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Learning on the Edge of Chaos

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Successful learning is less about what’s memorized and much more about having the ability to make the right connections.

But should teachers be the ones making all those connections for their students?

TED Prize winner Professor Sugata Mitra talks about creating a “Self-Organized Learning Environment” or SOLE. As he points out, it’s often called “learning on the edge of chaos” because it requires an educator to truly be the “Guide on the Side” rather than the “Sage on the Stage.” Sugata postulated: What would happen if we presented our students with goal-oriented challenges that allow them choice and provide opportunities to solve problems on their own? In a remote village in India, he placed a computer and track pad in a Hole in the Wall three feet above the ground to see what would happen.

What Sugata discovered, as he outlined in his 2013 TED prize-winnng talk, is that if children were allowed to work in groups to solve problems and had minimal supervision, there was no limit to their capacity to learn.

If we want students to become problem-solvers, shouldn’t we be giving them challenges and let them get to work creating their own connections? What if I tried a whole different approach to Language Arts? We had already taught friendly letters and propaganda as well as had a little fun with designing Wanted Posters in response to “Elena” in our Houghton-Mifflin curriculum.

We also needed to move on to our next story. With a single PowerPoint slide, I introduced my students to a test-drive of the SOLE model.

“This week, we’re going to try something different,” I announced. “No lectures or presentations from me. You’ve got four assignments for Language Arts that must be completed by Thursday so we can showcase your finished products on Friday. Let’s talk about them.” I outlined what I expected from each assignment: one and three had to be individual work, but two and four could be group work or individual work, their choice. I took some questions to clarify and then told them to get to work.


What I didn’t expect is that they immediately got to work! What I heard was the sound of collaboration, communcation and focus. Every teacher knows this sound. No voices are louder than others, and it sounds like the pleasant hum of a hive a bumblebees, busy at work. Click here to listen and see a sample!


My favorite response was from a student who had completed one assignment and proudly came to tell me.

“Now what should I do? Can I have free time or do I have to do another assignment?”

“I don’t know. It’s your choice. Just keep in mind your deadline’s Thursday,” I said.

And then he turned without a word and went back to his desk to start working on another assignment. I didn’t have to tell him to; he decided to.

What I saw was students focused on figuring out how to create a particular effect they wanted, intent on remembering how to insert a file in OneNote and even diving into the internet to watch a tutorial that made everything clear. They were collaborating naturally: monitoring each other’s work, clarifying details to their neighbor and enjoying learning together.

What I learned is that if we want students to become problem-solvers, we must craft achieveable challenges for them, and then let them figure them out SOLEly for themselves.

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Tammy Brecht Dunbar, M.Ed., S.T.E.M. teaches 5th grade in Manteca Unified School District and Pre-Service Technology at Teachers College of San Joaquin (Stockton, CA). She is a popular presenter and trainer around the country. She presented at the 2015 Microsoft Global E2 conference (where she earned two global awards for project excellence), and will be presenting at ISTE 2016 (with Angela Maiers), CUE 2016, ETC! 2016 and CTA’s Good Teaching Conference 2016. Follow her on @TammyDunbar or find her at http://www.teachergeekischic.com

Dunbar is a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, Certified Educator, Master Trainer & Regional Lead as well as a Common Sense Media Digital Citizenship Certified Educator, a PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator and an NCCE Professional Learning Specialist. She won the 2010 eInstruction $75,000 Classroom Makeover Video Contest, wrote a successful Enhancing Education Through Technology grant for Manteca Unified School District in 2008, and was Teacher of the Year in MUSD in 2006. She serves on the MUSD Superintendent’s Technology Committee and as a district Tech Champion Expert as MUSD continues their “Going Digital” project.

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Guest Friday, 15 February 2019