SOLE Searchers: Christopher Allen and His Students Explore Self-Organized Learning

By: Christopher Allen

In the months since Sugata Mitra won the TED Prize for his School In The Cloud project, the idea of the SOLE, or Self Organised Learning Environment, has intrigued and inspired a growing number of students and educators around the world.

According to Mitra’s website, a SOLE is defined as:

An environment where students are given the freedom to learn collaboratively using the internet. An educator poses a big question and students form small groups to find an answer. During a SOLE students are free to move around and share information or to change groups at any time; towards the end of a session they have the opportunity to share what they learned with the whole group. SOLE sessions are characterised by discovery, sharing and spontaneity.

Christopher Allen, Instructional Technology Specialist and Arts Education Liaison for P.S. 57 in Staten Island, recently brought his class to our New York City office to explore what it’s like to learn in a SOLE. Christopher, who is also a SMART Exemplary Educator, kindly agreed to share his thoughts around the experience:


“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

These words from John Dewey are posted just outside of the reincarnated computer lab that once served as a technology storage room at my school. I chose to display these words not only as motivation, but as a reminder of the difficult challenges that would come with serving as a Technology Instructor in a learning community which had been forced to shut the doors on its technology program a few years prior.

I was appointed to the position in June and quickly began the necessary work on the lab, which would serve as a physical learning environment for over 125 students every day. The countless summer hours preparing the room, arranging its tables, and adjusting each laptop’s settings quickly flew by. Before I knew it, my students were lined up outside of the doors next to the bulletin board that displays Dewey’s powerful message. After one last glance at those words, I took a deep breath and began briefing the class on my expectations for their work in the lab. Each and every student filed in and found their seats, and I took my position in front of the infamous SMART Board.

It was at that moment that the real work began.

During the summer, I had been fortunate to participate in the first New York City Department of Education Innovation Partner PD Cohort, earning certifications with powerful learning tools such as PBS Learning MediaEdmodo, and SMART interactive displays. Bringing it all together was the next step. I spent plenty of time planning learning activities that would not only align with content and Common Core Learning Standards, but engage students through their use of laptops and the Internet.

Things seemed to be improving on a daily basis, and I often referred to Dewey’s words for motivation and encouragement. But it wasn’t until the SOLE experience in the SMART Collaborative Classroom that I gained a clear vision of a better way to engage students in efficient and valuable learning experiences through the use of technology.

Organized by SMART’s Tara Mattingly and Ellen Afromsky, along with Natalia Arredondo from SOLE Central, Newcastle University, the session provided my students and I the most amazing learning experience. The children were anxious to learn from the moment we unloaded the bus and walked through the revolving doors on Lexington Ave.Their excitement only grew as they entered a room that housed every one of SMART’s interactive tools!

When the students finally settled, and their eyes found their way back inside their sockets, Natalia addressed the group. As the SOLE Mediator, she briefed them on their task and her expectations. Her delivery sounded a lot like mine in the hallway on that first day of school, and like me she came to a sudden stop. In that moment of silence, I got that “who did it?” feeling of paranoia that I’m sure most teachers have experienced when taking their kids outside of the building. Fortunately, it was nothing but a reflective pause, after which Natalia asked the students to begin.

The students were given the task of answering a single question: “How did the Blue Whale become the largest living organism on Earth?”

Armed with this one essential question and free to use all of the tools that SMART had provided, the students formed a truly remarkable learning environment in which they were not only engaged but enthusiastic about their own learning experiences. They quickly organized themselves by assigning roles to one another. They decided that some of them would be researchers, while others would be reporters. Using the SMART displays, the ‘researchers’ began to explore online content related to blue whales. They relayed their newly acquired knowledge to the ‘reporters’, who dove right into SMART amp software to prepare their presentations.

I was shocked, not only at how much information was being shared between groups and their peers, but at how quickly the students became familiar with the new software and tools given to them only minutes before. Having spent a good majority of my last year focusing on classroom discussion and questioning, I was curious as to how well the students would engage with accountability, so I sat with the groups and listened to the students interact. The academic language and conversation was captivating. As the researchers shared the information they had acquired, the reporters’ questions sent them back to the SMART Board to dig deeper, in another direction, or to make connections to related topics.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in such a unique and eye-opening learning experience. Most educators would likely consider such an environment chaotic or unstructured, and this compels me to share my experience with them and challenge them to reflect on their own pedagogy. Dewey’s words have taken on renewed meaning for me, and I encourage other educators to think about what these words mean to them:

“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”­­­­­

To learn more about the displays Christopher’s students used to research their SOLE question, visit the SMART Interactive Displays web page. To learn more about the software the students used to compile and present their work, visit the SMART amp page or download the free 90-day trial.
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About SMART Technologies

SMART Technologies Inc. is a world leader in simple and intuitive solutions that enable collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity. We are an innovator in interactive touch technologies and software that inspires collaboration around the globe.

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