45 comments on “Angel or devil? The strange case of Sugata Mitra

  1. Pingback: IATEFL Harrogate 2014: Mitra having a jelly good time | EFL Notes

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  3. If gaining knowledge were the only point of education, perhaps we would not need teachers in the classroom. The teacher’s role, however, is much larger. We teach our students how to be human, in the full dimension of the word. Technology is great, but if we remove the human element from teaching, we reduce education to mere learning.

    • Hi Dixie,

      I entirely agree with you. Teachers do far more than transmit knowledge, and/but Sugata Mitra allows for this, suggesting educators ‘of all kinds’ (a quote from his SOLE toolkit. I think a question that preoccupies many people in response to what he has to say is whether he gives any special value to people who have trained as teachers and who view it as a calling etc. I know I do. Not 100% sure about him!
      Jeremy

    • If you study Mr.Mitra you will know that all of his endeavours are experiments and none of them have a sustainable model.His thoughts about his Indian children are just another way of earning money to the best of our knowledge as we had studied him. He cannot provide any alternative sustainable solution of Education, but yes he is a good orator. He starts a war but cannot lead it to victory as he is an escapist who runs away midway, stating that these are experiments. To him Education can be an experiment, but not to the rest of the world who are still trying to learn the basics.

  4. Thanks for this balanced post. You forgot to mention that all that stuff that’s online? There are actually educated human beings who put them it all up there! And there are also some pretty ignorant human being who put stuff up there, and someone needs to develop judgment (all of us?) to sift through what’s online. Because education is not about finding information. Most of that is available online. Maybe bad education is about finding information. But what education really is, is something much more than that, isn’t it?

    • Hello Balimaha,

      thanks for your comments. I completely agree with you that education is about more than just acquiring/searching for knowledge. Critical thinking, training kids in digital literacy, caring for kids, creating social spaces for kids etc etc. That is what good teachers and good schools do!

      Jeremy

  5. Thank you for your post, Jeremy. I did remain in my seat after Mitra’s plenary. Not that I was really in anger, like Hugh Dellar was, for instance, but because I was not baffled by Mitra’s show. I must admit that he is a very clever presenter who knows how to handle the audience. His message, however seems to me a very populist one, easy to digest, but when you think about it, quite hard to swallow. The Two Ronnies once did a sketch “Swedish Made Simple” and Mitra’s message was more or less “Teaching Made Simple”. If it had been that simple, then I am sure pedagogical issues would have been sorted ages ago and would not result in rage and fury.

    • Hi Bruno,

      thanks for your comments. You touch on something that I feel uneasy about. I DO believe in enquiry-based tasks for some teaching and learning. I DO believe that collaboration can be really powerful and that this ‘fuelled by adult encouragement and admiration’ is a good thing. But that is a very simple view of learning and teaching I believe. Adult admiration, for example, is a highly comp[lex field (it seems to me) because praise can be a killer when used wrong. What is ‘adult encouragement’? I agree that it is needed, but Sugata Mitra offered only one model of this whereas, as experienced teachers know, this is a highly nuanced area depending on the kinds of kids we are working with.

      I cannot (now would I wish to) fault him on his idealism or the model he brings to our attention. I just don’t think it is that simple!

      Jeremy

  6. Hi Jeremy,

    Often we see eye-to-eye. Not in this case. I am happy that it is going viral to have alternative means of school. Schools are irrelevant in my opinion. Not teachers. Teachers are what save society and the world from terrible learning dressed in schools. Teachers with huge hearts are what will always save society. Even with millions of language learners learning online through teacherless forums like Busuu and Rosetta stone, teachers will never be replaced. We just need to get teachers out of buildings they try to confine society to learning that doesn’t make any sense. I am a testament of this. 20 years ago as a female, latina, growing up in a poor area I would never had the opportunity to train 100,000s teachers online. Last year, one platform let me know over 300,000 downloaded my materials online. My teachers learning to use technology are from Indonesia, Slovenia, India, Iran, Nepal, and many other areas where technology is tough to come by. They amaze me everyday that they do incredible things with technology when their schools won’t allow it. Places like the UK and US continue to ban. It’s not that the technology isn’t available, it’s bad policy.

    Here are my arguments to your statements:

    1. Any parent or teacher knows that you put something a student is interested in like dinosaurs and NOT educational like “textbooks” and “worksheets” and YES the student is tempted. Look at toddlers in a sandbox or children on a playground or yes teens with mobile devices. They are using them to communicate in powerful ways. They are using them to read, write, and publish more than we ever could according to David Crystal.

    “not all learners learn equally” yet the majority of schools forced the same boring curriculum learning from books and tests. With technology the learner actually gets to choose to explore language through video, games, social networks, etc. Language is social. Discovery-based experiential learning is not even offered in most schools. Many theorists and experts support play as one of the highest forms of learning- Einstein, Piaget, Maslow, Dr. Seuss…

    Teaching reality is we are forced by governments to teach in ways that are not representative of good learning.They are buildings in which we learn literacy through books to do tests. Reality for kids in many parts of the world is 10, 20, 30 years ago they would never get to access the incredible knowledge that was reserved to those born of a certain gender, culture, economic status, ethnicity, and country. Sugata offers at least one alternative that is getting attention than the institutions no one argues about. Why aren’t we at an outcry about that? When did a man teaching children in India slums with grannies become a Scapegoat when policies and institutions reduce salaries and shove testing down our throat. Where is the outcry for that? I wish governments actually said teachers were unnecessary, instead of just treating us like that. They treat us like crap and I guess that’s what it takes for us to argue against what is really hurting and damaging teachers.

    2. Good teachers realize that the current popular modes of learning forced upon society is not good learning at all. Our job has turned into keeping kids focused on learning to take tests. If no one else is teaching kids in India, I honestly think its pretty incredible that friends like my dear friend Clive from the Uk, who is a teacher and worked in India at actual schools, are willing to be part of Sugata’s SOLE project. Clive is one of these grannies. It’s a metaphor. Anyone who wants to help teach children in India can actually volunteer. If we are upset, then maybe we should volunteer. What is the alternative of Dr. Sugata’s project? If gone, what happens to those children. Those complaining that other programs would be better actually aren’t running those programs or doing anything about the problem. The reality is nothing replaces Dr. Sugata’s project because no one else but him actually did anything about it. We can sit comfy with our easy road for attaining knowledge in developed countries where our parents could afford for us to receive incredible schooling and criticize Sugata’s efforts but what about the children? I rather get over my feelings being hurt, because for many years now the media, governments, and now documentaries have been bashing teachers.

    3. The reality is IT IS ALL available online and that’s a very beautiful, wonderful thing. I don’t need my elders lecturing to me in a building when I can listen to Neil de Grasse Tyson on Youtube or tweet with him and learn from him. One example, but the fact is we can access people researching, doing great things with all this creativity and learning. It’s all much more current and fascinating and creative than a book or lecture. As a teacher I’ll never be the most exciting, knowledgeable, or current source in my topic. My role is to get my learners to instead of Googling or using Wikipedia to fall in love with language learning, reading, math, and science by accessing the greatest minds, videos, articles, blog posts, Ted Talks, etc. and to be inspired to used that knowledge in creative ways or to use it to help them succeed. What’s the use of learning percentages to pass a standardized test when millions in debt because they can’t figure out their credit card debt?
    It’s the way I learn now. I get a much better education by reading you, Scott Thornbury, David Crystal, all my students’ work, conversing with them, tweets, etc. than my own Master’s program ever gave me. Yes, the education system has been outdated for a very, very long time and not because of technology, but because it was designed in its beginnings and for a very, very long time to support the more privileged in the world. The majority of the world doesn’t fit this category. The majority of the world isn’t from developed countries, have parents who can afford they attend school, have the knowledge to help them with their homework, or have the ability to go to top universities. What they do now have is access to WWW through Internet cafes and mobile devices and now they can take online courses free from the top universities. I’m glad more access is available for someone like me to be able to use this technology to train 300,000 teachers worldwide annually. Dr. Sugata was our plenary for the Reform Symposium free online conference. Any teacher could see him online and have these discussions in a webroom. None of them were upset by what I know is probably the exact same keynote he does time and time again. It’s probably because these teachers can’t afford IATEFL. They are the ones in countries where there students don’t access and they probably are quite grateful Sugata is doing something about it.

    • An impassioned response, Shelly, with lots of well-argued points. I jumped to Sugata Mitra’s defense on Saturday too, before I sat won and carefully listened to what he actually said during the IATEFL plenary and interview that followed. I recommend you do that too, because there is a mismatch between what you say above and what Sugata Mitra said on Saturday.

      For instance, you say “Schools are irrelevant in my opinion. Not teachers. Teachers are what save society and the world from terrible learning dressed in schools.” Sugata Mitra during the plenary was proposing replacing teachers with untrained facilitators (grannies) even when trained and experienced teachers are available. This is different from what he has argued in the past, which is the provision of the school in the cloud where there are no teachers available (i.e. in remote, rural areas). It sounds to me that he is moving to a more radical stance than where he was even a couple of years ago. This is why, even though you have heard a version of his ‘Future of Education’ talk before, I recommend you listen to Saturday’s plenary, because although the orchestra is playing the same piece, the tune is different – there’s a part of it that sounds distinctly out of tune to many teachers, in fact!

      Some people have given him the benefit of the doubt and have suggested that maybe he didn’t express himself clearly on Saturday. Others have reacted strongly against all of his ideas. This is definitely not Jeremy’s stance here, which I think is well-reasoned and based on what was said on Saturday. One thing, which is odd is that when you watch that plenary, you hear him move from saying “a computer can’t replace a teacher, which is quite right, but I’m not going to say that we are about to try that.” early on to beaming his grannies “into schools where good teachers cannot go”.

      You may think ‘What’s wrong with that idea?’, but as he continues, he shows us quite clearly that he believes all that is necessary for a child to learn English, for example, is for them to have occasional access to a ‘grandmother figure’. Although it is true that kids will learn some English in this situation, I think he shows his ignorance of the subject when he implies that this is as good as (if not better) than putting the kids in a class with a trained and experienced language teacher. Watch the plenary and the interview (as people implored me to do on Saturday – I did, and I changed my tune) and you will hear him say this. I think he came to IATEFL at a time when he is on the brink of wondering whether he thinks doing away with teachers (all teachers, not just bad teachers he talked about at the beginning of the plenary) is a good thing or not. I don’t think he has made his mind up yet, but he certainly seems to be moving towards this position, which is a shame.

      Some of the criticism from people on Saturday, was that they did not have a chance, as they had with the other plenaries at IATEFL to a follow-up Q&A session, where they could have asked specific questions to clear up some of their doubts about the things he said.

      To sum up, I see nothing controversial about the view you have expressed above in your comment on this blog about Sugata Mitra, but I think this view is responding to what you know about him and his work and does not take into account the portrayal of what he does that he himself painted at the IATEFL conference on Saturday. I would be interested in hearing what you have to say after carefully listening to the interview and the plenary, as some of it is at odds with what you posted above.

    • Shelly, another one of your points referred to the SOLE project in India, which I think is interesting and I agree that setting up these spaces in rural, impoverished India is a bold and progressive step towards trying to find educational solutions when there is a lack of money and no teachers available. However, a recent move related to SOLEs sees Sugata Mitra setting up similar spaces in the north east of England, which you neglect to mention (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press.office/press.release/item/sugata-s-first-school-in-the-cloud-opens-its-doors). You could argue that combining this kind of space with traditional teaching is a very good thing, asnd in the video Sugata showed on Saturday a teacher was interviewed who said she was rethinking her lesson plans, etc. However, SM was not explicit about his intentions with setting up these spaces in the UK, where there is no shortage of teachers. He implied that removing teachers from the equation was a good thing. Many teachers on Saturday were uneasy at this implication. Others became angry. Again, one can quite easily imagine the results of these experiments being used by the UK government to justify cutting the number of teachers by half and grouping kids together for half (or more) of the school day under the watchful eye of a kindly (unpaid) volunteer grandmother. It would certainly cut costs, but I for one think it would be tragic to see education take a step in this direction, wouldn’t you?

      For this reason, I would like to ask you to look again at what has been said recently (not 4 or 5 years ago – not even 6 months ago – but last Saturday) and to think about the implications, for the very worries expressed in your comment above of governments ‘bashing teachers’ may well come to pass, backed up by “evidence” produced by the man you are choosing wholeheartedly to support. I am an admirer of Sugata Mitra for some of the things he has achieved in the past and the experiments he has undertaken to find alternatives to schooling and teachers when no teachers are available, but I do not think that all of his ideas should be applauded and accepted unquestionably.

      • I never said don’t question, yes, do that for all who train teachers and pick out what is flawed in their arguments, too. In same way people are so ready to comment on Dr. Sugata then why can’t we question their arguments as well? My intent isn’t to get people to be quiet. My intent is to get them to see other side of the argument we don’t pay attention to when we do things like bash technology, get upset about grannies, and talk about lack of student motivation because they aren’t given things to be motivated about. I don’t believe anyone’s arguments should be accepted wholeheartedly. I have seen very colored opinions sticking up for our education system and that I will not sit idly by. Too many equate transforming current education system as replacing teachers. Why stick up for terrible school systems? Why aren’t we fighting education policies? My passionate response was against notion of experiential learning and discovery learning and kids not tempted to learn. That’s what incited me. Why aren’t those good practices and why aren’t they in most schools? Argue Dr. Sugata’s policy by pinpointing his issues like some did that I tweeted, but I stand by my comment because that isn’t what I see written here and some other places. I see technology bashing, although, Jeremy doesn’t do that which I am happy about. I also see that we are bashing the granny concept. I don’t bash the granny concept. Like I said I know actual teachers who are the grannies and they are fantastic people. I also will still stand by the point that we need to fight the policies. This argument needs balance. I don’t get upset people are upset. That’s great. We need that, but we also need to focus on reform and actually pinpointing flaws without making cheeky criticism or bashing technology. We also need to offer an alternative. I appreciated Gavin saying we need to train teachers. I believe that is what we need to do. Sorry, Graham, but I’m not swerving on my comment.

      • Hello Graham,

        thanks for all of your comments here. And for your excellent blogpost.

        I would like to pick up on the article you posted, and this quote by Mitra himself: “In India, we will be looking at two things – whether the children can learn to read and also search the Internet accurately by themselves and if they can do this, then it’s the end of schooling as we know it.”

        Well I don’t know about you, but I simply do not fancy leaving children to ‘search the internet accurately by themselves’ with the ‘end of schooling as we know it’. I am completely by Shelly’s side in demanding changes to some education systems and practices, but I valued the fact that my children went to school – ordinary state school, by the way – and were cared for and helped to develop by teachers. Sometimes they worked on their own or with their peers on the kind of enquiry-based research that SOLEs claim to have invented. Sometimes they were instructed. Sometimes they worked on their own. They did not have the same kind of digital support that kids have today, and although the system they were educated in was not without its faults, still the idea that you would want to abolish it for some kind of tech-based nirvana fills me with horror. The last 2000 years have all been wrong? I don’t think so! The last 200 years have all be right? I don’t think so!

        The reason I mentioned my own kids is to try and stand back from the purely professional concerns I have been expressing and to see things from a parent’s point of view. That POV allows me to admire a lot of what Sugata Mitra has said but to utterly reject the idea that school is dead.

        (Shelly is right. I am a paid-up technophile and entirely (but not uncritically) convinced of the benefits that the digital world has brought us)

        Jeremy

    • Hello Shelly,

      thanks you so much for leaving your comments here. You will remember that when we last ‘met’ online I said that blogging for me is all about the comments I get in reply to what I say and so you will understand how pleased I am that you have spent time responding to what I said. That’s what this is all about.

      But I fear that, to some extent, you have responded to things I have not said!! Or perhaps you missed my very positive comments. In my admiration for Sugata Mitra (and I do admire him – but not uncritically) I said above “My description doesn’t do justice to the heady excitement of what he has to say. I am not immune to it. The idea that if you prime children properly and give them the right tools there is no limit to what they can do is tantalisingly enticing. Such child-driven learning is, according to the SOLE toolkit ‘self-organised, curious, engaged, social, collaborative, motivated by peer interest, fueled by adult encouragement and admiration’. Not only that, but the dream of bringing such education benefits to disadvantaged communities is intoxicating.”

      Let me say again, for the record, that in trying to come up with solutions for the situations he has described he is to be applauded, not damned. You and I agree.

      I am aware, also, that as you point out, you have reached large numbers of people in your online work and I applaud you for that. However others may also have reached large numbers of people too – and even before the Internet became what it is today.

      And it is worth reminding ourselves that, at a conservative estimate, more than 60% of the world’s population do not have access to the Internet (that’s Sir Tim Berners Lee’s figure by the way, from March 2014). Technology maybe AN answer but it is not yet THE answer. Furthermore there have been great teachers in the last 2000 years, long before web 2.

      I share some of your worries about national education systems and exam ‘factories’. But I utterly reject the idea that all schooling is like that. For if it was you would have to say that all successful and creative people have succeeded despite the system and that does not make sense. Ask people to name good teachers and almost everyone can. These are not only volunteers. On the contrary some of the best of them are people who have worked and lived and breathed teaching – and been trained, retrained and developed – so that they can do the very best that they can. I admire them and worry when their work appears to be undervalued. And they often work in school communities where, at their best, children learn how to live and be with each other with the guidance of, yes, their elders (aka teachers). Where teachers (at their best) care passionately about the kids they teach and do their best to help them grow in wisdom and happiness.

      Oh, and another thing. One thing we know is that the Internet is not a value-free system. On the contrary, one of the roles and responsibilities of good teachers is to help kids become digitally literate. Perhaps that can be done by any adult? But I think many parents would prefer that their children were helped and guided by people who had experience and training – and, crucially, were members of a school community which nurtures children.

      You say how much you have learned from reading books and going online – and thanks for the kind reference :-) but, I maintain you (and people like you) are a bit special!! You have the autodidact’s thirst for knowledge. You have the self-motivation that drives you on. But are you typical? I don’t think so. The greatest modern manifestation of free online knowlegde-based learning environments in the adult world are the MOOCs. Yet the drop-out rate for people who sign up is phenomenal and the claims made for MOOCS when they turned up have not been realised.

      So all I am trying to say is that the situation is complex and multi-faceted. That teachers, real day-to-day teachers know this to be true. That even in the most rural areas in many countries teachers can and do do their best to help kids learn.

      Sorry, that’s a long reply to your long comments. Just to reiterate:

      I admire Sugata Mitra’s work.
      I congratulate him for investigating solutions to educational disadvantage.
      I do not think technology and the internet are the only answers (though they may be an answer, temporarily)
      I thoroughly approve of enquiry-based learning, but believe there are other modes too.
      I am profoundly grateful to teachers around the world working often in difficult circumstances but, nevertheless doing their best to make children’s live setter.
      Not all schools are good.
      Not all schools are bad.

      I think that’s quite enough for one evening!

      Jeremy

  7. Thank you Shelley for your insightful comment. While I have adapted some of what Mitra says into my daily regime in the classroom I also take much of what he says with a grain of salt. I believe that education must move away from the text book learning and return to a less formal style of learning. Students must be encouraged to follow their interests and learn all they can about it. If they have an interest in building then they should be encouraged to learn ll about it including the math and science relevant to the subject. Social issues should be further explored. In my class we have been examining homelessness. While exploring it looking for background information they formed an idea about raising money to support a food kitchen. They planned it out and are in the process of raising the money. Education has to change. How it is done is the issue.

    • Hello Bill,

      you account of examining homelessness sounds very exciting, and as you can see from my comments on this blog, I absolutely support the kind of enquiry-type learning you are espousing.

      At the risk of repeating myself (something I NEVER do usually!!!) what really interests me is your role in all this, and how to scaffold or facilitate such work. But there’s another thing too, and that is the suggestion (implicit, not yours perhaps) that this is the only/best way to learn. I think books, for example, did pretty well for humanity before the Internet pitched up and the kind of learning you are talking about was equally relevant in a pre-internet age. Then, as now, educators were divide about the best ways to get students engaged and inquisitive. And whilst it is possible that SOLE-type enquiry learning is a fantastic way of learning, all, frontal teaching has worked for people too.

      I think!

      Jeremy

      • Hi Jeremy,

        Sorry I haven’t replied, yet. Some personal issues I had to deal with first and I felt I should respond to others. I do want to say, however, that I hope you do not feel that I am attacking you. I respect you enough to respond to you. There were too many voices at the beginning of this conversation that were of one culture, gender, etc. I think we need to have varied opinions and perspectives to shed light on these conversations and this is why I stepped in as well. I didn’t respond to other posts because I felt it would waste my time with those authors. If one of the reasons for attacking Sugata’s experiment is that he disrespects the role of teachers, then I don’t see how demeaning teachers helps the cause. Some of the people at the beginning of this debate disrespected teachers who disagreed with them. I have many messages in my inbox from teachers who were appalled by posts and the behavior and felt they couldn’t enter the conversation without being attacked. I’m okay with people being angry with me so I will continue to voice my opinion as well. I won’t let others bully me into being silent. I responded to you because I felt you wouldn’t bully me so please don’t take my disagreeing with you as disrespect. It is because I respect you that I felt I could respond.

        Additionally, I disagree with your approach. Just the title, “Angel or Devil” begins to attack Sugata the man and I don’t think we should attack him as a person, but shed light on his policies. He has accomplished so much in his life, even found cures. To paint him as a devil, because you disagree with his policies I feel is going too far. Others are doing the same. Hugh Dellar called him a “snake oil seller.” Where do we get off name calling when we disagree with a person? I just don’t condone that as intellectual discourse? I find it offensive. Let’s point out why we should look at his experiment more carefully and do it with respect and actually highlight specific parts of his policy than I am open to listening.

        I went point by point in your post to tell you what I disagree with and wasn’t trying to portray you as anything. Perhaps, I misunderstood your arguments but there are some areas in your reply that I still disagree with so I guess we will have to agree to disagree about several issues including the role of the Internet, the education system, Sugata, and teachers in general.

        I want to point out another argument that I think is very dangerous. For us as teachers to cast stones to anyone who even admits they had a bad teacher is dangerous. There are bad doctors, lawyers, policemen, politicians, researchers, etc. To pretend this does not exist in our profession is very dangerous. I don’t believe in teacher bashing. I try to help teachers as much as possible and support them as do you. You’ve added a great deal to the profession of ELT. I do not disrespect that at all. I admire that you have meant so much to the field. I have told you on many occasions. I can name fantastic teachers. I am blessed to have many role models. I can also many bad teachers and yes they were bad because they cursed students, were demeaning, and hateful and I don’t believe any person should treat anyone like that.

        To continue tell those who stick up for Sugata, his policies, thinks the current education system has extreme flaws, and want alternative forms of education that they are in essence bashing teachers is unfair and disrespectful. This is not the same as teacher bashing. We are teachers, too, and have as much passion and care for our colleagues. I wouldn’t train so many and create free online courses, conferences, etc. if I didn’t care about teachers. Because I disagree with those bashing Sugata, doesn’t make me anti-teachers.

        So again:

        *Highly respect you
        *We disagree on various issues and that’s okay we both love teachers and give a lot to our profession
        *One of the things we disagree on is the role of the Internet and education.
        *Another is that yes I do believe most schools uphold a bad way of learning and we need to do something about it because millions of cases of cyberbullying, sexting, and all sorts of stuff. It’s what happens when schools, with their banning and filtering policies, have in essence produced a generation where teachers have not been allowed to be a part of their digital learning journeys.
        *Teachers are amazing, compassionate, work hard, and do deserve respect as well as those who offer solutions. Let’s stop name calling.
        *To answer your title- It isn’t my position to determine a man as an angel or devil. That demeans him and erases his life “of human care and endeavour.” Sugata has done quite a bit throughout his life. I won’t be part of the crowd that casts stones. Let’s focus on his policies and not his character.

    • Hi Bill,

      Thank you for your comment. I completely agree with you that “Education has to change. How it is done is the issue.” One thing that Sugata has done with his SOLE experiment and Ted Talk and is highlighted the need for alternative schools and the need to find solutions to reaching students in poor countries who do not have a quality education or lack teachers. We wouldn’t have this discourse on this blog if not for his experiments. He has raised attention to this matter more than most. Finding a solution is complex but it is important we begin to experiment and look for ways to change the current system.

      • Hello Shelly,

        I’m having a bit of trouble with this version of wordpress so I don’t seem to be able to reply to your reply to my reply to your comments!! But that’s what this is.

        Thank you for coming back and leaving more comments. I absolutely respect your opinions and the work you do so there’s no problem there.

        I am sorry you don’t like my ‘angel or devil’ title. But it seemed to me (when i was writing the post) and it seems to me now that people have taken positions about Sugata Mitra which are highly polarised. They either seem to love him or to hate him So my title is highly ironic. I hope you will allow it on that level.

        Of course you have the right (and maybe obligation) to criticise bad teaching and bad schools. I think most of us in this professions care for nothing more than trying to change things for the better. That’s what you (and I hope I) do all the time. But for me that does NOT mean that ‘schooling as we know it’ has to disappear for ever.

        I have nothing against Sugata Mitra, how could I? I DO share your enthusiasm for his genuine questions about how poor schools could be made better. I also am a passionate enthusiast for the benefits that technology can bring to education.

        But I am becoming more and more convinced that the solution he suggests is, whilst undoubtedly emotionally appealing, extremely superficial, and that marketing it as a game-changer that will change education for ever is at best disingenuous.

        Kids needs schools. Physical places. Kids need teachers and often, but by no means always, digital access. Sugata Mitra quite specifically (I have listened to and read him a lot) denies the need for some of these. That’s why I – respectfully, I hope – disagree with him.

        There will be more important things to talk about soon!

        Jeremy

  8. Re: Angel or Devil? The strange case of Sugata Mitra

    Hi Jeremy,

    After reading your stimulating entry and the rich, thought-provoking responses that followed it, I thought it might be useful to analyse SOLE closely in order to understand why it has met with some success.

    In doing this I am going to refer to the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, the result of meta-analyses (by Durham University I believe) of the impact on attainment, financial costs and credibility of research resulting from the adoption of various educational strategies.
    http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit/

    Looking at SOLE, it incorporates several of these strategies: collaborative learning, peer tutoring, mentoring, and digital technology. It is also notable for the diminished role of the teacher.
    • Collaborative learning (Moderate impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence)
    • Peer tutoring (High impact for low cost, based on extensive evidence)
    • Mentoring (Low impact for moderate cost, based on moderate evidence) However, there is some evidence that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to benefit more (nearly double the impact).
    • Digital technology (Moderate impact for high cost, based on extensive evidence)

    This may help to clarify why there were positive outcomes. However, I would argue that the presence of a teacher could enhance it further.

    For example, selecting a fuzzy problem or open-ended question for students to research is a skillful act, and one best carried out by a teacher who is trained to do so and selects with clear learning objectives in mind that are connected to a carefully designed curriculum.

    Secondly, collaborative learning is less than optimal when it is not a structured experience. Again teachers are the best people to fulfil this role. I could continue with more examples, but I think my point is made.

    I still don’t like SOLE, though, because it is yet another educational method/model. By adopting it educators unnecessarily exclude other pedagogical options. (I remember reading your account of “a balanced activities approach”, Jeremy, and that has inspired me to be anti-method ever since.)
    For a parody of methods, you’re welcome to read my Learning-based Learning blog entry at http://jackdawltc.org/2014/01/27/learning-based-learning/

    Cheers!
    Peter

    • Hello Peter,

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading your LBL blog. Thank you.

      I quite agree about the desirability of ‘structured’ collaborative learning. I think collaborative learning has a lot gong for it (and had, long before SOLEs), but it is not the only answer to anything and everything. I absolutely refuse (this is not in answer your comments by the way) to jettison inspiring lectures and conversations at the feet of wiser women and men, for example – the expert’s ability to inspire and inform.

      Jeremy

  9. (I just posted this comment on Chia Suan Chong’s blog at the ETp site – http://www.etprofessional.com/the_obsolescence_of_teachers__the_sugata_mitra_controversy_25769809797.aspx – but thought it might be relevant here).

    The poverty of Mitra’s pedagogical approach is amply demonstrated in his claim that the question ‘Why was the Eiffel Tower built?’ requires higher-level cognitive skills than the question ‘When was the Eiffel Tower built?’, in that it cannot be answered easily by a Google search. I keyed in the question ‘Why was the Eiffel Tower built?’ and got the following answer in less time than it took me to key it in: “La Tour Eiffel or the Eiffel Tower was built as an ornate entrance into the city of Paris for the 1889 World’s Fair…” (and much more). And I didn’t even have to ask my grannie!

    • Actually, at the time a lot of Frenchmen really wondered why the Eiffel Tower had been built and there were plans to demolish the structure soon after The World’s Fair.

      If learning becomes no more than copy – paste work by Googling, I also believe we are losing the actual comprehension part of reading (or listening). Formulating answers, ideas, opinions, … also should be more than reciting quotes from the Holy Internet, I think.

      • Bruno,

        thanks for that comment and I share your concerns about copy-and-paste attitudes to learning (which are not new to there Internet of course). I think I would have to say that Mitra is after something more complex than that though, as Scott suggests, his Eiffel tower example did him no favours!

        Jeremy

    • Hi Scott,

      haha! Yes, actually I thought the Eiffel Tower example was a bit weak in the interview. He looked tired and the conversation wasn’t going that well (I thought) so maybe he might have come up with something better?

      As you will have seen above if you’ve waded through the comments, I am a huge fan of enquiry-based learning in certain circumstances, but it has to be a bit more snarly focused than that. The Eiffel Tower example made me less admiring of what he is on about than I was before he said it!

      However, you have to give him credit for getting our little world bubbling away with discussion and polemic. Now there I really DO congratulate him!

      Jeremy

      • OK, granted Dr Mitra was suffering from post-plenary exhaustion, so it wasn’t the best example of a question designed to test higher-order thinking skills.

        How about this task, though: ‘Can you kill a goat by staring at it?’ Read how well the kids did here:
        http://philosophyfoundation.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/

        As the writer comments, ‘Dr Mitra maintains that “our biggest job in this information-saturated world is to give the child an armour against doctrine.” The children’s responses to the staring-at-goats question strongly suggests that unguided, peer-supported internet browsing fails to provide this armour.’ And she adds, ‘I think the idea of minimally invasive education fails for the following reason: it’s not plausible to suppose that children in SOLEs can self-organise their way to an expanded repertoire of thinking skills. Certainly Dr Mitra offers no systematic empirical evidence that they can ‘.

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  12. Really really grateful to Scott for his link to the Philosophy Foundation’s critique of SOLEs and MIE (minimally invasive education) because it exactly addresses my own concerns 2 & 3 (fortuitously, of course) in my original post.

    I highly recommend the link Scott has posted above.

    Jeremy

  13. I was at the plenary and was one who stood up at the end. I didnt believe everything he said but I was inspired by his talk. I have been to many plenaries most of them always exaggerated what they believed in. Some did it in such a boring way that I wished I werent there. So I would rather have a plenary speaker who shared their ideas in a passionate and interesting way. Teachers are not stupid as we will always adapt what is appropriate. I was once in a plenary talk where Jeremy was the speaker and witnessed the same affect of his well-rehearsed and theatrical performance on me and the majority of the audience. I felt a bit of jealousy wishing I could one day give that kind of talk.. even if it would heat up criticism and heated debate.

    • Hello B,

      I quite agree with you that Sugata Miitra gave a brilliant talk (I mean in style and delivery) and yes, of course we all try to ‘wow’ people if we can (thanks, by the way). And as I said elsewhere on Facebook I think it’s brilliant that he did it because it has provoked so much comment, Could anything be better than that!

      However I had spent some time before listening to the plenary worrying about some of the thongs he says (or maybe doesn’t say) so I guess I wouldn’t have stood up (I was watching it online about a mile away) though actually I did stand up halfway through and start stomping around the room!

      I do actually understand why people stood up. It was a great show. There is a lot in it which is inspiring (hence, I hope, the balanced tone of my original post here). But once you and I had sat down, brains get engaged and that’s a different thing altogether!

      Thanks very much for your comments.

      Jeremy

  14. Yes, I have been following the debate closely over the last week and the article Scott shares is the best critique of Mitra’s work I have yet read.

  15. A really interesting and well argued piece. Thank you. I have to say that I pretty much agree with all you have said.

    Surely, if everything is available in the cloud and children will take advantage of educational temptation, those who already have access would have taken advantage and developed their own education. However, most teachers and parents will tell you that while this may be true of some children (those who would have happily scoured encyclopaedias and books pre-internet), this is not true of all.

    If education were to be left to the whims and interests of the individual child or their immediate peer group, it is likely to be pretty narrow and largely self-centred. Most young people need some encouragement to look beyond their own interests and experience, to explore things that may not be directly related to their own existence. My own experience in teaching has shown that many children have less knowledge of the world around them now than they did 10 years ago. Their lives focus on their own peer group and its interactions, using the opportunities of social interaction and technology to reinforce narrow views of relevance and importance rather than to explore, expand and challenge.

    Part of the myth is that this generation of children have a natural affinity to technology as they have grown up with it, however this is not really the case. They rely upon what they have been taught or have access to, questioning relevance or accuracy of what is available in the cloud does not come instinctively.

    By all means, encourage children to embrace the educational possibilities offered by new technologies – perhaps formally make an independent study part of their formal education. However, to say that the education system is no longer needed is misguided.

  16. I have my reservations against Sugatra Mitra by the fact that he says one thing and does another.

    Action speak louder than words.

    Let me dwell a moment on the fact, that Sugatra is a scientist (physicist). A scientist who conducted an experiment giving kids a computer, leaving them alone, returning after months and observing how much they learned. This in itself sounds like a simple and neutral experiment and to everyone’s great surprise, the children learned English (600 words) and they learned basic computer skills (equivalent to a secretary in the UK). Great and repeated results, in poorer areas, in richer parts, in the countryside, in towns, in the North, South, West and in the East of India and also in the UK at many different places. The ingredients always had to be: several kids + 1 computer = means learning

    Fantastic results. Well, if I had produced such results, what would I have done?

    Why not leave the kids alone?
    If I had discovered that all that is needed is, to give a group of kids one computer, than why not leave them alone? Why add the element of an adult to falsify the outcome?

    Hear, hear: adding ‘grannies’ changes learning results?
    He mentions that the biology experiment with English information about genealogy ‘only’ produced 30% and adding a granny meant that they got up to 50% – isn’t this the proof in the pudding? Does this not mean that by adding an ‘adult’ to the equation that kids learn more? Wouldn’t this support the added value of a teacher?

    Why thought provoking questions?
    Every scientist knows that the observer influences an experiment. Well, how about actually giving the kids tasks and questions? How much does this influence their learning? Isn’t this what a good teacher does, ask thought provoking questions to stimulate thinking, eh learning?

    Why no longterm studies?
    Sugatra Mitra did these ground breaking findings in the late 90s, right? He was so early with this that it seems surprising that he didn’t start any long term studies equipping villages with computers and observing how the social fabric of these rural areas change. Would a new society be born where people naturally collaborate and naturally share information with each other? Would they, as so many qualified and educated people do, leave the countryside to move to the cities? Would they change culture and tradition being exposed to the ‘outside’ world through the internet? Would they naturally start using real-time communication tool to chat with non-Indian in English? How would Internet access be different from Television access (one village gets TV – the other Internet)?

    Where does the money go to?
    If I saw how easy it is to give kids an education, I would have spent all the money I could on buying computers and placing them all over India, wouldn’t you? Like apple seeds, one hole after the other. Not so Sugatra Mitra. He didn’t create more holes. He didn’t buy computers. He spent it on a ‘school in the cloud’ experiment, where kids are ‘encouraged’ by adults via Skype on large screens with a supersized ‘mentors’ (http://tedconfblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/sole-main.jpg?w=900). These schools are learning labs – designed for research. Well, Sugatra is a researcher. He is not an educator.

    The wish of a child versus Sugatra’s wish.
    When formulating his wish on TED.com Sugatra recited the answer of a child in the Himalayas, on how to use the money. She replied ‘Get on with it’ – in response to Sugatra’s intentions at that time to give children access to the internet and computers. How did he spend the money? I quote…. “Help me build this school. (a school????????????) It will be called the School in the Cloud. ….. I want to do this is to build a facility where I can study this (where I can study this????????)…… if you would please, please do it across all five continents and send me the data (send him data??????????)…. then I will create the future of learning.” This is Sugatra’s wish: to study, to conduct research and to collect data.

    A SOLE tool kit for educators?
    How warped this ‘leave the kids alone’ experiment has become is shown in the SOLE kit which you can downloaded from TED.com: Welcome to the Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) Toolkit, an online resource designed to help educators (???) and parents (???) support kids (8-12 years old) as they tap into their innate sense of wonder and engage in child-driven learning. (????) … Educators of all kinds (parents, teachers, community leaders, etc) play an important role in both teaching kids how to think (oh really????), and giving them room to feed their curiosity. The SOLE approach embraces a process where kids learn how to ask questions (kids learn how to ask or shall educators ask these questions???) that make them come alive to the world, questions like the following,…. So many contradictions in the opening paragraph of this document!!!!

    Try and compare his approach to that of the Barefoot college. http://www.barefootcollege.org

    Action speak louder than words.

    • Sorry, Heike, but I find much of what you say here ill-informed and lacking respect. It falls into the ‘Sugata-bashing’ category, which I personally find is neither helpful or illuminating when it comes to discussing the ideas he has proposed related to SOLEs, etc. I now believe that the man did not do himself or his ideas justice when he spoke at Harrogate, and although I do not share some of his ideas, I do think that he is someone who is bravely suggesting an alternative to traditional schooling and his ideas deserve to be taken seriously. As for him not putting his words into action, as you suggest at the end of your post, really? You can argue many things, but not that he has not put his ideas into action – I also urge you to read again the SOLE toolkit, which seems very reasonable to me and which does not merit the kind of triple question-marked phrases – btw, what do you mean by this – expressing disdain? Outrage? Attempting to ridicule? Better to argue against the points I think as this part of your comment gives the same impression that a drunken heckler would have made if one had stood up and shouted during the plenary. Can we at least have some intelligent discussion occur (as can be found in Jeremy’s original post) rather than hot and bothered shouting down of the man and his ideas?

      • Hello Graham – and Heike,

        it’s strange, isn’t it, that Sugata Mitra gets people’s hackles up in some strange way. I would like to make a difference between a kind of knee-jerk reaction to a talk (which may probably say more about us, the listeners than about the tai itself) and an attempt, however, poor, to consider the questions raised by it when the blood pressure returns to a roughly normal level.

        I hope, in this matter, that my blood pressure is (and was when I wrote this blog) fairly normal!! I am challenged by what Sugata Mitra has reported to us and potentially inspired by it. However, as you can see from what i wrote, I think it begs many questions of pedagogy etc. Hence there whole point of blogging!

        It strikes me that Heike’s blood pressure is still dangerously high! I recommend beta blockers urgently!

        Seriously, I think there is much to recommend the SOLE toolkit stuff though I don’t think it is ‘self’ organised and…oh no, not again…

        I am so pleased you have come along to comment here!

        Jeremy

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  18. I think one of the capital argumentation fallacies committed by Mr Mitra, and in such debates as here, is that “if you think something is not working right you should simply do away with it”. In other words, throw out the baby with the bath water. Nobody I think is arguing that the school system is designed perfectly and that it also works that way. But that is hardly an argument for the claim that schools are irrelevant and teachers had better be replaced by “adults who have time on their hands” (what’s wrong with teachers then, don’t they have time on their hands???) I guess the way forward is to think of how we can adapt the education establishment to the 21st century, including by stimulating learner-driven learning, but claiming that this is all that education is about, is a strange stance. Schools are needed, if for nothing else, to learn the responsibility for our behaviour and commitment. Our negative memories of our own schooling can hardly be an argument for sweeping statements.

  19. I like your post; there are a few valid statements firmly made. But I’m curious about something else.

    I’ve read some posts related to Sugata mitra’s attempt to do something different, something relevant in his opinion through Linkedin connections. I find only information ‘about’ the experiment. But nowhere do I find some valid information about the experiment per se. That is, how did he start, how did he attract the attention of the children, how did they go about doing what he claims they’ve done, what statistics he has supporting the learning that’s supposedly taken place. In other words, there is no solid information about the logistics of the whole procedure of learning through the computer on their own. He assumes, I believe, these children know how to handle a computer, I guess. This assumption presupposes their knowledge of the English language adequate enough to read and understand what they see online.

    Your post does raise certain pertinent questions that need to be answered as far as Sugata Mitra’s philosophy goes.

    Thank you.

  20. I’m sorry I missed adding this to my comment:
    Nowhere do I find information about how Sugata is going to make those millions of illiterate children learn through the computer they have no prerequisites for (I’ve mentioned in the last but one paragraph in my previous comment).

  21. Pingback: #ELTchat summary on Sugata Mitra and 25 Questions He Needs To Answer | TheTeacherJames

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