Information Age Education
   Issue Number 134
March, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America. For access to other free IAE books see the left side menu of http://iae-pedia.org/index.php?title=Special:PopularPages&limit=250&offset=0.

This is the third in a series of IAE Newsletters focusing on possible futures of education. The unifying theme is the exploration of changes to our current system that have a good chance of substantially improving the education that our students are obtaining.

Education for Students’ Futures
Part 3: Sugata Mitra’s Thoughts on the Future of Learning 

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor
University of Oregon

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. (English language proverb and nursery rhyme, originating in the 16th century.)


We each have our own thoughts as to what constitutes a good education and how we can improve our informal and formal educational systems so that a much higher percentage of students receive a good education.

Sugata Mitra is a computer programmer turned educational researcher who has thought deeply about these questions. Quoting from http://www.ted.com/speakers/sugata_mitra.html:

Educational researcher Dr. Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiments have shown that, in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other, if they’re motivated by curiosity and peer interest. In 1999, Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected PC, and left it there (with a hidden camera filming the area). What they saw was kids from the slum playing around with the computer and in the process learning how to use it and how to go online, and then teaching each other.


Since these initial experiments, Mitra has gained worldwide recognition for his experiments with using computers in a novel type of approach to education. This IAE newsletter presents some of his ideas.

Much of the content of this newsletter is drawn from Mitra’s TED Talk, “Build a School in the Cloud” (February, 2013). He begins the talk with his observations that the schools of today are much like the schools of 300 years ago. Quoting from his talk:

I tried to look at where did the kind of learning we do in schools, where did it come from? And you can look far back into the past, but if you look at present-day schooling the way it is, it's quite easy to figure out where it came from. It came from about 300 years ago, and it came from the last and the biggest of the empires on this planet [the British Empire].

Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet, without computers, without telephones, with data handwritten on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It's still with us today. It's called the bureaucratic administrative machine. In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people.

They made another machine to produce those people: the school. The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional. The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a system that was so robust that it's still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists. The empire is gone, so what are we doing with that design that produces these identical people, and what are we going to do next if we ever are going to do anything else with it? [Bold added for emphasis.]


I am impressed by Mitra’s observations. The educational system that was created by the British Empire was so robust it survived the Industrial Revolution, the development of the telegraph and telephone, the development of radios (including shortwave radios that could reach across the oceans), airplanes, television, and still more modern technology.

In recent years we have witnessed the struggle between this long-lasting educational system and the development of computers, communication satellites, “smart” phones, and fiber optic cables laid across the oceans. Mitra summarizes the current situation:

Schools as we know them now, they're obsolete. I'm not saying they're broken. It's quite fashionable to say that the education system's broken. It's not broken. It's wonderfully constructed. It's just that we don't need it anymore. It's outdated.

What are the kind of jobs that we have today? [Well, the clerks use computers. They're] in thousands [of] offices. And you have people who guide those computers to do their clerical jobs. Those people don't need to be able to write beautifully by hand. They don't need to be able to multiply numbers in their heads. They do need to be able to read. In fact, they need to be able to read discerningly.


Mitra’s last sentence above gets at the world’s increasing need for people who have higher order knowledge and skills. In the United States, the Common Core State Standards place considerable emphasis on such higher-order learning.

Learning without Teachers

Mitra has carried out many experiments in which students were given access to computers without the benefit of any formal instruction in their use. See the other Mitra references at the end of this newsletter to access talks he has given on this research. Perhaps my favorite examples are summarized by his two statements below. Mitra explains that he gave the children a computer that contained only English language material. He then goes on to say:

I came back several months later and talked to the children. In an irritated voice, they said, "You've given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it." That's the first time, as a teacher, that I had heard the words "teach ourselves” said so casually.

I started experimenting with other subjects, among them, for example, pronunciation. There's one community of children in southern India whose English pronunciation is really bad, and they needed good pronunciation because that would improve their jobs. I gave them a speech-to-text engine in a computer, and I said, "Keep talking into it until it types what you say."


This was another successful experiment. The children’s pronunciation of English substantially improved.

Intrinsic, Non-threatening Motivation

Mitra emphasizes that the children in his experiment were intrinsically motivated. Children of widely varying ages helped each other to learn. The children could see and hear the results of the learning they were engaged in. They had some insight into the opportunities that the learning was opening up for them. Finally, and of major importance, they were not threatened by the rigidity, testing, and other demands of the formal schooling system.

This reminds me quite a bit of my childhood activities outside of school. I learned a great deal from the “kids in the neighborhood.” It also reminds me of the one-room schoolhouses of many years ago. One teacher, when faced by a group of students from many different grade levels, learned to use the students to effectively help each other learn.

Mitra also emphasizes providing students with interesting and very challenging questions. Here are some examples he has used with nine-year-old children:
  • If a meteorite was coming to hit the earth, how would you figure out if it was going to or not? If the child says, "Well, what? How?" You say, "There's a magic word. It's called the tangent of an angle," and leave him alone. He'll figure it out.

  • What happens to the air we breathe?

  • When did the world begin?
Final Remarks

Mitra strongly believes that teachers should feed students with questions, rather than with answers, and he wants students to work together to develop answers. That is a huge change from our current form of education. He closes his presentation with the statement:

My wish is to help design a future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their wonder and their ability to work together.


Mitra is now a Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in the UK. He was recently awarded $1 million in seed-funding for his project from Newcastle University. His initial goal is to build a School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online. This learning lab will serve as a center for research into educational changes that are based on the types of ideas Mitra has been exploring for the past 15 years. Learn more about his plans at http://www.ted.com/pages/prizewinner_sugata_mitra.


References

Mitra, S. (February, 2013). Build a school in the cloud. TED Talks. Retrieved 2/20/2014 from http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud.html.

Mitra, S. (September, 2010). Sugata Mitra’s new experiments in self-teaching. TED Talks. Retrieved 2/20/2014 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk60sYrU2RU.

Mitra, S. (January, 2010). The child-driven education. TED Talks. Retrieved 2/20/2014 from http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html.

Mitra, S. (August, 2008). Kids can teach themselves. TED Talks. Retrieved 2/20/2014 from http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves.html.


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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.