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SOLE

noun [uncountable]

self-organized learning environment: a teaching method in which groups of children learn independently using a computer linked to the internet

'Pulbrook's extension class of 32 students have previous experience with a range of SOLE tasks and they thoroughly enjoy the investigative exercises as they get to take ownership of their learning and engage in higher order thinking.'

Education HQ 25th August 2014

The expression minimally invasive is usually associated with medical procedures like keyhole surgery, but in recent times has been applied in the context of education, where it's connected with the revolutionary idea of minimizing (or even eliminating) a teacher's role in the learning process. This kind of methodology, in which children themselves are the driving force of their learning experience, has given rise to a new acronym – SOLE, standing for self-organized learning environment.

proponents argue that the approach provides a viable learning alternative in situations where … children don't have access to the best teaching

SOLE (pronounced as in the noun describing the bottom part of a shoe) is a learning environment in which children work together under minimal supervision, and are given access to the internet to help them solve problems. In a typical SOLE session, a class is divided into groups of approximately four students. Each group is given a question to answer, and has access to its own computer. The groups are then given a specific period of time, maybe half an hour, to find the answer by using search engines to look up information on the Web. During this time they're allowed to circulate, to check out what other groups are doing, thereby fostering a productive atmosphere of both competition and collaboration. A crucial characteristic of a SOLE session, however, is that the role of the teacher is kept to a minimum, and in the most 'ideal' scenario, the teacher is not present at all, because it's thought that children are less likely to find the answers for themselves if they're aware of the presence of someone who might be able help them. In summary, the SOLE philosophy is that children will learn spontaneously if provided with the appropriate 21st century tools, and are left largely to their own devices.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of 'leave them to it' approach has sparked some degree of criticism in educational circles. Sceptics argue that, among other things, for self-study to be genuinely effective students first need to be taught how to learn (for example, guided in the choice of reliable sources and asking the right questions), and that there's ultimately no substitute for a teacher as caregiver, encourager, etc. – in other words, being educated is about far more than merely downloading bits of information.

On the flip side, SOLE proponents argue that the approach provides a viable learning alternative in situations where, for social or cultural reasons, children don't have access to the best teaching, or come from a less supportive home environment. These children, it's argued, need to be taught to think and study for themselves.

Background – SOLE

The SOLE concept is the brainchild of Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at the University of Newcastle in the UK. As well as being described as a polymath (a person who is an expert in a number of different subject areas) Mitra is perhaps most famous for the 'Hole in the Wall' project. This was an interesting experiment in the early 2000s, relating to what's become known as the digital divide (social inequality in terms of access to new technologies). Computers were placed in public spaces in underprivileged areas to allow children access to technology which they would otherwise never have had the opportunity to use. Exploiting the natural curiosity of children about the world they live in, the experiment aimed to prove that children would still learn if left to use the computers without any formal guidance.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 27th January 2015.

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