I have always been inspired by Sugata Mitra and his experiment with the Hole in the Wall.  If you have never seen his TED Talk,  I highly suggest it..   I attended a PD session this summer that was based on his work regarding the School in the Cloud.  In particular, his work on Self Organized Learning Environments. 

SOLEs are created when students are given or create “essential questions” and use the internet and other resources to collaboratively answer these questions. (Questions that do not have one right answer and require research)  The premise is so simple that it is beautiful.  I began to think about how we could utilize this approach with adults and professional learning.  

This year, our building is going into a pure Professional Learning Community approach. As many of us might know, the implementation of Professional Learning Communities can be rough.  They are in nature Self Organized Learning Environments.  Sometimes, PLCs can focus on the wrong drivers and the wrong actions.  They get stuck in planning and sharing which are great in and of themselves.  Yet, some rarely get to the learning.   The sweet spot where learning is the work.  Learning being defined as identifying the impact of planning and sharing and how it affects and impacts students and other stakeholders.  So how do we educate ourselves on the most effective attributes of a PLC while modeling what good PLCs do?   The answer could be in using SOLEs.

SOLEs are structured in the following way:

  • REVIEW (10-20 MIN)

Here is the process we went through.


We spent a lot of time crafting the right question.  We could have easily “powerpointed” them to death on what effective PLCs are and do. We could have done an article study but we have overused that approach.  Rather we posed the following question:  What are the most important attributes of a PLC that support students and teachers?  We wrestled with other questions such as: Are PLCs an effective supports for teachers and students?  Another was: How do PLCs function?  We settled on the first question.

Next we grouped our teachers by not grouping them but simply giving them guidelines.

  • You are allowed to form your own groups
  • No more than six per group
  • No more than two computers in each group
  • You can wander to other groups and get ideas
  • You can switch groups if you like during the process

The purpose for the grouping was to allow a flexible “Self Organized”environment.  We wanted to keep the groups to no more than 6 however, I could see smaller but certainly no bigger.  The purpose for requesting only two computers was to force collaboration.  When everyone has their own device, there is less collaboration, not more.   Participants were allowed to steal from one another.  Why?  Because it was about learning from one another rather than who could find the right answer.  It was encouraged.  Lastly,  if a teacher did not like the way a group was heading, they could switch.  Why?  Why not?


Teachers began “leaning in” and exploring.  The room was a buzz.  Some teachers were creating surveys  and gathering real live data in the room.  Others were creating mind maps, creating talking points and powerpoints.  Some were creating metaphors and using synectics to describe PLCs.  People did switch groups and jumped right in.  They explored Google like their hair was on fire while at the same time placing their own experiences and assertions into the process.  They left their department groups and joined others.   Think about the difference between teachers researching, sharing, recording and representing their knowledge together then contrasting it to one voice in the room talking and everyone else listening.  Who is doing the majority of the processing?

REVIEW (10-20 MIN)

We had a group of close to sixty diverse educators.  Each group had 2 minutes to present their learning.  Their modalities were so diverse.  Some used mind mapping software while others grabbed markers and created linguistic/nonlinguistic representations.  Various ways of presenting of what was learned was encouraged.  Teachers were actually upset that they did not get to share what they learned because we ran out of time.

That was it.  Providing teachers time in small groups to research and present on questions that matter to them is a profound way of organizing professional development.  This was my first attempt but I assure you not my last.   Guess what happened when they were released to their PLCs?  They were focused on the learning.   This is the starting poing.  We have a lot of work to do but this experience helped me continue to shift the way that I see true learning.

Guess what.  This works with students to.