Opinion: 'Sugata Mitra's study highlights the amazing capacity of children to learn on their own'

Debra Kidd

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Sugata Mitra’s controversial new study summarised in last week’s TES suggests that self-study on the internet can boost a child’s performance by seven years. Basically, eight- and nine-year-olds studied GCSE content online and were examined three months later in exam conditions. They were successful. It sounds astounding, but it’s true, at least for the small number of children involved. And, actually, I don’t think it’s that surprising. To me, this is not a study about the power of the internet. It’s a study about the power of children.

Despite what the traditionalists may tell you, kids teach themselves stuff all the time. And they retain it, too. The problem for us as teachers is that too often we don’t find out what it is they know, because we have already decided we’ll tell them when we’re ready. And the other problem is that often the stuff they’ve learned is not what’s on our syllabus. It may be that the child has mastered the complexities of a computer game we know nothing about. Or it could simply be that the content doesn’t match our curriculum structure.

Take my son Sam, for example. Since he was five, Sam has been obsessed with natural geography. Largely driven by a fear of natural disasters, he has spent hours over the past three years teaching himself about volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, fault lines and the like. He’s pretty much mapped the world into safe and unsafe zones. He can name and point to places on a map that I didn’t even know existed.

More recently, he has decided he wants to be a Buddhist. He’s not just said it, he’s researched all the different kinds of Buddhism and rejected many because he feels they are more religious than philosophical and he wants one that is a way of life. This has brought him to Zen Buddhism. All this research has been done on the internet or in books written largely for adults. He’s found a branch of Zen Buddhism in Japan. And now he has a problem: Japan is one of the countries he has designated as “unsafe”. But he wants to live there to study this form of Buddhism. So he does more research. He’s identified the places in Japan he thinks are more secure and able to withstand an earthquake or tsunami. And he’s read up on building safety and what to do in the event of an earthquake. He’s decided it’s a risk worth taking, so, when he’s 28, he’s moving to Japan.

“That’s a bit specific,” I say, trying not to giggle.

“You’ve got to have goals,” he replies, putting me right in my place.

But now he’s realised that to live in Japan, he’ll need to learn Japanese. He finds an app on his iPad and the kindly folk of Twitter point me in the direction of Memrise. All summer he’s spent a couple of hours a day learning Japanese and testing himself online. I have no idea how he’s doing, but I keep getting emails from Memrise saying I’m doing well on the tests.

My point is not about Sam, really – there are children all over the country, indeed all over the world, who find a passion and who find that the passion leads them to others, connecting and shaping their dreams, their ideals, their hopes for the future. And how often do we squash them? Sam got a C for effort in RE this year because he talks too much. “I was trying to talk about Buddhism,” he says, miserably. But Buddhism isn’t on the syllabus until Year 4.

No one at school knows what he understands about geography. It’s not been “done” yet. And no one has a clue he’s learning Japanese. And when they find out, they’ll say, “That’s lovely”, then teach him French. I sometimes feel that his education, and that of many, many children in our country, largely happens at home. If they’re lucky. At school they plod along politely learning stuff they already know. And at home they enter a world of their dreams. What a missed opportunity.

Of course, for many children, that potential doesn’t find an outlet at home either. Too few facilities, no quiet spaces, no adults to nurture an interest, no access to computers. Too hungry, too stressed, too tired. For those children, it is vital, absolutely vital, that schools allow spaces for those passions and interests to be seeded, grown and harvested. It is vital that teachers look for any spark and seize upon it. For children like Sam, a school’s lack of interest in his interests is irritating. But for a child with little or no support at home, it is a catastrophe.

What Mitra’s research reminds us of is the amazing capacity of children to learn, retain and perform when they find something they are interested in or when it is presented to them in a way that allows for autonomy to grow. When we listen to those who say we should have a core curriculum, controlled and delivered by teachers through direct instruction, we ignore this potential. We reduce a child to recipient rather than investigator.

That’s not to say we should just have a system in which kids sit at computers without teachers. A teacher’s role is vital in identifying the gaps and fixing them; in directing children towards necessary areas of learning that they might not be interested in, or aware of. It is vital in building and securing articulacy, communication, relationships and trust. But if we do this in a controlled way, with little attention paid to the needs and existing interests of the children in front of us, we are in danger of reducing their education, not enhancing it.

Debra Kidd is a teacher and author of Teaching: Notes from the Frontline.

This article was first published on Debra's blog.

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Debra Kidd

Debra Kidd is a teacher and author of Teaching: Notes from the Frontline.

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