In 1999 Sugata Mitra put a computer connected to the internet in a hole in the wall in a slum in Delhi and just left it there, to see what would happen.
The computer attracted a number of illiterate, slum children, who, by the end of the first day had taught themselves to surf the internet, despite not knowing what a computer or the internet were, or being able to read.
Over the next five years Mitra progressed his hole in the wall experiment to focus on delivering more specific knowledge – by posing questions via the computer in the hole in the wall. One question he asked, for example, was ‘why does hair grow’? After a few days, non-English speaking Tamil students were able to answer this question with reference to cell-biology.
Mitra then advanced his experiment even further in the UK – bringing his methods to Schools of Gateshead – where, without the English language barrier, students as young as nine were able to teach themselves about Quantum Entanglement, just from the internet.
The absence of a teacher was acting as a pedagogical tool – with students as young as young as nine.
Mitra’s basic theory of learning is that children simply need two things to learn effectively:
- Firstly, they need to be allowed to crowd around computers which are connected to the internet.
- Secondly, they need the absence of a teacher.
This is the absolute opposite of our current model of education, which Mitra argues was built to meet the needs of the British Empire, when people had to do the work of machines, and the system needed identical people who needed to be taught to not ask questions, and under no circumstances be creative.
We still have this model today – which is also a ‘just in case’ model of education – we teach people to be able to do things (e.g. solve quadratic equations) just in case they need to be able to do so.
According to Mitra, this model is completely out of date and out of touch with (post?) modern times – now that all knowledge is available online, the idea of individual knowledge is simply redundant: we don’t need to know until we need to know – and we need to move to a ‘just in time’ model of education, in which kids are allowed to learn quickly from the internet what they need when they need it.
Interestingly Mitra says he finds the idea of the redundancy of individual knowledge distasteful, but he has to report what the data from his Hole in the Wall Experiment reveals.
Mitra isn’t saying that we don’t need teachers, just that don’t need the type of teacher who gives uni-directional instructions, rather you need a teacher to be a friend, for moral support and a role model, to guide you through learning.
What children need is a a self-organised learning environment – and it does help if you have an adult who isn’t necessarily knowledgeable but is admiring who spurs children on (like his own Grandmother did).
All of this raises the question of whether we actually need schools? The general consensus of the programme seems to be that we do, but primarily because they are social environments, and children benefit from the social aspect of schooling, and that we don’t necessarily need traditional teachers.
Mitra also suggests that we need to re-think about what socialising actually is, and how technology might be changing this – when you’re floating around on Facebook, for example, is that socialising, or is it something completely different?
Sugata Mitra is Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University.
Summarised from Radio Four’s ‘Start the Week: Technology in Education’