SugataMitraSmallIn 1999, Sugata Mitra embedded computers in the walls of Delhi slums to examine how children interact with technology, and shocked the world with his discovery that children could teach themselves just about everything from web surfing to genetic mutation with almost no adult guidance.

Today, more than a decade of research supports this revolutionary idea, and classrooms around the world experiment with the inputs that students need for success: swapping textbooks, lectures and discipline for strong relationships, intellectual curiosity, and boundless access to information.

Self-directed learning is possible in any classroom or other gathering of children.  Want to give it a try?  According to Mitra’s April 26 presentation at A+ and his School in the Cloud website, here’s what you’ll need:

1.       An internet connection.  The SOLE’s most basic ingredient is pure, uncurated information.

2.      A good question.  A typical SOLE question for elementary students might be “why does hair turn white?”  For middle schoolers, “where does language come from?” is a more complex, deeply exploreable question.  Older students get engaged in highly relevant questions like “is life on earth sustainable?” Ideally, questions connect a number of subjects and have complex answers.

3.      Self-organized groups of students.  The ideal group size is 3-5, but it’s okay to be a little flexible.  Solo explorations are inadvisable; in groups, its harder for students to wander off task. And students should choose their own groups and freely change them: it may be a little more chaotic, but it allows each student to find a group where he or she can engage in the work alongside peers they like.

4.      Big screens. SOLEs work best when everyone can see and engage in group work.  But if all you have is a computer lab with standard-sized monitors, don’t fret: just be sure there is enough room around each SOLE computer for students to gather (and all other computers are turned off).

5.      A “granny.”  No matter their skills or experience as an educator, the adult facilitator of a SOLE should play the role of a grandmother – warm, encouraging, curious, and ignorant (feigned or otherwise).  “Wow, how did you do that?” and “That looks really interesting!” are some typical granny comments.

6.      A “helper.” Whether selected by the facilitator or the students, a student helper tasked with maintaining order and keeping students on task can help the facilitator step back from the role of classroom police and into the role of encouraging co-learner.

7.      A discussion, reflection, or presentation.  Students should have the chance to share and reinforce what they learned and also address any questions, disagreements, controversy or misinformation that arises.

8.      A strong community of learners.  SOLEs work best because students love to spend time with their friends and teachers, working together to learn something interesting.  If your classroom isn’t already a strong learning community, engaging students in SOLEs – thereby shifting your role as a teacher – may help you develop one.

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