Over the past week, I collaborated with Fordson science teacher Sarah Collada to design an activity to help students learn about land use and conservation in AP Environmental Science (APES). The activity we devised was a simple group activity, but with a few caveats–one of which was the fact that it was self-organized.


Our design for the activity was based on a framework developed by Dr. Sugata Mitra called SOLE, which stands for Self-Organized Learning Environment. The basic premise is this: if we create a curriculum of “big questions”, provide the resources for students to learn, and seek to encourage them along the way, learning becomes an emergent phenomenon. Students take charge and create products beyond what we could imagine. Furthermore, “decades of research have shown us that students who find answers for themselves are much more likely to retain them than if they are simply told the answers” (Mitra, 2010).

So that’s what we did. We knew what we wanted students to learn about, and we devised some broad questions around them, which basically ended up looking like this: “What’s the big deal with…” and then inserted a particular topic for each group, such as urban land development, sustainable use policies, etc. Students were asked to create a product to help other students understand the concept as it relates to the study of environmental science.

The Ground Rules

Then we laid the ground rules:

  • 5 minutes for question, 30-45 minutes for investigation, 10-20 minutes for reviewEvery student must be an active member of a group of 3 or 4.
  • You may pick your own group.
  • You must be actively engaged in your group’s project.
  • You may change groups at any time, but you are expected to present with your original group.
  • You may walk around and see what other groups are doing, you may talk with other groups, and take ideas back to your own group.
  • You may use resources in your room, including ONE* networked computer (*two, if you choose to create a digital product), textbooks, a whiteboard, etc.

We set no guidelines for the product, other than that they needed to produce something and present it at the end of the class period. This was deliberate: we had decided we were ok with whatever they chose to produce, as long as they produced. We gave no other assignment other than the “big question”.

This was the first time students had encountered this type of activity, but Ms. Collada’s class took it and ran. Every one of the 6 groups decided to create a Google Slides presentation (which is typical for the first time a class does this–until you limit their options or start rewarding creativity). When we noticed this, we created a discussion forum on Ms. Collada’s Moodle course in which students could submit the link to their presentations for other students to be able to access.


Later in the hour, students presented their products at the front of the room, while their classmates took notes to prepare for their homework: a 5-question free-response quiz on Moodle (iLearn) in which they were required to summarize and supplement the work their classmates had done during the hour. Students will be responding to the questions and citing their sources (even if their source was their classmates’ presentation).Throughout the class period, students had great conversations as they navigated the material. Because they were limited in the number of connected devices (a restriction which included their phones, I might add), students found it necessary to begin to articulate their findings in conversation with their groups. And, because they had chosen their groups, they may have been slightly more at ease in doing so. Nevertheless, students were given very little, and produced amazing products.

“Sure, but these are AP students…”

Now, if you’re a normal human being, you’re skeptical about this. But even more, I hope you’re intrigued enough to challenge your skepticism by experimenting with SOLE in your classroom. For more information about Self-Organized Learning Environments, check out https://www.theschoolinthecloud.org/. Schools worldwide are using SOLE activities at all levels from elementary through higher education. And, especially if you’re skeptical, and even more if you want to be inspired, check out the background for Dr. Sugata Mitra’s learning experiments and discoveries: https://youtu.be/dk60sYrU2RU.

Every day is filled with uncertainty.  Learning prepares you to deal with uncertainty.  “Education” prepares you to deal with certainty.  …There is no certainty. 

-Dr. Sugata Mitra




Skip to toolbar