Administrators at Outlook Elementary School sold on SOLE

November 13, 2018
By Jens Nielsen, Editor, Saskatchewan Bulletin

OUTLOOK–Perhaps if you’re at the younger end of the age scale, what you find in one of the SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environment) classrooms at Outlook Elementary School might not be such a surprise.

Suffice it to say, when it’s not exactly your first rodeo, trust me there is a double take required. Because if one was to go purely by a cursory first glance, you would not necessarily think this was a school classroom–at least not in the traditional sense. Specifically, in one corner the students were relaxing on a mat on the floor or in comfortable beanbag chairs, albeit that they were engaged in their work–as in their individualized learning.

The way principal Darla Thorstad explains it, it is commonplace for the classrooms to have the lights dimmed and students utilizing any number of seating and work surface options. It’s all about encouraging students to choose where they feel they would best work each day. In some cases that might also include a stationary exercise bike.

When discussing this new-look classroom, Thorstad implored the visitor to observe that “they [students] are on task, and you see that all the time. It might look different from a ‘traditional’ classroom, but for sure there is learning going on, and it’s been great for us.”

This whole move to foster a PeBL (Personalized electronically Blended Learning) delivery has been a priority for the Sun West School Division in their quest to develop students ready to cope with a 21st century world–whatever that might look like.

This SOLE approach is the brainchild of United Kingdom-based professor Sugata Mitra, and is earmarked for children ages 8 through 12 with the emphasis on providing students with room for discovery, research, creativity and conclusions.

“On this journey, students are encouraged to develop voice, have some choice, understand their learning style and set their own pace in their learning,” Thorstad outlined.

Thorstad and vice principal Carol Britnell are enthusiastic proponents based on what they have witnessed personally since first introduced to the school half a dozen years ago (Thorstad has been principal entering her fifth year).

This well-appointed school is filled to the maximum with 337 PreK-5 students, while Grades 6 to 12 are just next door in the high school facility.

“To me, seeing how much more confident and open to learning that our students are, is what learning is all about. This allows us to focus more on what their strengths are because they are in their comfort zone, and we find they are more engaged. The approach develops independence and it adds to the calmness in the classroom. This is a coming together of best practices,” Thorstad said.

She emphasized that there is considerable research behind this, and the school division has been supportive from the outset in terms of what the school and staff can manage and implement.

“You wouldn’t go to your doctor and expect your treatment to be a certain way just because it has always been that way. You would expect the newest and best, and it has to be the same in education. We have to be ready to adapt to change by taking the necessary steps,” Britnell added.

“We have come to realize that it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation and students are going to take different paths. So we are very open to trying to accommodate that as best we can.”

Thorstad added that while teachers are always there to offer guidance, they instill in their young students that it is reasonable to make mistakes and work to improve.