Fifth grade teacher Joe Jamison celebrates Jackie Robinson Day with his class April 15, 2014.
Lawrence Intermediate School fifth grade students Leo Kalabacos, Will Kocsis, Trevor Stio, Princess Rebullo and Mariya Peudova brainstorm some big idea questions as part of SOLE in class Oct. 13, 2013.

Lawrence Intermediate School teacher uses TED Prize winners’ SOLE Learning techniques

By Jessica Oates

It’s never an ordinary day in Joe Jamison’s 5th grade class.

As one of the pioneers of SOLE Learning, rather than lecturing students on a daily basis, Jamison empowers students at Lawrence Intermediate School to take their education into their own hands. Walk into Jamison’s classroom, and you’re likely to find students collaborating to conduct research, answer questions and share their findings with other students around the word.

So what is SOLE Learning? Self-Organized Learning Environments are child-centered activities that focus on teaching students critical thinking and problem-solving skills while training them to effectively collaborate with others.

“Today’s learners are part of the digital generation and want to be active participants in their education, not bystanders listening to a lecture,” Jamison said.

Jamison often begins a lesson by presenting the students with a famous quote or picture of a historical site, and asks students to use their own research methods to answer different questions about those topics. Then, the class discusses the findings and even shares them on Twitter and Skype.

He discovered this unique method of teaching through TED.com, a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from the fields of technology, entertainment and design. Since then, its scope has broadened; along with two annual conferences, the TED Conference and TEDGlobal, TED includes the award-winning TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

“I had been enjoying the lectures for seven years when I heard one that inspired me to take a risk,” Jamison said. “The idea belongs to Sugata Mitra, professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in England. He spoke about creating ‘the school in the clouds,’ starting with the self-organized learning experience, or SOLE.”

After the lecture, Jamison downloaded a kit for educators and tried to find out how to best implement Mitra’s ideas in a traditional school setting. Mitra had originally developed the concept for underprivileged students who had limited resources, but Jamison thought it could go beyond that, and that it had definite implications for the future of traditional education as well.

Jamison said the results have been extremely positive.

“You take a risk when you step outside of the box and try to change the way things have always been done, especially in education,” he said. “Teachers’ evaluations are tied to their test scores, so you might have to leave your comfort zone to try something new. It has been very rewarding. My students seem to love it. I hear from their parents that they come home excited to work on projects they started in school. There are some other teachers I work with who have begun to introduce these techniques.”

Principal Dave Adam has been supportive of Jamison’s original approach to teaching, even accompanying him to speak at a N.J. School Board workshop in October.

“Joe really took the lead at this conference,” Adam said. “We got great feedback from board members from other New Jersey districts. Everyone wanted to know how to implement this practice in their schools.

“The kids get so excited, and you can’t substitute that for anything. It doesn’t matter what the material is. Small group conversations spill over into conversations with other groups. You can feel the energy as the students start to take the reins and Joe steps back, becoming more of a facilitator to these discussions. This is a new concept, and we are still in the process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The bottom line is that we want to give our students all of the resources and techniques to foster their education in the 21st century. We will put forth the effort to do that in any way we can.”

Adam explained that when he sat in on one of Jamison’s special lessons to see the students present their findings, each and every presentation was unique.

“The students all take away a little something different, and that’s where Joe steps in again, to help them learn that some websites may be more reliable than others, and how to identify where they can find the best information possible. These problem solving skills, and sometimes a little trial and error, are the most essential part of the lesson. The students may not all be experts on the given topic by the end of class, but it’s the approach that is important here.”

A current student of Jamison’s fifth grade class, 10-year-old Mariya Peudoba, said that although SOLE can be challenging, she enjoys working with her classmates to learn as much as she can.

“Mr. Jamison doesn’t give us any background information,” says Peudoba. “He gives us the topics and we get going.”

During Peudoba’s favorite lesson, Jamison presented the class with a quotation, asking his students to find out who said it, and what it meant.

The quotation, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward,” by Martin Luthor King Jr., got Peudoba thinking about what it meant to never give up and to be determined during the civil rights movement, and what it can mean to her on a personal level today.

Peudoba also said she enjoys using Twitter and Skype to connect with other students around the world in Jamison’s class.

“We talk about our cultures and trade big idea questions,” she explained.

Jamison believes lessons and discussions like this help his students learn skills that will bring them success as they continue their education and eventually enter the workforce.

“My first lesson started with a picture of the Roman Colosseum, an easy topic just to get their feet wet,” he said. “What the students learned about the Colosseum is interesting, but how they learned it is most important.”

The students collaborated and searched for information online to answer a series of three questions that Jamison posed to the class. After the lesson was over, the class shared its findings on Twitter.

“Through proper hashtag use, one of my student’s tweets actually caught the attention of a group of home-schooled students and their mother who had traveled to Italy to learn about the Colosseum,” Jamison said. “They responded to us and urged us to ask them any questions we might have while they were there in person. We are a global economy, and I think it’s great that my students are learning that it is a small world.”

Jamison and his class have received emails and maintain correspondence through Skype with those students and others in India, Australia and other parts of the world.

In addition, Jamison has received emails from educators in Italy, England, India, Australia, Cleveland, Kansas City and Georgia looking to implement SOLE in their classrooms.

“It’s my job to prepare my students for jobs that don’t exist yet,” he said. “I can’t fathom what these jobs will entail when my fifth-graders start looking. Learning how to problem solve, work independently as well as in a team setting, and make the most of Internet resources are skills that will always benefit them and enable them to be successful in just about any field they choose to enter.

“It’s a matter of asking the right questions at the right time.”

Jamison, who is always working to further his studies in education, is currently taking online classes from North Dakota State University.

“Life is a learning process,” he said. “When I saw that lecture online at TED.com, it was good timing and went hand in hand with my personal studies.”

Jamison knew he wanted to become a teacher since he was a sophomore in high school, when he began spending time volunteering at a foster care facility, where he helped kids with their homework.

“I was one of the youngest volunteers, and even then, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “I’m so lucky I had this experience to steer me in the right direction. Many people spend most of college trying to decide, and even then they aren’t as sure as I was.”

Jamison went to Archbishop Wood High School, where he was a member of the wrestling team. He graduated in 2001 from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and went on to earn his master’s degree from Saint Joseph’s University in Instructional Technology. Jamison has been a teacher in the Lawrence Township district for 13 years, and is also an assistant wrestling coach at Princeton University.

“It has been a fun ride,” said Jamison of experience with SOLE so far. “I’m surprised at how far this has gone and how much attention it’s gotten, but it just goes to show that if you put yourself out there and do the right thing, good things will happen.”

A video documentation of the students’ first SOLE Learning experience, called “21st century learning at LIS,” is  online at youtube.com.