SOLEs – spirals, and how to chop an onion

Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs), and institutionally organized learning environments (schools) can teach the same things. They can both teach math, history, sciences, philosophy, and so on. While SOLEs are generally less directed than schools, both can be used to tackle specific lessons.

For example, when I was a university undergrad back in the 1980s, I had one or two math lectures about Fibonacci numbers. This is the sequence you get, starting from zero and one, when you add the previous two numbers to create the next number. The sequence goes 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34… Map it out, and it’s a spiral.

Image result for Fibonacci sequence

It’s fascinating first and foremost because the sequence occurs in nature all the time.

I found these university lectures somewhat interesting, at least compared with some other lectures I struggled through, bored out of my skull. I wouldn’t choose lecturing as a teaching technique in most situations; I believe in active and situated approaches to learning, such as students experience in a SOLE.

Last year I ran a SOLE with high school students, and I asked them “What do pine cones, elephant trunks, and hurricanes have in common?” After a few minutes they realized one answer was that all three spiral. Having plenty of time left, they set about explaining why. A few minutes of web searching later, they had discovered Fibonacci numbers.

My students learned a very specific piece of information on their own. All I did was ask the question.

We do not have enough data at this time to say if SOLEs work better than conventional education in cases such as this. A lot depends on each individual student’s learning style. There are some kids out there who just want to be told what they need. Certainly in my case I’d prefer self organized learning to a lecture.

Those of you who are unconvinced by self organized learning might be saying “Either the prof tells you about Fibonacci numbers, or some website does, so what’s the difference? And isn’t the professor quicker, more succinct, and more reliable than a website?” You would be quite right. Professors or teachers in traditional classrooms are indeed faster than SOLEs at developing particular lessons. They are more reliable too; teachers have been vetted by their employers, and most are very good at what they do. Meanwhile, self organized study on the Internet can lead students into swampy bogs of misinformation. Almost all sites on the Internet make unverified knowledge claims. Some are stupid, some dangerous, some outrageously dishonest. Search engines’ top rated sites are first in rankings because of good SEO web design, and popularity resulting in backlinks. Readers trust that the popularity is earned with good content, but most of the Internet is unreliable. (Some sites, like Google Scholar, offer inroads to peer reviewed research. But SOLE students generally don’t venture that way. Too many words, not enough pictures!)

But there is an important argument to be made for SOLEs over schools. According to social constructivist theory, learning something is a communicative developmental process. There’s a vague start and a vague finish; in between, students are active in constructing knowledge mediated by language. SOLEs embrace this process. SOLE students have to think, deliberate, communicate and extrapolate. In Vygotskian terms, they must traverse several Zones of Proximal Development (ZPDs) to reach their goal. In a lecture, depending on the lecturer’s style, the process is greatly simplified. Communication is one-way. In the worst cases, teachers simply tell students answers. Start, finish, done! Sure, that’s faster. Sure the content is more reliable than web surfing. But lecturing deprives students of a key element of learning, the construction of knowledge, traversal of ZPDs.

Strictly speaking, the Internet is not necessary for SOLEs (note, if you remove the Internet, SOLEs are generally called something else: inquiry-based discussion, etc). Imagine what would happen if you posed the same question, “What do pine cones, elephant trunks, and hurricanes have in common?” to a group of students without access to a formal library, digital or otherwise. They would discuss the question, and using the significant library of their communal general knowledge, they’d soon see the spiral commonality, and they’d try to figure out why spirals happen in nature. Within an hour they would likely form some theories. Already, right or wrong, this group of students would have learned a great deal simply by practicing communication. And given enough time, they would come up with the Fibonacci numbers. If you posed the same question to individual students in a lecture hall when the professor didn’t show up, the individual would likely not get anywhere. (Perhaps if you posed the question to a whole class of students when the prof didn’t show up, they would spontaneously start self organizing. One can hope.)

What about outside academia? Can SOLEs be used in hands-on disciplines generally taught by mentors? Can SOLEs teach soccer skills or ballet? Can they teach you how to chop an onion? Can YouTube videos replace coaches?

My best friend and my first cousin are both graduates of cooking schools. Each told me that no, onion chopping cannot be mastered without the guidance of a coach. You need someone who will watch how you work and help you identify the fine details of what you’re doing wrong. SOLEs, they assure me, would not have worked in their lessons. Personally, I have limited experience in the culinary arts. It would be foolish of me to argue cooking education techniques with professional chefs. But foolish or not, I will.

I might not know much about cooking schools, but I do have a lot of experience in general education. I heard of a rather slow, long-term experiment, still in progress, which has already proven that communities of students can teach themselves advanced onion chopping techniques. It’s called “human history”. Primitive humans were given lots of onions and some flints. They experimented over the millennia. Often, when someone found a new tool or onion chopping technique, their discovery was copied by others. This was all entirely organic. There was no need to institutionalize cooking practice, no need to put onion chopping on a standardized test. After a hundred thousand years of social evolution, we got Gordon Ramsay.

The same goes for our pine cone question. Fibonacci wasn’t taught the sequence by a professor; he gleaned it naturally while playing around with numbers. History has taught us that learning can happen just fine in the absence of schools.

Lecturing on Fibonacci numbers is quicker, and perhaps better for test preparation (we don’t know yet). But lecturing is an unnatural approach. It seems better for a student’s education to let him/her construct a piece of knowledge than it is to have the student memorize the discoveries of others.

I had the opportunity last week to interview Sugata Mitra and, among other important topics, we talked a bit about onions.

The transcript is here. Both the video and transcript have cc licenses, so feel free to use them.

Professor Mitra points out another advantage to self organized learning: “when you learn how to chop onions from a chef you only learn that chef’s way of chopping onions”. In SOLEs, students have creative freedom to explore pathways of knowledge, to find find new solutions to practical challenges. Gordon Ramsay’s video is just 92 seconds long and he presents what may be the best onion chopping method humans will ever have. That’s possible, even probable. But it’s not certain. There might be better ways. If we want to find them, we must encourage our developing cooks to experiment. Don’t tell them “This is the right way to chop an onion.” As Sugata Mitra says, “there are pros and cons. If you are in a hurry, go ahead get someone to teach you, tell you exactly what to do, and hope for the best. If you’re not, and you want to develop yourself, then use the slower method.”

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