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
University of Oregon
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. (English
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.
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
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
Mitra also emphasizes providing students with interesting and very
challenging questions. Here are some examples he has used with
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?
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
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.
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