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Three reasons you should try SOLEs in your English classes

The image above shows a group of Meijo University freshmen on July 16, 2016, the first time I used Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs) as a supplemental activity in a university English class. At the time I had little confidence that it would work, but it turned out to be a hugely successful experiment for me and my students. Since then, I have run SOLEs at universities about 20 times, and have opened a dedicated SOLE school in my town in Japan. I think, applied properly, the method is appropriate for almost any class at any level; in this blog post, I’ll discuss some reasons you should give it a try

  1. Self Organized Learning is good educational theory.

If you study education, you are likely aware of several trendy terms and concepts, like flipped classrooms, social constuctivism, experiential learning, communities of practice, etc, etc. What these trends have in common is a rejection of traditional teacher-centered classrooms.

In the bad old days, schools treated education as a one-way process of transmitting information and ideas from the teacher to the pupils. In the 20th Century, psychologists, linguists and teachers looked for new definitions of learning. The work of Vygotski, Piaget and many others led to ground-breaking new approaches focusing on the student. People started to realize that learning was something students controlled. Education was primed for a revolution: but a revolution that never really got started. In many parts of the world, the bad old days aren’t old yet; institutionalized education continues to employ outdated approaches.

SOLEs are diametrically opposite to teacher-centered education. Self Organized Learning is a primal approach, relying on students’ instincts to learn and to share knowledge. “Teaching” interferes with these instincts. Not only are teachers not strictly necessary for SOLEs to work, coaching by any adult is considered prejudicial to the process.

If you are, like me, disgusted with traditional institutionalized education, SOLEs offer an alternative that works immediately. I wrote about this at some length in another blog post. When it comes to modern theories of education, SOLEs tick all the boxes.

2. You might be surprised how much students enjoy it. I was.

In 2016, I had already been following the work of Sugata Mitra for about 10 years, and was keen to give his ideas a try in my university English class context. You need computers with Internet access to run SOLE sessions, and one day toward the end of the semester the campus computer room became available: so I decided to propose the idea to my faculty’s administration. They had no problem with it, and the SOLE session was booked.

The students seemed curious as they filed into the computer room: “Why is English class here today?” The lesson started. I explained the SOLE method and the lesson plan. Students would study an advanced topic in groups, and would prepare PowerPoints for English presentations that they would give in the next class. I handed out the attached worksheet (feel free to adapt it for your classes).

The response from my students was very, very positive. They got stuck in immediately and were all thoroughly engaged. Everyone was communicating; nobody zoned out. When the 90-minute period was over, most did not want to stop. Even though I told them to finish, most groups stayed well past the bell. The last group finally went to lunch 40 minutes late! I had never had such a successful, positive, excited, academic college class before. The students’ average feedback for the activity was 4.9 stars out of 5.

Some caveats: the atmosphere in class was buoyed by a variety of factors that had nothing to do with the merits of self organized learning. a) The teacher (me) was particularly excited by the activity; students generally respond to a teacher’s enthusiasm. b) The surprise of having English class in the computer room may have buoyed the mood further. c) SOLEs, run properly, are student centered to a degree rarely seen in classrooms anywhere. The teacher’s role is that of a facilitator when necessary, and mainly just an onlooker/fan, or “granny” (see the next section) who watches and lauds. Students are free to switch groups, to chat, to use any language they like, etc. On this day, my students might have enjoyed the class largely for the exceptional degree of freedom. d) Several students in the class were extraordinarily proficient at using PowerPoint. Each group had at least one member who enjoyed that part of the activity. The other students, seeing their ideas and discoveries portrayed elegantly would have been well pleased. e) This was a unique activity for the students. In some superficial ways, it may have resembled other research or presentation activities they might have done prior: but self organized learning using the Internet was new for them. The originality alone was probably enough to keep them interested for 90 minutes.

3. You will probably enjoy it too.

You might enjoy it for many of the same reasons as the students – the novelty, the change of pace, etc. As mentioned above, teaching a SOLE session cannot accurately be called “teaching”. The very nature of self-organized learning precludes direct instruction. SOLE sessions work with facilitators and grannies. A SOLE facilitator is the someone who makes sure the lights are turned on, the computers are working, and the room is a comfortable temperature. The facilitator also gives the students a Big Question to research, and at the end of the research phase, he/she calls on groups of students to present their findings. A SOLE granny is someone who goes around during the research phase positively reinforcing each new discovery made by the students. In my SOLEs, I usually play both roles. This is, of course, a lot different from the lecturing and leading that we teachers were trained for. If you can abide a bit of chaos, this kind of lesson is fun.

On that day in 2016, I was inspired to see students produce highly advanced content in very little time. I had heard rumors that students could achieve a lot in SOLEs. I was hoping for some internet-sourced verifiable information, some extensions of opinion, and perhaps some pretty presentations. But they far exceeded my expectations. They presented lots of data, lots of impressive opinions, and stunning PowerPoints. These were freshmen making Masters-level early-draft presentations on fairly obscure topics! And they did it in just an hour!

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