Friday, January 17, 2014

SOLE Experiences

Education is an intensely personal experience. It cannot be gained from books, tests or assignments. Although they can help form an education they are not the basis for it. The basis is the person’s experiences, reactions and thoughts. This can be found in many places, in the most unexpected ways and have impacts much larger than anything we can convey in a classroom. Each person who sits in a classroom has a different experience in the class with no two being the same despite being taught the same things. Each person brings a different level of experience, understanding and thought process to each situation.  Each person has experiences outside the classroom that no one else in the classroom can have. This affects how they perceive things. Classrooms should be about expanding on these experiences, providing more places for thought provoking discussion and following trains of thought to their logical conclusions. Education should not be about test scores or getting everyone to be the same by expecting the same things from them. Everyone is not the same. We should stop expecting all our students to be the same.
            In my second year of teaching my class grew from thirty Grade 5 students to forty five Grade 5 students in a couple of months. I remember thinking to myself, “How am I ever going to program for that many students.” The fact that it was in a very low income neighbourhood with the most notorious reputation in all of the school board added to the issue. Of the forty five students six were reading at Grade level or above. Five were reading just below Grade level the other thirty four were reading from Grade one to Grade three level. I needed to engage the top six without having to spend a great deal of time with them. I focused on independent projects where they could learn about the things that interested them.
            Fast forward 25 years to 2013. We now have technology in schools. Research projects became more of the norm but still in teaching we were bound by the curriculum which needed to be taught. Despite attending many workshops where the focus was on teaching curriculum I had grave doubts about this method. It certainly didn’t inspire passion in my students. They became less focused and I was losing their interest. Behaviour problems began to creep out as everyone looked for attention.
            In March of 2013 a teacher librarian friend of mine pointed me towards an article she had read and a Ted Talk by a gentleman named Sugata Mitra. I watched his Ted Talk and knew immediately that this was the place for me. He talked about the innate ability of children to learn without adults. This I could identify with because I had always believed that students learned despite what we did with them. They certainly proved this adequately between the ages of 0 and 5. He talked about children sharing what they learned. This I could see every day. He talked about how reading levels and interest in school increased dramatically. I was hooked. I looked up his toolkit. It was quite informative but what interested me the most was the basic format he used. I modified it to suit my needs as a teacher.
1.      Students develop the question.
2.      Students choose the groups.
3.      Students research the question.
4.      Students write up their findings
5.      Students present their findings.   
Perfect. It seemed too simple and too contrived but it fit the need I was seeing so I thought to myself let’s give it a try.
First I needed to present this to my students in a way they could understand. They were a very smart group those Grade 4 and 5 students. I was sure I could get them to join me on this first stage of my journey. I talked to them about my belief that education is something more than information that can be gained through books or the Internet. It is something we carry with us all our lives if we feel the information belongs to us and is needed by us to help us grow. I explained about the basics of a SOLE and about Sugata Mitra. I saw their eyes open and the wheels turning. “Do you mean that we may not have to read about things we are not interested in anymore, like those stories from the textbooks?” they asked. I told them I could not promise that but we would see how it goes. “We get to work as a group and look up what we want?” I explained to them that, in my opinion, was what learning is about. They also needed to share the information with an audience. This would help them to remember what they had learned. The general opinion was, “Let’s do it.” So we tried it.
            To say it was successful is an understatement. That first day was one of the most overwhelming experiences in my teaching career. Every one of the 26 students bought into it and participated with great exuberance. They developed 7 questions, one for each group, formed their groups without issues and worked better than they ever had before. At the end of the period they wrote up their findings as a group, decided on the presentation style and presented their information. After the presentation their classmates were invited to ask them questions about the topic and critique their presentation style. After reminding the audience that whatever they had to say would be positive and helpful everything proceeded amazingly well. The discussion for the first question went on for 20 minutes. The questions came from all corners of the room. Those who would be considered my weakest students were in their element asking questions that were very strong and in some cases very profound.   
            This type of research became the basis for my Language Arts program. I started to work with the curriculum to fit what they were doing. I taught lessons based on the needs in their research and writing. Speaking, presenting, oral visual and media were covered this way. What I couldn’t teach to supplement what they were doing I taught in other subjects. Plot, character, setting and other topics along this line were covered in drama. Social Studies and Science covered some of the critical thinking questions that I used to ask in reading.  As we progressed from March through June we refined it carefully.

.In June I tested all of my Grade 4 students. All 19 of them tested at Grade level or above! I was shocked. In my experience there will be a few who read above Grade level, some who read at grade level and some who read from below to way below Grade level. As one of my low students put it, “I was looking up things I was interested in. I felt equal to all my group members. I could never compete with them before. Now I can be a part of something.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
This fall I started working in Social Studies and Science using the big questions the curriculum poses. By presenting the work this way the students are finding and sharing more information than what was asked of them. This allows them to see a bigger picture.

By making education about my students and allowing them to be decision makers they are contributing more and more towards making their lives about lifelong learning. They are happier and are making a stronger effort to become aware of who they are and what they want. That is what education should be about.