I don’t know if you can clearly see the panoramic view of my office below (thanks iPhone – I love your panorama feature!) in this post. I’ve only put it here to point up a reality that many people like me are now living. On my left behind me (as I type) are shelves and shelves of books. In front of me is the large screen you see in the picture and the computer which is attached to it on my right. I live, in other words, somewhere between the old and the new; between an old world of paper, and a new digital world of the internet, computers (going, going…?) and various handheld devices – and let’s not even mention, yet, the fanciful Google glass idea.
Others are going faster than me. Pearson (my publisher) for example is going hell-for-leather into digital publishing (I suppose that should be hell-for-digital) with consequences that I do not believe they can quantify or be sure of (though in principle I support their intentions); visionaries like Sugata Mitra have gone a lot further – and he and that ‘further’ is the subject of this post.
Sugata Mitra, you will remember, gained fame with his hole-in-the-wall experiment in which computers were installed literally in a hole in the wall, first of a Delhi slum, and then in a wall in a village in India and kids were left to get on with it. The results were, apparently, astonishing. With no ‘teaching’ as such, the kids soon worked out how to use the computer, download anti-virus software and all manner of other computer abilities. By themselves! If you want to watch Mitra himself talking about it (after winning a HUGE cash prize for his work) you can see his TED talk here.
Mitra’s idea is that that the concept of schools has had its day. He says: I’m not saying they’re (= schools) 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 It’s outdated, and he goes on to suggest that we need to create ‘self-organised’ learning, in SOLEs (self-organised learning environments) where people gather round computers (or use handheld devices), sometimes with the help of a remote ‘granny’ asking them ‘yes but how are you doing this?’ etc. So no more school, then, just kids solving problems (like how DNA works – and they did this in a foreign language in one experiment he describes, though with little real detail) together, because they can do this, and don’t need it done to them. A utopia, in other words, where children are simply set together to work things out for themselves. Because we don’t NEED to have good handwriting or be able to do multiplication (all those things that outdated schools taught); we don’t need to KNOW anything any more, only to be able to work things out collaboratively, by ourselves and with ourselves.
Sounds a bit Lord of the Flies? Perhaps. Because despite the immense popular appeal and reputation that Sugata Mitra has evoked, many are not convinced. Donald Clark, for example, questions the way the hole-in-the-wall experiment was funded (by a computer company); suggests that in using mentors (and having computers in schools) all these SOLES are just schools in disguise and worries that giving an anecdote-driven ‘inspirational’ TED talk (where the audience pays up to $10,00) is not the same as producing qualitative research. He (Donald Clark) thinks that only low-level learning takes place (something Mitra implicitly denies in his TED talk), and most damningly accuses Mitra of the very colonialism that he (Mitra) credits with having invented the school system in the first place [my own take? Schools are and were a lot older and more diverse than the British empire. Education has been around a lot longer than that, and in different contexts].
In a startling piece by a soon-to-be TED lecturer herself, Audrey Waters has serious doubts about the whole hole-in-the-wall and SOLE philosophy too. She writes: “I have questions about community support. I have questions about what happens when we dismantle public institutions like schools — questions about social justice, questions about community, questions about care. I have questions about the promise of a liberation via a “child-driven education,” questions about this particular brand of neo-liberalism, techno-humanitarianism, and techno-individualism“. Tellingly she suggests that much of the ‘let-children-do-it-themselves-with-the-help-of-wonderful-devices ‘ philosophy comes from a libertarian silcone valley kind of way of looking at things (our shiny technology is the answer to everything!) – a proposition that, because of his emphasis on what poor kids can achieve, Sugata Mitra would most assuredly disavow. But still.
Finally, ‘Torn Halves’ remarks that: One of the concepts conspicuously absent from Mitra’s critique of empire is that of community. He is all in favour of children working in groups to learn from each other, but he seems hostile to the idea of a community organising itself and organising the education of its children, and he goes on to question why Sugata Mitra didn’t go to the communities he touched first to ask them what THEY wanted and needed, rather than ‘imposing’ his experiments. Was Mitra, in other words, guilty of the very colonialism that he starts his TED talk with?
Gosh, all this hurts my brain! I’m captivated by the promise that Sugata Mitra seems to offer, but seriously alarmed (as always) by people who say we don’t need schools (because they have served humanity well when they have worked, it seems to me – though there is, of course, much that can be done better). I find the notion that all children will learn well with and from each other somewhat idealistic. And yet the idea that learning can come from a sense of wondrous enquiry is deeply attractive to me.
On the other hand, it is telling that the one example that Sugata Mitra shows of a ‘granny’ helping in a SOLE has her (in the UK) drilling kids in India via Skype. Self-organised learning? I don’t think so. Old-fashioned stuff with a bit of technology thrown in.
But don’t take my word for any of this. Go and watch his talk yourselves and, perhaps, answer these questions:
1 Is technology starting to drive learning (cf what Pearson are doing – that was at the top of this blogpost), or is learning directing technological development?
2 Is ‘school’ outdated? or perhaps, what is the role of school in our modern world?
3 How much self-organised learning can (and indeed should) children be asked to do, and how confident are you of its success?
4 How on earth can we evaluate the glowing evangelism of a TED talk?