This is the process I want to use to promote lifelong learning for my students.
What’s the question?
I use Sugata Mitra’s model of the SOLE (Self-Organized Learning Environment) to ask big, open-ended questions to my students. The big questions are formed by looking at either, a) the curriculum documents, or b) the answers that my students came up with the day before. If I’m being honest, I don’t use Professor Mitra’s model exactly the way he lays it out in his book “The School In The Cloud.” I LOVE the idea of the SOLE, but in his book, students are working in a classroom in groups of four with one device between them. In these teaching and learning conditions of COVID-19, every student has a device, we can’t work in groups and sometimes, the students are even in the classroom. So I took his idea, and modified it to fit my class, but also these crazy times. I would love to get back to the “traditional” SOLE, because I have seen how Professor Mitra’s process works, and I really like it, but this is the best I can do in an effort to stay true to the philosophy, but adjust with the times.
WHY? Because this is my attempt to promote a growth mindset and lifelong learning. I’m trying to get my students to demonstrate to themselves that learning is an infinite game. I want them to know that “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
2. What do I know that will help me answer the question?
Students take a cognitive inventory of some of the things that they already know as a starting point for the inquiry process. It is no secret that learning happens when students build off knowledge that they already have, as a starting point, to build the narrative from there. This gives students a good feeling about the work they are about to do, and by thinking about what they do know at the beginning of the task, a growth mindset is more likely to be developed because they aren’t starting by thinking about what they don’t know. When students are first introduced to this process, they can begin by writing down words, or terms, or definitions that they might come up with. And if they come up with terms that they don’t know, or have definitions for, then that’s where they start. Or they could start with a KWL chart, or any other kind of graphic organizer that will help them sort out and visualize the things they already know.
Learning something must build upon previous knowledge. But students need to be in a good social and emotional state for learning to be lasting and meaningful. This process allows me (teachers) to meet the students where they are. They get to choose the entry points for answering this question.
3. What do I need to know before I can answer the question?
Part of tackling a big question or problem, is being able to break that problem down into smaller bits. Students have “scaffolding” or “chunking” written into their IEPs, but outside of the school system, those accommodations may not be available. It is an important skill to be able to face a big question/problem/project and be able to break it down into more manageable pieces. Thinking about what you need to know to answer the question will also put the students in a position to start coming up with a plan to answer the question and to present their findings.
Because breaking problems down into smaller, more manageable parts is an important skill to be successful in today’s age and day. This process is taught to students in my class so that they will be prepared for similar challenges when they leave my classroom. This process allows students to start wherever they are and enter into the problem with the skills that they already have available to them while developing the ability to chunk and scaffold the problems for themselves. By working through this process in class and with the support of a teacher, hopefully the student will be able to help themselves learn how to scaffold and chunk problems so that tasks outside of school are not as daunting as they once were.
4. Where can I find the information I need to answer the question?
Information, and knowledge for that matter, is a commodity these days. Everything that teachers “teach” can be found on the internet. So why not direct students to the internet to find the information themselves instead of sitting in a classroom taking notes from a slide show, or even an overhead projector? The role of a teacher should change to one that looks more like a guide or a facilitator. These days, teachers should be giving their students reasons to learn things, instead of giving them information. Some teachers use all the “bad” information on the internet as an argument against letting students use the internet to find information. I think a skill that is more valuable is giving students the opportunity to discern the good and the bad information on their own. This is what I love about SOLEs; they are self-correcting. Students end up looking at enough different sources, that they start to see which ones repeat the same information, and which ones might not be totally correct. Furthermore, students are working in groups and learning about which sources are more reliable than others. And ultimately, the teacher is still in the room and in the picture and if they seem to be going offside, or finding and using information that isn’t correct, from unreliable sources, I can help steer the students in the right direction.
Because, as I mentioned, being able to discern good and bad information on the internet is a skill in and of itself. I would argue that that skill is as important as any other “lab skills” a student might need. It’s also a cross curricular, and transferable, skill.
5. How do I put the information together in order to answer the question?
A good way to make the learning relevant to the students is to give them an authentic audience. This is harder to do in COVID times, but in a perfect world, the students would be answering big questions that were related to an even bigger project. I think it is an exercise in creativity to put the information that they have found into a format that is appropriate for either a specific audience, or for any audience. Being able to decide what the most appropriate format for which audience is going to help the students focus their learning. I guess, as I create this document, I’m realizing that this process may not be exactly linear. Or, maybe it is, but it is important to know who the audience is going to be before starting. By this I mean that maybe an infographic is not going to be the best medium for an audience that doesn’t have time or the ability to read. Maybe a podcast or video would be a better option. But if the questions they are answering are part of a bigger project, then the audience has probably already been established. Or, as a note to myself, but to teachers in general, maybe choosing the audience after choosing the project/question, is a good place to start.
I know students hate presentations and they hate group work, but outside of school there is rarely a job or a task that is performed as a solo act. I believe it is an important skill to be able to put information together in a meaningful way but not just for the student. If they have to provide information to someone whom they may never have met, and never will, then this is an opportunity to practice empathy and try to see things from someone else’s perspective.
6. Now that we have the answer, what’s the next question?
Again, in an effort to promote lifelong learning, I urge my students to come up with answers and then ask more questions. It’s all about questions in my classroom. At least that’s what I try for. I try to get them to answer a question with more questions so that when they’ve found an answer, they have found the basis for a new question. This is how learning is going to happen. Asking questions is a demonstration of learning. The hope for me is that they have found enough information about the topic they are discovering that they don’t have any more questions directly associated with it. See the example of how the Milky Way was formed in the table below. I’m hoping they answer all their questions about the Milky Way and discover some new information or a new direction that they would like to take their learning that is related to the Milky Way but not directly associated with it.
Because “the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.: -Ralph W. Sockman
Here is an example that I walked through with my students. I provided the process, the framework for them, and the question, but they came up with everything else.
What is the question?
How was the Milky Way formed?
What do I already know that will help me answer the question?
Black holes Gravity Planets Stars Disk shaped vs sphere shaped
What do I need to know before I can answer the question?
What is the Milky Way made of? What is the Milky Way? Why is there a black hole? What is a black hole? How big is the milky Way? Where is it? Why is it called that? Why a disk and not a sphere? What is its purpose?
Where do I find the information I need to answer the question?
YouTube; NASA; Look into the sky; Pictures; Textbooks; Other people; Documentaries; TV; Google; Canadian Space Agency; European Space Agency; Email; Twitter; Museum; News; Socials; Credible Astronomers; Teachers (I didn’t make them say this)
How do I put the information together in order to answer the question?
Mindmap; Slideshow; word doc; Timeline; Video; T-chart (graphic organizers); Infographics; Website; Speech/TedTalk; Video game; Animation; Pamphlet; Brochure; Poster; Blog; Podcast
Now that we have an answer, what’s the next question?
What existed before the Milky Way?
What forces caused the Big Bang?