Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mitra’s SOLE – 10 reasons on why it is ‘not even wrong’

It saddens me when learning methods are  reduced to simplistic, ill-informed acronyms and practices. SOLE is one such acronym, or as one teacher trainer called it a ‘pseudo-framework’. SOLE is not a method based on sound learning theory, it’s not new and at worst a destructive force in education, doing, in my opinion, more harm than good. Mitra most recent pronuncement “knowledge is dead” is what the physicist Wolfgang Pauli described as “not even wrong”. In other words, so wrong it is barely worth critical comment. But here goes….
What is SOLE?
Self Organised Learning Environments (see here for method) are structured, three-phase, learning sessions – question (5 minutes), investigation (40 minutes), review (10-20 minutes). It involves group work (groups of four), each with access to a computer, students can move groups at any time and it’s OK to share. There’s some advice on choosing questions that will spark curiosity. So far, so good, but that’s about it.
1. Not new
What is not clear how this is a particularly new approach to inquiry-based learning, other than the prescriptive nature of the groups and computers. Even Socrates 2500 years ago would ask carefully chosen questions to groups of young men in the agora, let them think, discuss, then come back with a critique. Indeed, the Socratic method, when unpacked, is a good deal more sophisticated than Mitra’s SOLE method, as it was based on uncovering misconceptions and superficial knowledge. Since then there has been centuries of teachers working with groups by answering questions. Socratic Circles and seminars have been used for centuries. Question-led group work was also a strong feature of Worker’s Education Societies and many other adult education initiatives. In the early 1900s Kurt Koffka explored this area, then Kurt Lewin in the 20s-40s, Morton Deutsch in the 40s-50s, David and Roger Johnson in the 60s. Then we have the whole Vygotsky, Bandura, Murray, Tjosvold… I could go on and on. On top of this is the simple fact that almost every teacher I’ve ever known employs this or something similar in their teaching strategies (note the plural). It is quite simply old news.
2. Optimal groups
I’d take issue with Mitra’s optimal group size at ‘four’. Research has been done on this. Indeed, I was involved in just such as study on language learning (French), where the researcher tried various groups sizes, measuring attainment. The optimal number was ‘three’ not ‘four’. There were several reasons for this. First, a computer comfortably sits one in the middle with one on either side. The fourth, when added, was often marginalised. Then, in terms of social interaction, the good news was that they started speaking French, not only to the screen but to each other (rare in traditional teaching) but side to side in dialogue. More participants diluted the collective effort. Mitra’s model is not researched and, in my opinion, not optimised. A more general problem with this type of groupwork, as any teacher knows, is social-loafing, with one student ‘driving’ the computer, the others being more passive, even excluded.

3. Questions
The SOLE website is remarkably simplistic on what types of questions are to be asked in the SOLE method. This is not a trivial issue. In the recent Wired article, the question was “Why do dogs chase cats?”. As is so often the case, it is not clear, how these questions relate to context – curricula, teaching, level of existing knowledge and so on. Black and Wiliam have written extensively on this subject with far more insight and many more concrete suggestions on what constitutes good questions. Mitra’s suggestions are basic, almost trite.
4. Knowledge is dead?
Most worrying of all is Mitra’s statement in the recent Wired article, that “Knowledge is dead”. Mitra has form here. He has said on various occasions that schools and teachers are dead. He did, of course, backtrack as soon as he found that the Hole-in-the-wall methods were failures without teacher support.
You don’t have to be a Hirsche or Willingham to see how muddled Mitra’s views of knowledge, teaching and learning really are when he pops out these platitudes. Critical skills need a body of knowledge to act upon, if critical inquiry is to be fruitful. What is often ignored is the danger of this in terms of social equality. A complete pendulum swing away from knowledge to critical thinking is likely to led to increasing levels of inequality, as the poor receive an inferior education while the wealthy retain this more valuable mix of educational strategies. Far from aiding the poor, Mitra may be doing untold damage.

Let me illustrate this using the “Why do cats chase dogs?” example. It’s a reasonable question that requires a complex answer, including some knowledge of evolution, genetics, artificial breeding, selection and domestication. Do the children we see really understand any of these concepts? Will they pick up these complex ideas without teacher intervention?
5. Schools are obsolete!
As I said earlier, Mitra has form here. Remember his “Schools are obsolete”statement. Far from being sited in open places, HiWEL sites are now invariably in school compounds. By being in the school it is difficult to do research that isolates the experience from the school, difficult to disentangle the role of the school (teachers, books etc.) and the hole-in-the-wall computers. Indeed, as HiWEL has explained, they involve ‘teachers’ in their implementation and mediation, making it almost impossible to isolate the causes of educational improvement. One could say, with Arora, that this has become “self-defeating”. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ has become the ‘computer-in-the-school’. This is a subtle bait and switch - evangelise on one premise, deliver on another.
6. Criticism
On this idea of SOLE, hole-in-the-wall strategies, let’s look at the evidence. “What we see is the idea of free learning going into free fall,” said Payal Arora. When Arora came across these two ‘hole-in-the-wall’ sites (Almora and Hawalbagh in northern India), she discovered not the positive tales of self-directed learning but failure. One was vandalised and closed down within two months, the other abandoned and, apparently, had been mostly used by boys to play games. A real problem was sustainability, as no one seemed responsible for the electricity and maintenance bills. 
My own research into a hole-in-the-wall project uncovered the same story - empty holes in the wall, resentful teachers and testimonies that claimed the whole project was a failure from start to finish. People arrived at their school. knocked holes in their walls, inserted computers and left. They felt violated. The computers rarely worked, as the DSL line was often down, and when it did work, the larger boys dominated them, playing games.
7. Little independent evidence
As Arora (2010) points out, there is little real independent evidence, other than that provided by HiWEL itself and one must always question research funded by those who would benefit from a positive outcome. The lack of independent research on the sites is astonishing, something noted by Mark Warschauer, one of the few critics who have actually visited a site. Most of it comes from Mitra himself, or those in his team, almost all from one Journal. Control groups were given questionnaires at the start and end of the period, but those in the experimental group were tested every month. The obvious problem here is the polluting effect of effect the regular assessments. Indeed, as De Bruyckere et al. (2015) say, there is ample research, from Reedier & Karpicke and others on the positive effect of testing.
8. Not like with like
Arora exposed a glaring weakness in the design of the experiment. The 75 days of learning (with a mediator) was compared to the same period in the local school but like was not being compared to like, so the comparison was meaningless. It was not comparing the amount of time spent on the hole-in-the-wall material with the same or similar amount of time in school.
9. Role of teachers
As HiWEL makes extensive use of mediators (teachers), the real lesson of the hole in the wall experiments is that teachers, or at least mediators, seem to be a necessary condition for learning to combat exclusion, mediate learning and avoid the vagaries of child-centred behaviour. Yet this is not what the TED talks and hole-in-the-wall evangelism suggests. Another problem is that by seeing teachers as ‘invasive’, such initiatives can antagonise teachers and educators, leading to poor-support.  I found this in my research in Africa, where the teachers were resentful. Arora concludes are that these experiments do not work when not linked to the local schools and that, far from being self-directed, the children need mediation by adults. Arora goes further and claims that disassociating learning from adult guidance can lead to uncritical acceptance of bad content and bad learning habits.
10. Low level learning
Warschauer (2003) is even more critical than Arora. He claims that “overall the project was not very effective”, with low level learning and not challenging. In addition, he found that some of the many problems were the fact that the internet rarely functioned, no content was provided in Hindi, the only language the children knew, and many parents thought that the paucity of relevant content rendered it irrelevant and criticised the kiosks as distracting the children from their homework. Sure they learned how to use menus, drag and drop but most of the time they were “using paint programs or playing games”. This is hardly surprising and seems to confirm the rather banal conclusion that when you give kids shiny new things, they play with them. The danger with SOLE learning is the classroom is the illusion of deep learning. Without formative feedback and guidance, the learners may well be thrashing about to no great effect.

It is not clear that this is anything other than traditional project or inquiry based teaching. The TED effect has given Mitra a celebrity status but little independent research has been done on his work and when researchers do look, they find a rather different story. It’s all too easy to tell a few anecdotes, with some well-selected pictures of kids at a screen, even slum kids, and present this as a polished, keynote narrative. Teachers need to be more critical than to fall for this stuff. ‘I’m a Celebrity let me fix your education system’ should not be a substitute for careful thinking, scrutiny, evidence and critical analysis.

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Anonymous Gyaneshwaran said...

Thank you for the nice critical assessment. I had similar suspicions and found your article very enlightening. As you rightly pointed out, we need independent research to confirm his findings. He certainly seems to have given a biased conclusion, which seems highly unrealistic. Without teacher moderation, SOLE working seems extremely unlikely.

4:41 PM  

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