SOLE: Snake Oil Learning Experience?

22nd November 2015 at 13:33

Sugata Mitra thinks knowledge is old hat, and kids can teach themselves. Tom Bennett begs to differ.



The original Hypocratic oath began with ‘I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods…’ Asclepius gave his name to the internationally recognised symbol of medicine, the snake wrapped around a staff (not to be confused with the caduceus, which has two snakes around it, and a winged handle. Snakes and staffs were clearly all the rage back then). The Greek word Pharmakon means both drug, medicine and poison, which is appropriate enough for a field where until the 20th century the practitioner was as likely to make you worse as better. In the cult of Asclepius, sick pilgrims would be purified, made to sleep in the holiest part of the temple, and their dreams would be interpreted by augurs who would divine what treatment the patient needed from the contents of the nap. I imagine a lot of people ended up being chucked from cliffs or made to walk down the street with no trousers on.

Point is, the healing profession went through a millennium of quacks, magic medicine, and cures that killed you. I am reminded that a lot of teaching is still in the dark ages. It is possible to say almost anything about education, and if you wave a white coat at it, someone will believe you. Professors, like Doctors, are the new priest class. And one of the High Priests of educational futurism, Sugata Mitra is back in the news this week, talking about the obsolescence of knowledge, teachers, and direct instruction. Children can learn practically by themselves, you'll be amazed to know. Not only that, but they can find out things that even the experts know nothing about. I'm serious. And so is he. 

‘Knowledge is an obsolete idea from a time when it was not possible to access or acquire knowledge at the moment of need.’ Sugata Mitra, TES 20th November 2015, p21

It would probably be churlish to ask, 'But do you know that?' He then goes on to somewhat laboriously outline our present education/ examination system: we are taught, we attempt to remember, we are set assessmments, and we are graded on those assessments. I confess to being unshocked by this, but Mitra apparently takes umbrage at this gross injustice. We won't use most of what we learn, he claims; he calls it ‘just in case’ knowledge.

This attitude is…I can only use the word philistine. We don't learn things because we find them immediately useful, or lead to some obvious material end like a job or mending a fence. If we did, we would learn nothing apart from how to put up shelves or manage a loan. We learn because learning itself is beautiful and valuable. We learn because we value the types of human being who have learned; people who are aware of their history, of how the world works, of how numbers interact, and how words can sparkle. As an extrinsic aim, we can also value such people as being able to make informed decisions in a democratic forum; true citizenship is only enabled by informed autonomous agent. 

But Mitra sees learning as valuable only when it is relevant to the learner. How is a four year old, a twelve year old, a sixteen year old, to be the arbiter of what is relevant. Such a solipsistic view completely displaces the role of the adult from raising children, and leaves us with a view of a child’s inner wisdom and goodness that is rivalled only by motivational posters and Hallmark Cards. He exemplifies an odd phenomena in education that I can only begin to grasp: teachers applauding people who have never been classroom teachers, telling them that teachers aren't necessary. To paraphrase someone, we're the turkeys that voted for Christmas. 

But who needs learning when we have Google? 

And who needs Google when we have Sugata Mitra and others of his sort telling us all how classrooms really work, how children really learn? I’ve written before about SOLE here, and Donald Clark painstakingly punctures the Hole-In-The-Wall disaster here. Neither projects possess what I would call anything like a credible evidence base. Some would defend both by reminding us that innovation is impossible without trying things that haven't worked before. That’s true, but we also don’t celebrate repeated failure as a success.

Anyway, none of this would matter were it not for the fact that Mitra’s magic research is taken seriously by some people in education; people with budgets, authority and the power to ruin children’s lives by robbing them of a content-rich education that enables them to flourish and design their lives. Children who leave school knowing little are brutally disadvantaged in a system where knowledge and comprehension are essential to innovation, creativity and every other mental faculty we admire. Mitra seems to cling to the romantic ideal of the Noble Savage, the Edenian superhero who is brought low by society and civilisation. The absurd irony is that the methods he describes are guaranteed to rob a child of their cultural and intellectual heritage. Or to put it another way, if you want to keep poor kids poor, teach them thematically; get them to discover facts for themselves; teach them that knowledge is a) only valuable when it is useful or b) old-fashioned anyway. Teach them- or pretend to teach them- curious, content free skills that are only activated and enabled through the intelligent selection of relevant knowledge. 

Some of the claims made are simply absurd:

‘I have found that when people, particularly children, mingle with the internet, knowing becomes increasingly unnecessary.’

Evidence to back this up is yet to come.

‘Groups of children can learn almost anything by themselves…[from] the internet.’

Maybe they can (although evidence is lacking here also) but my God, how long will it take, and do you really need children to re-invent everything from scratch? It can take you weeks to teach children anything this way, when you could impart the same thing in twenty seconds of explanation. Besides these kind of group activities massively penalise children who don't work well in groups, or lack the kind of social capital to exploit rather than be intimidated by the demands of the activity. People in groups don't learn evenly. 


There is a frustrating amount of inscrutable, impenetrable mysticism about Mitra's ideas about learning:

'If we make the curriculum, not of things we know but of things we don't know, there will be little to teach and much to learn....In a SOLE (Self Organised learning Environment) groups of learners engage with each other and the internet in search of answers to what is, as yet, unknown.'

Man, what is IN this BROWNIE? From what I can gather, children will be working out the answers to the Great Secrets to the Universe by wading through pictures of cats, click bait, and websites patiently describing the Illuminati. As Popeye once said, This I gots to see. 

There is literally nothing new in what Mitra has to say here about learning- you can trace a drunk finger backwards from his ideas through a hundred different incarnations of independent learning, personalised learning, child-centred education and so on. I wonder if he is even aware of this pedagogic dynasty, or is he, to paraphrase Žižek, like the ideologue, who is most in the thrall to ideology when he believes he has no ideology? Mitra’s gospel has been preached before in many forms. Perhaps one day his claims will be substantiated. But these have not; as far as I can see the ideas behind SOLE and HITW have no credible evidence base that should persuade teachers to change their habits for one second. And the reason I say so, so forcefully, is because children’s education, and therefore their futures are at stake. 

Mitra, as I have mentioned before; undoubtedly has the best interests of children at heart. But we all do. Experimentation is fine so long as children are beneficiaries of its fruit, not victims of its mugging. First, do no harm, must be our watchword when conducting Frankenstein pseudo science on the lives of children. Especially when we are ourselves the beneficiaries of a knowledge rich education. That's the ultimate irony, (like sitting in a lecture theatre being told that group work is best way to learn). There’s a reason why almost every educated man and woman since time began, learned in an atmosphere that required dilligence, focus, plenty of direct instruction at the hands of experts, and knowledge-heavy curricula: it appears to be the least bad method we've discovered of teaching anything hard. If there's a better way, I'll embrace it when the evidence emerges. 

And we're still waiting.