“My wish is to help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together. Help me build the 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. I also invite you, wherever you are, to create your own miniature child-driven learning environments and share your discoveries.”
Sugata Mitra is the kind of guy every kid wants to be their teacher. Unbelievably energized, always ready with a smile, and always ready to leave you and your classmates to your own devices.
Mitra calls his approach to education “self-organized learning.” At its core it’s all about sparking curiosity, about asking smart questions and then sitting back and letting kids get to the answers with the help of their peers. Mitra, the winner of this year’s $1 million TED Prize, believes it is nothing less than an entirely new approach to education, one that could dismantle a centuries-old way of teaching.
A professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, Mitra began his professional career as a physicist in New Delhi, India. To hear him tell it, he figured as a 26-year-old physics PhD he needed to find something other than physics to make some money. He knew how to write code, so he began writing software, then teaching others to write software.
Comfortably on his way in the software world, Mitra purchased a PC to use at home. The expensive machine arrived, and while setting it up, his young son sat rapt watching. “Don’t even think about touching it,” Mitra told his son. But when Mitra bumped up against a command-line problem it was his son who quickly offered the fix. “He was picking the stuff up, just by watching,” Mitra says. “Of course, as his father, I figured my son is some genius.”
But as he came home from work one day in 1999, past the slums of New Delhi, it struck Mitra that the kind of spark, the genius he saw in his son, couldn’t be restricted to his middle class demographic. “I looked at the slum children in New Delhi and I thought it can’t be possible that our children are geniuses and they are not.”
Mitra did an odd experiment to prove his theory. He placed a PC inside a wall behind a plastic shield in a New Dehli slum. Connected to the internet, with a mouse to manipulate it, Mitra simply powered it up and left it behind. “I left it to the wolves, knowing that it would be smashed, opened up and and sold,” Mitra says. “I left it, just to see what would happen.”
What happened eight hours later, was that Mitra came back and saw the kids browsing the Internet. In English, a language they didn’t speak.
A colleague suggested that maybe a software coding student of Mitra’s had come by and taught them to browse the Internet. So Mitra decided to conduct the same experiment in a rural village some 200 miles from New Dehli. “Where there was zero chance that a software developer might be passing by,” Mitra says with laugh.
When Mitra came back after two months he found the kids playing games and browsing the Internet. One kid sauntered up to Mitra and said, “We could use a better mouse and a faster processor.” And there was a small complaint. “You’ve given us a machine that only works in English, so we had to teach ourselves English.”
Via what became know as the Hole in the Wall experiment, Mitra recognized for the first time the concept of self-learning. “I had stumbled on something that was universal, it had to be,” Mitra says.
Mitra spread his concept of self-learning to hundreds of elementary schools across India, then to the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong. Southeast Asia and Latin America. Mitra’s teaching wasn’t the traditional three r’s. It was rooted in questions, in learning by collaboration. “It’s not about making learning happen, it about letting it happen,” Mitra says.
In England, Mitra recruited an army of retired teachers, all women, whom he dubbed the “granny cloud.” The grannies connected to Mitra’s schools via Skype, and when the kids were assembled in groups of four to six they asked questions like “Can anything be less than zero?” “Will robots be conscious one day?” and “How do my eyes know to cry when I am sad?”
Then they sat back and let the kids do the learning, injecting themselves only to offer the kind of encouragement that only grannies can. “If there is a child in trouble we beam in a Gran,” Mitra jokes. What Mitra saw was that the Granny cloud kids’ English improved, their science scores soared. By most measures they were learning more and more quickly, and doing it mostly on their own. “It just requires broadband, collaboration and encouragement,” Mitra says.
It’s also a bit scary.
What Mitra proposes is the dismantling of an educational machine created by the British over centuries of Empire building. “The British system is a humongous computing machine – a human computer,” Mitra says. “The purpose was to form a clerk-making machine to support this massive bureaucracy. But it is out of date. The Empire is gone. I am not saying its bad, it’s brilliantly constructed, but it’s not needed.”
What Mitra envisions are “schools in the cloud,” classes of 24 students in actual brick-and-mortar spaces managed in person by his volunteer grannies. The grannies ask the questions, offer the encouragement, everything else happens remotely, the lights, heating, and locks are all manipulated via the cloud. For now Mitra envisions these cloud schools will function as a supplement to the daily education the kids already get – operating on the weekends and before and after school. They’ll offer English language learning initially, he says. “I’ll present it as a safe cyber café for children where they can learn good English,” Mitra says. “For now I cannot afford to say that this is a replacement for school.”
But just give him time.
“If it works, then we have an alternative that I can tell you with confidence will level the playing field,” Mitra says. “And leveling the playing is what’s missing in this world.”
Go here for more info, and to download your own tool kit for trying out self-organized learning.