Our dive into self organized learning…

After learning about Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment, I started thinking about how the context of Self-Organized Learning Environments would help my students. Last March we created a SOLE in our fifth grade math class. Watch this TED Talk by Mitra…

My colleague Joel and I both teach fifth grade this year, but last year Joel was a substitute teacher and spent some time in my classroom teaching math in our SOLE. This year he contacted me with questions about implementing a SOLE in his new math class at a different school, and now the ball is rolling for both of us in an action research project we’re sharing between our classes.

The nemetic process began for us by noticing a few things about kids in our math classes. We saw many similar challenges between them. To start we noticed that roughly 65% of our students would have little trouble achieving an acceptable standard in grade five math. What we mulled together though is could these kids do more than acceptable? We think they can.

Next we noticed that about 15% of each class appeared very competent as math learners capable of high achievement. We asked ourselves how to define high achievement and agreed that perhaps we can’t really define that. We asked what if there was no limit to how much any child can learn, and that perhaps in our traditional math classes we were placing a false ceiling above these kids. We resolved to do more for them by letting them go.

We then realized that the remaining 20% of our students appeared to struggle with the math content we were teaching in a traditional way. We noticed that they typically fell behind the pace of instruction, and that they appeared anxious and confused much of the time during class. We also noticed that despite their challenges learning math, they were also in most cases the least likely to ask us for help, or work willingly with their parents at home on any extra study activities to reinforce what they were missing.

Joel and I mulled these observations and decided to apply a SOLE philosophy to our respective math classes, and then collaborate in reflection about how to fine tune our process. Joel shared this with his students last week, and I thought it was a great summary of our process…

Self-Organized Learning
1. Work in groups constructively and cooperatively
2. Talk (30 cm voices)
3. Ask questions if you do not know.
4. Help other students who need it.
5. Finish assignment, check and correct answers.
6. 3 choices when done
a. Help other students having trouble (most important)
b. Continue on to next lesson
c. Ten Marks Math (if we have computers and if you’ve earned it).

I added a step to #5 “…and then show your finished work to Mr. Grainger,” but for the most part I am operating under the same SOLE process in my class, so now we get busy.

I already have three students who have done a great job self-assessing previously held knowledge and skills which have enabled them to move ahead of the instructional pace I have established. They have, after not quite two units of instruction, been able to challenge themselves and work ahead. They have also been very responsible about picking choice A under step 6 of our SOLE process, and have been routinely learning through teaching their peers about math they have mastered in relative degrees. They are engaging in math in ways they haven’t before.

We’re also noticing that the kids who typically struggle are appearing less anxious in class as a result of the increase in access points for help. The classroom is a bit louder as a result of all these math conversations going on, but I’m totally fine with that… I like Joel’s “30 cm voices.” Joel and I are now more free to roam the class and provide guidance where necessary. We teach to the whole class with direct instruction one lesson at a time as our syllabus requires to get through the curriculum for grade five.

The biggest change we’re noticing though is in the level of engagement of students in both classes, especially the 65% group. Each for different reasons (all good) and in slightly different ways for each individual, our students are more engaged in the kind of math I like… math that makes us wonder, lets us be wrong on the road to being right and that becomes more than what most students seem to think math is… just work. We watched this awesome video at the beginning of the year to reinforce a different perspective toward math…

Indeed as Galileo said, “mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” We’re going to keep harping that message for our students so math may become wonderous. After all, we can’t get away from it anyway; it’s everywhere. It would be great to hear from others who are experimenting with self-organized learning in their classrooms.

About graingered

I'm a teacher, coach, mentor, mental health advocate, and writer in Alberta, Canada.
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5 Responses to Our dive into self organized learning…

  1. whatedsaid says:

    Hi Sean. Thanks for your first post. I really like the way you have adapted Sugata’s ideas into your classroom to create opportunities for meaningful engagement with a focus on student driven learning. What they actually do sounds quite teacher directed though, if I am reading it correctly. What do you mean by ‘Continue to next lesson’. Are there set tasks? Have you considered giving them open ended problems to explore? Letting them follow their own direction or interest (within a prescribed topic)? It sounds like it from the next part of your post, but not clear how it fits in the self organised session.
    I volunteer as an e-mediator via Skype with SOLES and SOMES in India. I’m thinking how exciting it could be to take what you are doing a step further. Imagine if kids had access to a computer with Skype and could contact an e-mediator for help or encouragement. How about a registry of mediators like teachers on maternity leave, retired people, teachers in other time zones, parents, grandparents… Am I getting carried away?


  2. graingered says:

    Yes, we have prescribed content, but our Alberta curriculum typically uses an inquiry model to present it. I encourage kids to explore math through extension activities which they can design, and I encourage creativity within the content by reinforcing that math provides many different paths to the correct answer. I don’t see a dichotomy between teacher directed and student directed. I see a learning environment where the teacher inserts him/herself as chief inquirer and role model in the context of defining the questions and discovering their answers instead of defining the answers and making up their questions.
    I believe every good idea can be customized to fit new contexts when integrative thinking is used. I believe we have set up action within our math classes that will explore those elements of SOLE that fit our context, and I’m sure we will see things evolve in unpredictable ways too, but the plan is to integrate those elements of SOLE that work for us in combination with that which was already working for us to weave another unique take on student engagement.
    I am interested in making a connection for my students as e-mediators themselves as an example of a possible direction we can go. Kids helping kids, again with teachers/role models involved as chief inquirers to help steer the effort. We’ve broached this at the SOLES and SOMES wiki, but time-zones appear to be a roadblock so far. We’re still mulling this possibility though.
    Thanks for your feedback Edna, and the blog is really taking shape. Good work!


  3. Lindsey Wright says:

    Im sorry for leaving an unrelated comment, but I couldnt find your contact information on your blog. My name is Lindsey and I have been reading your blog for the past few weeks. Do you accept guest posts? I have a topic that would strike your interest. Please, feel free to email me. Thanks for your time and I hope to hear from you soon.


    • graingered says:

      Hey, thanks for getting in touch… I’m open to guest posts for sure. What are you thinking? Looking forward to hearing from you! Thanks for reading by the way. Sean


  4. graingered says:

    No worries… I’m experimenting with the new Blogger templates that so far don’t include customized sidebars, widget etc… soon though.
    I will send you an email…


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