Sugata Mitra argued with evangelical flourish that, given the right resources, children will learn without schooling. He said that the right resource has now come into existence and is potentially available to every child: the internet. To support this argument, Mitra described what have become known as “the hole in the wall” experiments. In these, he placed computers in public spaces in poor parts of India, much like a bank ATM, and left them there without any further instructions for use. Children then approached these and working together, were able to teach themselves to use them – despite the fact that they operated in an unknown language – English. Mitra went on to describe some very impressive accomplishments achieved by children in these conditions, such as understanding molecular biology.
In describing a version of this experiment in the UK, Mitra made an interesting point about teamwork. Instead of each child receiving their own computer, four or five would share just one. Because the collaboration in small groups is a key part of the learning model, and perhaps just as important as the fact they were using computers, I felt.
From here, Mitra went into theoretical physics in search of a way of explaining the hole-in-the-wall phenomenon. He suggested that, given the right conditions, form can emerge from chaos with no intervention, as life emerged from the mud of pre-history. He says that learning emerges from hole-in-the-wall conditions in much the same way, and he calls this a ‘self organized learning environment’, or SOLE.
The rest of the talk Mitra devoted to a description of how he is seeking to perfect the SOLE in his latest project called ‘Schools in the Cloud’. These schools are to consist of computers with four or five seats in front of them, set in a transparent room with a supervisor in attendance. There would also be volunteer mentors, known as grannies, offering their help to the children remotely, by video connection. They are known as grannies because they are supposed to propel the kids forward simply by admiring their work, as a granny might, and not by teaching (although on the videos Mitra showed, it did look rather like teaching). The final element in this proposed replacement for traditional schooling is to be questions. This questions are to be superficially simple, but actually quite demanding and cross-curricular, such as ‘Why is it that most women can’t grow moustaches’.
The rhetorical flourish of Mitra’s presentation was impressive, as we’ve come to expect of TED talkers. It was perhaps also dangerous, in that I felt he was bending the facts for effect, to make his rhetoric more compelling. It was suspiciously slick. And it certainly was compelling. His final words, as we looked at a photo of some joyful Indian kids learning at a computer, were something like, ‘and does it work? I think you can see the answer in their faces’. The audience broke into a fervent standing ovation. Subsequent chat on the social media shows a very divided response, so if nothing else, Mitra may have established the controversy agenda for the near future.
See a video of a teacher, Emma Crawley, talking about her experiences of teaching by SOLE here. A thought about this: I don't suppose Emma Crawley could have persuaded the kids to do this in, say, French. They tend to get so excited by the content that they switch to L1, if they share an L1 as is the case here. They could perhaps learn a lot of declarative knowledge about language by this kind of procedure, but not the actual language-in-use. So we'd have to be careful about extrapolating to ELT.