Want to Teach Children? You Need a Little SOLE

Many people are familiar with DIY – “Do It Yourself.” There’s a whole industry focused on that, with TV shows like Ask This Old House and companies like Home Depot and Lowes.

Thanks to the Internet, it looks like we now have another kind of DIY phenomena: LIY – “Learn It Yourself.”

Actually, in this case the process is called SOLE, or Self Organizing Learning Environments. It describes a new approach to education in which children, working together on a computer connected to the Internet teach themselves…well, pretty much anything.

The New York Times has published an interview with Sugata Mitra, the man behind SOLE and the winner of the 2013 TED Prize. As the Times notes:

Dr. Mitra is best known for an experiment in which he carved a hole from his research center in Delhi into an adjacent slum, placing a freely accessible computer there for children to use.

Once they were given access to this computer, “the children quickly taught themselves basic computer skills.” According to Mitra:

We noticed that they learned how to surf within hours. It was a bit of a surprise. Long story short, they would teach themselves whatever they had to to use the computer, such was the attraction of the machine.

…But I got curious about the fact that the children were teaching themselves a smattering of English. So I started doing a whole range of experiments, and I found that if you left them alone, working in groups, they could learn almost anything once they’ve gotten used to the fact that you can research on the Internet. This was done between 2000 and 2006.

Drawing on this experience, Mitra has been working on a new approach to teaching, in which much of the work is done by the students themselves. The $1 million prize he received from TED will help him develop a learning lab to explore a new way of teaching students. This new way will require a different role for teachers:

We need teachers to do different things. The teacher has to ask the question, and tell the children what they have learned. She comes in at the two ends, a cap at the end and a starter at the beginning.

Teachers are not supposed to be repositories of information which they dish out. That is from an age when there were no other repositories of information, other than books or teachers, neither of which were portable. A lot of my big task is retraining these teachers. Now they have to watch as children learn.

This is another example of how the ready availability of information on the Internet is changing our world. In previous times teaching was a traditional Newtonian top-down, mechanical enterprise; teachers distributed information which was absorbed by the students. Mitra’s new system is basically creating an emergent form of learning, in which teachers establish the context and then let the students learn on their own.

It will be interesting to see how Dr. Mitra’s project turns out.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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