s brains, in libraries, technology and culture.  All the knowledge that resides in the ether is available to the individual who knows how to ask. 

If educators are interested in developing constructivist and connectivist pedagogies, there is one academic skill that should be emphasized above all others – how to ask. It’s a skill practiced in SOLEs.

The theories mentioned above should be in the minds of those doing education research these days. This is research that will lead to education reforms. In the future, I expect more school systems to accept constructivism as the norm, and for teachers to use it in lesson design. I think there will be a place for Self Organized Learning Environments in schools.




  • Kalbfleisch, M.L. (2015). Educational neuroscience, constructivism, and the mediation of learning and creativity in the 21st century. Front. Psychol6:133.
  • McPhail, G. (2016). The fault lines of recontextualisation: the limits of constructivism in education. Br Educ Res J, 42: 294-313.
  • wenger-trayner.com (2015). “Introduction to communities of practice” .
  • Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89-100.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wikipedia (2019). “Arguments against constructivist teaching techniques“.

1 thought on “Where SOLEs fit in theories of learning”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *