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SOLE in Argentina: the issue is how to create the right questions

The goals of the project were to reach low-resourced community schools with a new way of integrating ICT use for a sector of society that usually doesn’t have access to educational innovation.

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The SOLE team.SOLE, (Self-organized learning environment) is a new way of approaching education in Argentinian schools in Buenos Aires using ICT, evolved by Alijandro Inti Bonomo, Mariano Lopata, Mabel Quiroga and Agustín Frizzera in two organizations, SOLE Argentina and DemocracyOS.

During a ‘SOLE’ session, the teacher asks a Challenging (big) Question ( the trick is to know what kinds of questions to ask) and the students self-organize themselves in groups around one computer. They use the internet to find sources, discuss them and then share their answers with the other students under the teacher´s guidance. Each group contributes a part of the picture in answering the question, so that, as one student puts it: “ The four parts make a whole. And we know everything.”

Students are encouraged to share knowledge, ideas and hypothesis with other groups. They can change groups as many times as they like. The goals of the project were to reach low-resourced community schools with this new way of thinking education, integrating ICT use into a sector of society that usually doesn’t have access to innovation in education, often only available to upper middle class schools.

A SOLE classroom.Alijandro explains:

"We have to change our view of knowledge. We are no longer in an era where information is scarce and hard to find. On the contrary, tons of information is available: we now have entire libraries in our pockets. But we need to start teaching our kids how to discern the good sources from the bad ones.”

Sugata Mitra, from the University of Newcastle in the UK, an advisor to SOLE Argentina, introduces the idea behind ‘self-organised learning environments’ in this way: “SOLE has spread almost virally through five continents over the last fifteen years, a lot of the thinking beginning with relatively disadvantaged children in Mexico. I work in the future of learning, where the idea is that you don’t have to be told things – you can be asked. We live in an information structure where we have the answers everywhere, but we don’t have the questions. The issue is how to create the right questions. SOLE offers relatively new ways in which children can take charge of their own learning….”

On future prospects Mitra commented in September, 2015: ”We have a couple of unanswered questions: What is knowing going to look like in the future? Is it as important to know things as it was before in the electronic age? I think learning is the central word as opposed to either learning or education, and we will have to focus more on how to let learning happen, when learning cannot be imposed from the outside. It grows from the inside. If you accept that, and that the internet is the source of the information, these two assumptions combine to give you some idea of what the future will look like.”

You notice Mitra talks about “letting learning happen”. The immediate past in education, he points out, was derived from industrialization where you don’t let things happen, “That’s absolutely not it. You have to make things happen. We are in that transition, and it is unfortunate that we have a generation of learners who are still battling with that system which believes that you can make people learn things. I think our first and foremost priority is to understand this and to shift to where we should be.”

Looking at children self-organising their learning, it might seem like a contradiction to ask if this can be organized. Mitra argues that you can if you recognize that you are dealing with what in physics is referred to as a dynamic system, “A bee-hive is a self-organising system, and we know from bee-farming that while you cannot meddle with the internal nature of what is going on, you can set the outer constraints and produce the honey.”

“The world has experimented with a number of political scenarios or situations and the longest of the whole lot was monarchy at the root of kingdoms. However, it didn’t last… After the kingdoms and empires disappeared, humanity started experimenting with self-organisation. The democratic system is possibly the closest to a chaotic, ‘edge of chaos’ dynamic system, because we assume that the opinion of many is more than likely to be the right way to go. If that is the case then naturally things have to evolve in the direction of a totally decentralized emergent behaviour-based political system…  Will the internet play a role in it? I think: for sure. Not too long in the future, it will be possible for people’s collective desire to be available at milliseconds’ notice for action to be taken or for decisions to be made… Whether it is trying to find out how the traffic works or the weather, we are beginning to understand how the ‘edge of chaos’ works. In every sphere of life we see this happening.” He concludes that governance and education and society too are heading towards “connected, dynamic systems producing emergent behavior”. That leaves us with some big questions: what does that mean for ownership, knowledge, wisdom, the arts: “We can see that some big change has got to happen to everything. We don’t quite see where or how…”

Alijandro Inti Bonomo in LAB 8, WFD2016.Alijandro and his team are dealing with the immediate challenges, the impact on teachers, how to change the structure of education to accommodate this challenge, and how to evaluate what the children have learned. When, in his LAB presentation, he was asked rather nervously how they trained their teachers to be so digitally innovative? The response came back: “It’s OK – if the teachers don’t understand – the students can explain to them! And this is happening anyway.”

Not surprisingly, Alijandro is very aware of the size of the challenge when it comes to changing the structure:

"We have a political system that mirrors the educational one. We are governed by the authorities that hold knowledge and have the power to decide what everybody needs to do and when. We can't expect to change one without changing the other."

As for evaluation, in the perception surveys used by the team, one hundred per cent of teachers have documented an increase in collaborative work, and that students remember their acquired knowledge using this method. The approach facilitates the reading of complex texts, giving the children access to articles they would never normally be offered. 72% of students testify to having increased their use of computers in school ‘a lot’, and that SOLE makes it ‘easier to learn’. As Alijandro sums up:  “If we want to have democracies with active citizens we need to start educating active students."

Questions in LAB 8.

openDemocracy is at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy with a youth newsroom. More here.
About the author

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, and a member of the coordinating committee of DiEM25.


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