Education must not go ‘back to normal’ says Mitra

Online learning showed professor Sugata Mitra what education should look like. He argues that reverting ‘back to normal’ would be a disaster
11th November 2021, 3:00pm


Education must not go ‘back to normal’ says Mitra
Sugata Mitra: Education Must Not Go ‘back To Normal’

Sugata Mitra is one of education’s most divisive characters. His studies have had a wide and long-lasting impact, but they come with some  ideas many find hard to swallow.

His suggestion earlier this year that a PhD-style viva should replace exams was met with plenty of enthusiasm in some quarters, however, he admits his essay The end of knowing was roundly criticised here in the UK.

The latter, he explains, was misinterpreted as “Sugata Mitra is saying that knowledge is obsolete”, which he argues is not what he meant. 

“What I was saying is, you don’t need to stuff your head for 12 years with things that you might need,” Mitra clarifies. “Who needed that kind of education? In my essay, I wrote that the last person to need that kind of education was Robinson Crusoe.”

The 1999 “Hole in the Wall” experiment, which earned Mitra his notoriety, gave children from a New Delhi slum unsupervised access to a computer and the internet. The professor found that the children, who had no prior experience of computing, were able to learn to use the machine, operate programs and download files on their own.

The project is said to have inspired the novel Q&A, which went on to become the multi-award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, while a following TED talk, entitled School in the Cloud, won him a $1 million prize. Whether people agree with him or not, when Mitra speaks, people tend to listen. 

A case for change

In recent years the professor has been vocal in his dislike of traditional assessments that focus on knowledge over comprehension and has again argued that students should be given more freedom to organise their own learning.

These ideas, previously seen as leftfield, today look more palatable. In the context of Covid-19, a period in which exams were scrapped in favour of teacher assessment and students were able to learn independently at home, Mitra looks almost visionary.

Speaking to Tes ahead of appearing at next year’s World Education Summit, the professor sees the last two years as a glimpse of what the future of learning could look like and considers the idea of reverting “back to normal” as something to be avoided at all costs.

“The education system is headed towards irrelevancy,” claims Mitra.

“Children can see through that, adults can see through that. You can sit in a lecture and think to yourself, ‘why is he telling me this? Why would I sit through a 50-minute lecture to listen to something which I could have Googled in five minutes?’”

So in the eyes of Sugata Mitra, what could (and should) the future of education look like?

1. Students need more time to learn for themselves

Student-lead learning is something the professor has been pioneering for much of his career.

His “Hole in the Wall” project sparked a series of studies, many of which were carried out in the North East of the UK, in which students were taught in what he calls a “self-organised learning environment” (SOLE). SOLEs allow children to take charge of their studies with teachers offering “safe encouragement”.

For Mitra, the pandemic offered students more opportunities to take control of their own learning and showed the potential that can bring.

“To put it in the words of an American friend, who said, ‘[until now] I had only read about the Hole in the Wall experiment. But now I find everybody is making one in their home’.”

So what does a modern SOLE look like? And what role should a teacher play in this post-pandemic classroom?

“The teacher doesn’t have to just stop teaching but has to ask questions. A wonderful way to start one of these lessons is to say, ‘I have a question today and I don’t know the answer.’ Children love that.

“I stay away from the word scaffolding because it kind of has a connotation of restriction. That’s not the idea. I would replace it with the word ‘safe encouragement’. The teacher’s job changes to, ‘you go there; I’ll come with you’.”

2. Online learning doesn’t need a classroom

For Mitra, the pandemic lockdowns brought with them many positives. Students, with the help of a device, were able to learn and discover for themselves. The mistake, he claims, was to try and replicate the classroom. 

“When teaching and learning moved into the virtual world of the internet, teachers all became experts at digital video conferencing, bandwidth, cameras, lighting, microphones and acoustics. But we all made a mistake. We thought we would create virtual classrooms using the internet.

“We were trying to make an automobile behave like a horse and cart. We do not need classrooms over the internet, we need different kinds of learning environments. Some self-organised by learners, some guided by teachers.”

3. Teachers can provide accurate assessment

In Tes earlier this year, the professor suggested that PhD-style vivas should replace exams for students of all ages. His argument, that a teacher can give a more accurate assessment of ability than an exam paper, was put under the microscope during the pandemic.

“Scores were computed by groups of teachers and based on many past tests and interviews with students,” he explains. “The results showed a large improvement in performance across the UK. There was an overall reduction in stress across learners, parents, teachers, schools and employers.”

While teachers might question their inclusion in the list of those de-stressed, and the improvement in scores probably needs a caveat, there are clearly those who do not feel the current examination process plays to their strengths. For Mitra, a return to regular examinations is not a way forward.

“The normal, in this case, consists of stressed out students, spewing out memorised material, not allowed to talk, listen, look at or type anything,” he argues. “Like a deadly game of The Chase in real life.”

4. Exams should allow technology and the web

The pandemic only served to underline the need for young people to be computer literate, but Mitra argues that education should go much further when it comes to the integrated use of technology.

“Assessments should allow the use of the modern medium, which is the internet,” says Mitra. “Look at the Victorian examination system in mathematics, science and geometry, for example. They used to allow the set square, the compass and protractors.

“The Victorians allowed the use of their highest level of technology during an examination. What have we done? We banned the internet.”

For Mitra, the ability to recall knowledge comes second to the “three Cs”; computing, comprehension and communication, and by testing for these three things alone, the way schools operate will be transformed.

“The examination system can drive the whole thing. We cannot imagine that there will be a politician and a statesman who will be able to bring about a fundamental change in education. But a bureaucrat can make a rule to allow the use of smartphones during exams.

“Okay. He should do it just about a few weeks before retirement and then quietly disappear. But I’ll bet you, the whole system will change.”

Going forward to normal

Even Mitra concedes that these are big ideas for an education system seemingly hell-bent on returning to the old methods. But for him, the period of remote learning offered a glimpse of an alternative future that shouldn’t be written off.

“The past is always glorious to the human mind, possibly because our brains keep good memories and bury the bad ones,” he explains.

“We cannot move backwards in time, we can never go ‘back’ to anything. Even if we could - to what ‘normal’ shall we return? Going back to normal doesn’t mean anything at all.”

Sugata Mitra is one of the speakers at the 2022 World Education Summit. Tes is the official media partner for the event. For more information or to book tickets, visit  

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