The 4th-graders are sitting on the floor with their eyes closed, their faces identical masks of concentration. As researcher Natalia Arredondo asks, “What are you wondering about space?” their hands begin to shoot up in the air.
“Why is there no gravity in space?”
“Why do you need to carry oxygen in space?”
“What can create a black hole?”
Arredondo takes a quick vote. The last question is the clear favorite. Within minutes the students have dispersed to one of six oversized computers set low to the ground. Their mission is to answer the question — with absolutely no help from any adults.
In 1999, an educational researcher named Sugata Mitra dug a hole in a wall bordering a slum in New Delhi and installed an internet-connected computer under a sign that read “For Children under 15.” Then he set up hidden cameras to film the area.
His experiment, which came to be known as “the Hole in the Wall,” gave rise to his theory of “minimally invasive education,” a form of learning in which unsupervised children teach themselves and each other to interact with technology and answer questions.
Mitra, now a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in England who was awarded the $1 million TED Prize in 2013, has replicated his Hole in the Wall experiment around the world by building Self-Organized Learning Environments — or SOLE labs — in which students are given free rein to access computers.
The first and only SOLE lab in North America launched in October 2014 at PS 197 in Harlem, where each class goes once a week to the lab in six-week cycles. In the lab, students gather in groups to answer a guiding question of their choice under Arredondo’s supervision. Past questions have included “Can sharks live in ponds?” (from a group of prekindergarten students) and “Would Superman be able to survive a black hole?” (from 4th-graders).
The lab has only four rules: 1. Find a group; 2. You may switch groups; 3. You may see what others are doing and tell your group; and 4. Report your findings.
The result is akin to organized chaos as students bustle from group to group. The 4th-graders negotiate over who’s going to type and who’s going to read aloud, tease each other good-naturedly about the occasional mispronounced word and, when all else fails, declare “Look on YouTube!”
Arredondo analyzes audio recordings of their sessions to glean insights into student behavior and learning as she watches them work together to search for information online, read it and interpret it.
“There are so many skills happening at the same time,” she says. “One kid decodes the text and the others support with comprehension strategies. Even when it seems like they’re chatting about something else, that relaxes them and helps them focus.”
“Working in the SOLE lab has made them more conscientious readers,” says 4th-grade teacher Leana Borges. “They’re focused on what they don’t understand and what they need to do to understand.”
Teachers at PS 197, which has long taken a more traditional approach to education, say the experience has been eye-opening.
“It’s been phenomenal in that it’s allowed students to generate their own research questions,” says Chapter Leader Conchita Fluitt. “They’re allowed to explore and take ownership of the experience.”