SOLE and chips, part 2

Jacqueline Emkes

Jacqueline (Jacq) began teaching in 2004. After completing her MEd at Cambridge, she was appointed Specialist Lead in Education (SLE). Working closely with Bedford Borough Council, Jacq has collaborated with schools across the region, across all ages and stages. She is an Ambassador for British Council e-Twinning, and has a keen interest in forming partnerships between schools and universities. Fellow of the Royal Society Improving Arts, she is an enthusiastic action researcher, with a particular interest in the MESH initiative. Gadget-mad Jacq teaches at Biddenham International School and Sports College (BISSC), Bedford UK and is also an independent e-learning Consultant.

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Well what a year this has been. SOLE has moved on with such a pace I have to stop and think about where we started. September saw us return with new children joining the group of before. We made lots of plans, not least of which the resolutions proposed and agreed by the whole group.

Our own SOLE resolutions 2014-2015 as made by all the children:

1. No Siri* – without asking everybody else if it is okay.
2. You can be silly but think about the others.
3. If someone says ‘stop’ then ‘stop’.
4. Be random (you can be random).
5. We are a Self Organised Learning Environment
6. You can day dream.
7. Please concentrate.

*Siri is the iPad information voice tool of which some of the children had taken to asking endless questions. That was indeed funny as a start, irritating by version 20 and fantastically helpful when it came to ‘robot’ instructions!

What are the big research areas we pondered?

There was the food topic which created much in the way of kitchen experiments and demonstrations! We considered Carrot-First-Aid, Sandwich in-a Jar, the Runaway Plant, The Tea Bag Balloon... not forgetting the Anna the Robot making jam sandwiches!

The Romans topic which involved quizzes was written by the children, with QR codes and stories uploaded onto Makewaves. Following a suggestion from one of the families, a unanimous vote was made to support a charity called Toilet Twinning, an organisation who help bring much needed latrines to poorer communities. This sparked an enormous amount of research which began with Roman toilets and ended in a village in the Philippines - not least chosen for the many personal links many of the children have there.

We held ‘open sessions’ for all parents and families to see what we do and raise funds for our Toilet Twinning project. The children worked tirelessly to prepare, organise and run the morning, and the ticket money raised went towards the charity.

What else have we done?

We showed a group of Computer Science teachers how to teach basic coding instructions. This was a bit messy! It involved a lot of jam and bread and butter! Romans, chariot racing and toilets …what a combination. We shared it all via our page. In between sessions students tried to add stories gain badges and leave all important feedback on each others’ comments.

One pupil, the chief publisher, was even awarded a prize by the Royal Observatory for the photos she uploaded. Well done indeed. The idea of earning badges on the site has proved very popular. The girls were perhaps more competitive than the boys. Badge missions can be set by publishers or by MW themselves, and some of the older children are publishers now. The badges are a bit like virtual ‘cub scout’ badges to earn but without all that sewing. Phew! Extreme reading - reading on trampolines - was a great one.

Some of the big questions:

  • What has Fibonacci got to do with flowers?
  • How does a binary quiz work?
  • How does a robot make a jam sandwich?

Three of the SOLE group were invited to the University of Bedfordshire to teach Secondary school teachers how to teach ‘unplugged’ Computer Science. They were fantastic, and the excellent feedback included comments as to the skill, confidence and ease of expression of the children.

Looking at flowers and binary all at the same time produced some interesting ideas. None of us will look at a Queen Alexandra Birdwing (butterfly) without remembering symmetry, number and even the golden triangle.
Finally, the abiding memory is of most of the children ‘swimming’ across an ocean using the green screen and app on the iPad. This went a long way to answer the question: Does green show up on a camera?

What have the children actually learnt?

In all the chaos and buzz of a SOLE session, parents sometimes wonder what on earth the children have learnt. I would like to explain that it is of course not only the answers to the BIG questions, but a whole lot more. It is about how to work in a multi-age, multi-skilled group. How to resolve heated debate. How to choose an effective presentation tool, be it iMovie, or a story, or a blog or chatter. I believe it is truly student-centred. Investigations have no time-limiting factor, the children can work it out until they are satisfied they understand. The ability to set ground rules, negotiate with each other and become socially adept are valuable skills. The children do run the sessions themselves; my input is largely technical as in passwords for iPads and logins for PCs.

It would seem some are still sceptical. Perhaps this short story sums it up:

I met a parent and her 8 year old son at school. We chatted about SOLE and all our ideas and plans. When asked what the children actually learn, I looked over at the young pupil.
“Could you explain something you have learned,” I asked. “For example, what can you see here in this room that is influenced by Fibonacci?”
“Fib who?” from Mum, and who could blame her?
“Well…” said her son, “you see all those art pictures on the wall of this room?”
Not sure where this was leading, I nervously looked; various 6th form art projects adorned the corridors.

“Well,” he said, “the artists did not understand Fibonacci's numbers, that is it should be a 1 or 2 or 3 or 5 or…” and he would have gone on “but those flowers have 4 petals painted on them, so they are not true life, they are not nature’s numbers, that artist did not know about the golden ratio. It’s a ‘dud’.” He then explained how he would redesign the reception hall; the windows were not quite right, he said. The walls, however, were fine!

Well, he was right, wasn’t he?
I try to extend end-of-session presentations so that parents could also see what questions were being researched. This proved particularly effective when asked by parents to make a start on computer science. Using the unplugged concept - that is, no computer screens at all! The children quickly demonstrated how to work out binary using a human calculator. Starting from the left, each child represents an amount of dots which is double the person to their left. So here they are showing 4, 2, 1.

That ‘light bulb’ moment for the waiting parents was a sight to behold… “Imagine,” said one, “I have never understood binary until today. All those years of ‘no idea’, dispelled in minutes!”
With half an eye on the curriculum requirements of the new Computing Key Stage 3 and 4 criteria, I am satisfied that in our own way, the children meet and can demonstrate Level 8 type keyskills, where type substitutes for assessment without levels. That is, adapting and using our own to support progress and marking of work. This group have shown they are: Developing their capability, creativity and knowledge, using technologies effectively, creating, organising, storing and manipulating digital content. But more than that, I support Sugata Mitra’s views that we can improve the quality of education and support effective learning.

Children need to be able to search properly for information. They have to be taught how to look properly through the ocean of information created by adults.” (Mitra 2015)

Sugata is adamant that children can learn in a SOLE but that the key is creating proper bandwidth to make the system work properly. Minimal intervention by adults, while hard for most teachers to accept or understand, is needed. It is moving away from teaching in the customary sense and tending towards allowing groups of children to self-organise. Then, learning emerges naturally on its own. Sugata urges us to talk to the children!

Do you use SOLE in your school? Let us know in the comments!

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