“Currently there is a critical need for developing 21st century skills in students. As educators we must understand that our teaching must reflect how our students are currently learning,” the Year 5/6 teacher from Fairfield West Public School in Sydney’s southwest, says.

“My classroom pedagogy represents this current demand. For the last two years I’ve been incorporating inquiry-based learning projects within my classroom pedagogy.”

Earlier this year, Pulbrook learned specifically about the work of Sugata Mitra and his ideas regarding Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs) and decided to formally set up SOLE sessions to be part of a SOLE mathematics project at her school. 

With a population of more than 700 students, 85 per cent of whom come from non-English speaking backgrounds, Fairfield West Public School runs several community languages programs and has a Support Unit catering for students with disabilities from the broader local area.

Pulbrook’s extension class of 32 students have previous experience with a range of SOLE tasks and they thoroughly enjoy the investigative exercises as they get to take ownership of their learning and engage in higher order thinking.

“I have attended many conferences where there have been ICT presentations on SOLE and inquiry-based learning models,” Pulbrook explains. “Last year, I attended a DEC Gifted and Talented conference in Sydney and attended a seminar specifically on inquiry-based learning projects.

Last year, FWPS also ran an in-school professional learning session on SOLE, based on ideas that were presented by Sugata Mitra at a DEC ICT conference called INSPIRE.”

When it came to her first formal SOLE session, Pulbrook posed the question to her students, ‘Can you kill a goat by staring at it?’ She says that once her students learned what they would be required to do, they were instantly filled with excitement and were keen to start using their creative and divergent thinking.  

“Students weren’t specifically told about the ‘roles’ within SOLE sessions yet, as this first session was to see how the students operate as a collective group and how well they collaborate as a team,” Pulbrook shares.

“Interestingly enough, the majority of the students were on task as they were very engaged in finding out the answers to such an abstract question. Although the students fell short of time, students thoroughly enjoyed their first SOLE task for the year and shared their interesting findings with the class.”

Their findings for this first task related to US army intelligence experiments, hypnosis, superhero powers, and research relating to headaches.

Since the first session, Pulbrook has explicitly introduced SOLE roles to ensure all students are on task. 

These roles include: a police officer (to monitor behaviour), a scribe (to record the team’s creative responses), a researcher (in charge of getting an ICT device to search for information) and a materials manager (required to collect all equipment for their group). 

With previous experience teaching an extension class for the last three years, Pulbrook says assigning roles is not something she would usually do, as generally speaking, the majority of students in her classes have been those who are high-achieving and intrinsically motivated, and can subsequently organise themselves. 

“I was excited to try something new and the students loved wearing their assigned ‘role lanyard’ and really took ownership of their roles,” she says.

“Roles are decided upon by the students and not by the teacher. This is important as I find students are more engaged and excited to take on a specific role if they are interested in that role.”

Fairfield West Public School believes so highly in the value of the SOLE sessions that they have subsequently established a SOLE project team, of which Pulbrook is a part of. The main aim of this project team is to make some changes within the school environment to strengthen links with various community stakeholders. 

Pulbrook says in Term 2 of this year, they trialled something new and exciting by hosting a SOLE collaboration event, at which four SOLE project teachers (including Pulbrook) and their classes met to collaborate in a joint SOLE project task. 

“We gave our students the task of researching and devising a plan on ‘How can we protect ourselves from sharks at the beach?’ The only difference with this task was that different groups had to address the question from a different perspective. 

“For example, students were required to address the issue from the perspective of tourists, swimmers, surfers, residents, environmentalists, fishermen, and lifeguards. 

“Each group was required to come up with some creative solutions, supported by research.”

To accommodate this SOLE session, the school hall was set up with a variety of different learning stations where students could roam between groups and discuss various issues and problems concerning their viewpoints on the issue. Each learning station had a variety of resources, including laptops, iPads, paper, textas and Post Its. 

“It was great to see students collaborating with various students from different years!” Pulbrook shares.

“Some students did struggle with addressing the issue from their chosen perspective. However, as a collective, the teachers thought this session was a great ‘trial and error’ session to see what worked well and what didn’t. This was our first trial of getting the students to look at an inquiry question from a variety of perspectives.”

Pulbrook says that at times, teachers can feel overwhelmed when new pedagogies or programs are introduced to the classroom, but SOLE had the direct opposite effect on her. “SOLE for me is the excitement of my week! SOLE sessions are easy to set up,” she says.

When it comes to organising a SOLE session, Pulbrook uses the following process:

  • 5-10 minute introduction to question – this is where she poses an inquiry question and generates interest through providing visual stimuli on an IWB chart. She also explains the SOLE process and reminds students of their roles (which they assign/decide upon themselves).
  • Approximately 50 minute student investigation time – students assign themselves specific roles and groups to find the answers to the inquiry question. Students during this time record their creative responses in any form they like (poster, iPad multimedia presentation, Word document, PowerPoint, Prezi etc).
  • 15-20 minute class discussion and reflection –  This is where they come together as a collective and students share their group’s creative ideas and reflect on the task.

The technology used during SOLE sessions is fundamental to the success of the program. Pulbrook incorporates technology into several stages of each session and uses it as a tool to enhance the learning for her students. “I usually begin my SOLE sessions with the use of an IWB for my introduction and task explanation,” she says. 

“Students then, in small groups, use a variety of ICT devices, such as class iPads and laptops, to carry out their research and record their ideas. As a collective we then come together at the end of each session and share our ideas in a variety of ways. Often I connect iPads by VGA cable to the class IWB to display student responses.”

Another important element to her class’ use of SOLE has been the sharing of their findings with the school community at large. Pulbrook’s class blog, which is linked to the school’s website, is a great way for her students to display their work and class experiences with the wider community.

“The reason I specifically decided to share and document our SOLE experience is because I wanted to share with the wider community the exciting programs that my class are working on and how creative my students can really be with little prompting,” Pulbrook shares.

“We have also been communicating with a school in Melbourne and an overseas school in California about SOLE and sharing ideas on how we can enhance our school environments.

“SOLE challenges traditional teaching methods, and there are many teachers who may feel apprehensive to teach in this style. 

“By sharing our progress, I hope that many teachers who come across our class blog feel inspired to trial these new teaching methods and encourage their students to be creative and innovative.”

According to Pulbrook, the students in her class love SOLE sessions as it encourages critical thinking, active learning, problem solving skills, collaboration, and creativity. 

“What my class loves most about SOLE is that it enables them to be in charge of their own learning and they can express themselves in a variety of ways,” she says.

But perhaps best of all, through independent and creative learning practices, Pulbrook’s students can become efficient to carry out various research tasks related to real world issues. 

“What I personally love about SOLE is exactly that — it encourages real world learning and problem solving where students can hope or aim to make changes (addressing real issues) within their school community,” she says.