Chilpancingo, Mexico

We are nearing the end of our exploration into the future of education and Dr. Mitra has challenged us with an impossible task; to create a “learning environment” (intentionally not saying “school”) for the children of Chilpancingo, Mexico in 2035. Why Chilpancingo? It was chosen arbitrarily by a student closing their eyes and pointing at a map. Very technical indeed.

Armed with that question and a city no one had ever heard of, Dr. Mitra left us to our own devices…literally. You would think that we would have achieved some level of understanding about how to be most effective in the SOLE environment by now, but we haven’t. In the first 20 minutes the room was pure chaos. People talking over one other and at one another, suggestions being thrown out and immediately disregarded, comments slung around the room without adding any value to the question at hand.

Eventually the frustration became palpable. You could feel it in the air while one by one, people started to shut down and retreat back to the immediate groups seated around their table. Proximity saved the day! An unspoken agreement was made that we would give up on the idea of a large group discussion and we all began the conversations at our tables.

Our group thought it would be more efficient to tackle various topics individually and then discuss those topics as a group. One person looked up the population/economy, one looked up politics, one looked at the existing schools and another talked a bit about the culture. It wasn’t perfect, but it did lay the foundation for the community we were supposed to create this school for. From there we started practically discussing what we thought schooling would be like in 2035 and for the most part…we weren’t optimistic that much would change. The biggest differences we anticipated were access to Internet everywhere as well as an integration of blended learning into the curriculum. Using some sort of technology in the classroom along with traditional methods. By the end of this class, I didn’t feel we’d accomplished much in terms of actually creating our ideal school, but at least we weren’t still yelling amongst ourselves as a class.

Two days later was a completely different story. Our class decided to meet on Thursday for a couple of hours to prepare for the presentation on Tuesday. Since the first class discussion had been such a disaster, I will admit that I was skeptical as to how this would go. The first thing we did upon entering the room was create one large table with everyone seated in a circle around it. I honestly think that made all the difference. We were now in an environment that invited collaboration and discussion. The conversation started to flow and before long we were making real progress toward our goal. Ideas were being heard and we moved from topic to topic discussing the pros and cons of various ideas, building on those we liked and discarding ideas that we decided wouldn’t work. It was like night and day from the first class discussion.

As we began to discuss the ideal learning environment, we operated under the assumption that by 2035 there will be Internet worldwide (thanks to initiatives like Project Loon by Google and by Facebook) and that schools will all have access to some sort of device that will allow them to access the internet. From there, we talked infrastructure.

What does our dream school look like?

We came up with a glass building that was airy and aesthetically pleasing, with smart walls in various rooms that could be used by students and teachers. We wanted lots of different stations for kids to work at, cushions for the floor, beanbag chairs, standing desks, etc. We all acknowledged that sitting at a desk was not the most effective way to learn. Ideally our building would be self-sustaining and it would have recycled water as well as a garden that the kids could learn from and that would provide healthy lunches. We also liked the idea of not having the area fenced in, allowing for easy access from the community. Knowing that Chilpancingo has a fairly high crime rate, we know this is risky, but in our ideal world we wanted this school to be cared for by the people in the community, not fenced off and restricted only to certain children.

How do we assess the students?

Pedagogy and curriculum took up the largest chunk of our conversation. After going back and forth, our biggest questions were: how do we assess children and do we group children by age or ability. Ultimately more people were in favor of no formal assessments. We all agreed that some type of final portfolio would be most effective. Students would have to complete 5 “projects” for their portfolio and it could be anything. A painting, baking a cake, making a movie, writing a story, competing in a sport, growing a plant, etc. All they needed was to show they could achieve something. As for grouping children, we decided to leave that open ended as well. If a child was clearly showing an aptitude for a certain subject, they could attend a higher level math lesson or advanced reading session. If an older child was struggling in the current lesson, they could move down to a less challenging level. It would all remain fluid and at the discretion of teacher, child and parent.

What is the role of the adults: parents, teachers, counselors?

The teachers at our school would play a very large role. They would be there as mentors, assistants, and encouragers. Students would learn to grow a carrot and nurture it until they harvested it. They would have lessons in science built around that experience and then we would set up a mock store where they could sell their carrot and learn about math, accounting, and business. We would read poetry and books pertaining to the subjects they’re learning. As much as possible, the teaching would revolve around practical application.

We felt it was extremely important to have several counselors in the school. People that were part of the immediate community and could be listening ears for students with rough home lives or who were facing a difficult struggle or lacked motivation. Instead of leaving this role to the teachers who already have a large workload, we would give this role to qualified counselors.

Parents were the other important key. We want our school to be a welcoming place for children and parents. Chilpancingo has a very low literacy rate among adults, and we recognized that many of these children would not learn reading, writing or math from their parents. As a result, we want parents and the people from the community to feel welcome in our school to come and participate in the learning that is happening among the children.

Ultimately we came up with what I couldn’t help but think of as a fancy community center were learning occurs as an incident to fun. One of the groups during the first class had come up with the name: Sophisticated Virtual Learning Environment. We asked them what it meant and they had no idea, they just liked the sound of the acronym SVLE. In the end, I think that is exactly what we created and I’d love to send my imaginary kids to our SVLE in 2035.

Further Questions for Sugata:

  1. Obviously, a controlled experiment in children’s learning where half learn only from SOLEs for 10 years and the other half learn “traditionally” cannot be implemented; but in the absence of longitudinal experiments proving SOLEs effectiveness, do you feel there is an ethical boundary being crossed by implementing SOLEs without such research backing it?
  2. In my experience when anything is done in a group there are those that actively engage and those that do not. In SOLE environments, how can you ensure all children are actually comprehending the information being taught? If it is with assessments, how are those assessments structured? If it is not with assessments, how do you know that all children are actively learning?

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