Education TED Prize

Daring kids to ask big questions: 3 teachers who entered our SOLE Challenge win a trip to TEDYouth

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Sugata Mitra realized that, a group of kids left alone with a computer, can teach themselves an incredible amount. His theories are inspiring teachers in classrooms around the globe. Photo: Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra realized that a group of kids, left alone with a computer, can teach themselves an incredible amount of information. His theories are inspiring teachers in classrooms around the globe. Photo: Sugata Mitra

In a classroom in Ontario, a class of 9th graders learned the book Siddhartha, not by listening to lectures from their teacher, but by asking questions like, “How do you know when you’ve reached enlightenment?” Meanwhile, a group of 3rd through 5th graders in rural Georgia was posed a question in Spanish, even though they speak English: “Why doesn’t everyone in the world speak the same language?” And hundreds of miles away in New Hampshire, a group of 7th graders pondered, “Will the human race ever go extinct?” with only one rule: you may not look up the answer in a book.

All of these students had one thing in common: Sugata Mitra: Build a School in the Cloud Sugata Mitra: Build a School in the Cloud their teachers watched the talk from this year’s TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra, challenging them to reinvent the way kids learn. Mitra pioneered the “Hole in the Wall” experiments in the 1990s, which showed that — given nothing but a computer — kids were able to teach themselves impressively complicated subjects like DNA replication. Mitra wonders: could this model inform education? He asked teachers to pose big questions and let students research them on their own, cheering them as they go. He calls these sessions “Self-Organized Learning Environments,” or SOLEs.

Since his talk, educators from South Africa to Mexico (read Wired’s cover-story on the effects there) have heeded Mitra’s call. In March, TED and The Huffington Post invited teachers, parents and community members to participate in the SOLE Challenge, experimenting with Mitra’s method and sharing their experiences in blog posts. The challenge resulted in three winning submissions: from Jamie Cohen, the teacher who inspired his English class at an independent Jewish school in Ontario to ask questions about Siddhartha, Jaki Day, the teacher in Georgia whose students in her gifted program thought deeply about language, and Andrew Fersh, who encouraged his students to think about the future of humanity.

As a reward for their commitment to child-directed learning, these three prizewinners will travel to New Orleans for TEDYouth 2013, a day-long event for middle and high school students taking place this Saturday. (Watch the webcast, from 11am to 6pm EST.) Aptly themed “The Spark,” TEDYouth shares the spirit of Mitra’s wish by creating space for innovation, collaboration and deep-dives into big questions.

The TED Blog interviewed these SOLE Challenge winners to hear what they’ve learned in the process.

What made you want to put Sugata Mitra’s ideas on education into action?

Jamie Cohen: I was halfway through a jog in a ravine near my house just outside of Toronto, listening to Sugata Mitra’s TED speech. I literally stopped in my tracks. My mind started racing at how I could integrate this amazing teaching approach into my own class.

Jaki Day: I have been a teacher of gifted students for nine years. I’m currently teaching grades 3-5 in a pullout enrichment program where the students come to my class one day a week. It is always a challenge for me to create experiences that will inspire, challenge and stretch the boundaries of their every day learning experiences. When I was first introduced to the SOLE project, I was intrigued by the hands-off approach. One of the greatest disservices and injustices we do to our gifted students, in my opinion, is to order their whole day and fill it up with more and more work that has not been chosen by them.

Andrew Fersch: Attempting to figure out the ‘best’ way for a group of students to learn is one of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced as a teacher. Because, regardless of how much emphasis is placed on standardizing testing and teaching, children are actually human beings, and their interests, skills and learning styles vary as greatly as they do with adults. The SOLE Challenge offered me an opportunity to continue the experimenting that I’ve already begun in my classrooms over the years but with a different set of guidelines. It afforded me an opportunity to provide a unique experience to a group of young people which garnered a great deal of genuine excitement about learning – something that is meaningful to all dedicated teachers.

What was the biggest surprise to you in trying out the SOLE approach?


Jaki Day: The biggest surprise for me was how the students self-regulated their groups. I was pleased with how well the students worked together without adult intervention. I was also pleased with the depth of information they were able to acquire and understand. It was a very exciting time. When I asked them what they thought of learning this way, they were unanimous in their enthusiasm. As a matter of fact I stayed after school the next week for three days to allow those who were able to come to the computer lab and SOLE SEARCH a big question of their own.

Jamie Cohen: One student in my class who has been assessed as having challenges in “focus,” “auditory and visual attention” and “reading and listening compression and written expression” rated in the top 10% of my assessment [of the SOLE]. I was surprised that SOLEs are effective in impacting vulnerable students and helping creative students who may not fit within a traditional academic framework realize their potential in both innovation and critical thinking.


Andrew Fersch: I’ve allowed students to work extensively on ‘Choice Projects’ (a topic of their choosing tied to standards that they individually needed practice or instruction in), but I have never before done it without any real end goal or expectation in mind other than for the students to try to answer the question to the best of their ability and share that information with the rest of us. I was surprised that letting go was major challenge for me – even when I’ve assigned choice projects and had students work diligently on them for months, I’ve always been available as a back-up resource, readily available to help wherever I’m needed. This experience taught me that young people want to be challenged – they want to be pushed, they want people to expect a great deal from them, and they want to meet those expectations.

How did your school’s administration and or your community respond to your SOLE exploration?

Andrew Fersch: One sort of funny part about this whole experience was how much people supported it, but if I were to propose that we entirely rearrange how things look in school, I’m sure that support would wane. It’s one thing to try it as an experiment, but I think people would be afraid of taking the next step and really giving it a shot. The administration was incredibly supportive, the School Board loved the idea, the students were excited, as were their families. It was a very positive experience for everyone involved.

Jamie Cohen: A religious studies teacher who speaks English as a second language asked me for advice on how to teach history next year in English. I showed him this lesson and how he can digitally annotate a historical text guided by big questions in the SOLE component of the unit. His teaching style is teacher-centered, lecture-test, but he is open to the idea and wants to try it in September.

Jaki Day: I have received nothing but positive responses from my administration and community. The parents are as enthusiastic as their students with this idea.  My administration has given me opportunities to share this experience with other teachers and parents in hopes of encouraging other teachers to replicate the experiences with their students. I think the idea is catching on. Hopefully you will soon see more Georgia teachers blogging about their SOLE searching.

Inspired by the SOLE Challenge winners? Help transform learning for children in your community. Learn how to conduct a SOLE by downloading the SOLE toolkit and reading SOLE stories from around the world.