Hole truth that redefines the teaching world

17th September 2010 at 01:00
Ahead of next week's Scottish Learning Festival, Douglas Blane talks to keynote speaker Sugata Mitra, whose research inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire

Scotland's teachers may be ready for the keynote speech at the Scottish Learning Festival from Sugata Mitra, the Indian academic whose original research inspired the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. Then again, they may not be. It's a radical message that can be distilled into a few words: children can learn surprisingly well without a teacher.

There is more to it, of course, and the views of the professor of educational technology at Newcastle University have progressed as evidence has accumulated since his first, seminal experiment in New Delhi.

"I had an office in those days that bordered an urban slum," he says. "There was a dividing wall. I cut a hole in that wall and put a powerful PC into it with high-speed internet and Internet Explorer, so that the monitor came out the other side. A touchpad was similarly embedded. Then I just left it there."

Two youngsters from the slums were soon using the computer, a boy of eight and a girl in a tattered yellow dress, who was stretching on tiptoe to see the screen. "He was teaching her to browse," says Professor Mitra.

Within days, dozens of children from the slums, who had never used a PC, were using the one in the wall. It was an astounding result met with widespread scepticism, he says. "The children must have poked their head over the wall, people told me, and got somebody in my office to teach them what to do."

So he took the experiment to another city in the heart of India where, he says with a smile, "I was assured that nobody had ever taught anybody anything."

Again, poor children clustered around the computer, learning for themselves how to use it, teaching their friends and colleagues. "Typically, you'd have one child operating the computer, with a group of others advising him what to do. If you tested them all on what they'd been learning, they got similar scores. They were learning by watching as much as by doing."

The language of the web might have been expected to be a problem, he says. "So I took the experiment out to Madantusi, a village in north-eastern India, where they had no English teacher, so the children had not learnt English at all."

Three months later, he returned and found "two kids, eight- and 12-year- olds, playing a game on the computer. As soon as they saw me they said, `We need a faster processor and a better mouse.' I asked how on earth they knew that, and they said: `Well, you've left us this machine which talks only in English. So we had to learn English.'"

He found that the children had acquired and were using 200 different English words. Over the next six years, he repeated the experiment many times all over India, a land whose genetic, cultural, geographic and socio-economic diversity allowed rigorous testing of his hypothesis that "primary education can be a self-organising system".

On the way, he had to solve various engineering problems, aided by his physics background, to ensure computer survival in harsh environments, from the heat and humidity of a southern fishing village to the bitter cold of the Himalaya. Time and again, the findings at the first hole in the wall were replicated.

Children between the ages of six and 13 were teaching themselves and each other to use the computer. They were picking up enough English from the computer to allow them to do so. This happened everywhere and with all kinds of children. "I could not find a single correlation with anything, including intelligence. If children have access to a computer, they will teach themselves. They work in self-organising groups, rather than as individuals. This is crucial."

It was also no surprise to Mitra, a scientist with a serious purpose, a sense of humour and a great deal of charm. His initial motivation was scientific curiosity about the "physics of thinking", he says, rather than an impetus to social change or educational improvement. These came later, when he learned what was possible in the most deprived parts of the world, where children struggle and good teachers are hard to find.

"Self-organising groups are common in nature," he says. "Galaxies, molecules, cells, organisms, societies, traffic jams, stock markets. What we found is that learning is most likely a self-organising system. Primary education can happen on its own. It does not have to be imposed from the top down."

Clearly of huge practical significance in parts of the world where teachers are scarce, the research findings are also relevant elsewhere, says Mitra, who moved to Britain to take up the chair in educational technology at Newcastle University just last year.

"A new learning mechanism is possible in the 21st century. It so happens I came upon it first while working with disadvantaged children. But it is equally applicable, if not more so, to children in the developed world."

Evidence for this has been accruing in the past four years, he says, from schools in England and Australia where, in accordance with his ideas, teachers have been giving children's learning the opportunity to self- organise. "In some ways, it's even more applicable in countries like Scotland than in India. The children are native English speakers, so progress is faster."

The role of the developed world teacher is one key aspect of making the method work well, the other being the nature of the technology itself, he says. "The teacher has a distinct and definitive role to play, which is only now becoming clear. Mediation is required. But it's not about imparting knowledge; it's in the form of encouragement and evoking curiosity."

This is why the approach has been dubbed "minimally invasive education" - the most vital part of which, Mitra says, is raising good questions in the right way: "An example. The teacher tells the class that something terrible once happened, called the Black Plague. She asks them to find out about it.

"Children then form groups of four around each computer to research the topic. They are free to walk around and join other groups, if they want to. The teacher at this point can even leave the classroom. Forty minutes later, the groups start to present what they have found, and other groups add their comments, like a conference. The children enjoy this bit immensely."

Testing knowledge and understanding gained in this way has revealed something startling, Mitra says. "Whatever the children find - and they find a considerable amount - is almost photographically imprinted on their brains. So if you ask them questions six months later, they can still answer exactly correctly.

"This is where the method differs from a traditional education where, from the moment of the lesson, you spend the rest of your life forgetting."

Regarding the computer system, Professor Mitra's research has created a vision and a set of specifications for 21st-century educational technology and pedagogy. "These should be digital, automatic, fault-tolerant, minimally invasive, connected and self-organised."

The worldwide web has created "an unspoken question" in young people's minds, he says - what is the purpose of school learning? "When they need to learn something, they can learn it in five minutes by Googling it. So to make that child understand the relevance of sitting in class listening to a lecture is already difficult and will only become more so.

"Young people are out of tune with school - not because they are terrible, but because they have this genuine question in their minds about the relevance of the traditional method."

Professor Mitra is aware of the parallels between his concept of minimally invasive education and Scotland's new student-centred curriculum. He also has some experience of similar resistance from certain quarters, since the prospect of autonomous children or computers can be intimidating. "The first reaction I often get is that you cannot replace a teacher by a computer. I am not sure why you can't."

He recalls a conversation with Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction writer, who lived in Ceylon for many years. "He said something to me that completely solves the problem: "A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be.'"

Sugata Mitra will deliver the keynote lecture, The Hole In The Wall: Self- Organising Systems in Education, at the Scottish Learning Festival, September 23, 3pm



Education Secretary Michael Russell will open next week's Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow with his first keynote speech there (Wednesday 11am). In the massive Clyde Auditorium at the SECC, he will address up to 3,000 teachers trying to come to terms with the new curriculum, many of whom will hope to put their questions to him. "The Curriculum for Excellence: Enhancing Experiences, Raising Standards" is the theme of this year's two-day conference (September 22-23), organised by Learning and Teaching Scotland and sponsored by TESS, with an exhibition by Emap Connect and resources from more than 200 organisations. Some 7,000 visitors are expected to attend.


For teachers who cannot be released from classes to visit the festival during the day, LTS is running a new range of twilight sessions on the Wednesday evening up to 6.30pm. These include a keynote address by American creativity consultant Eric Booth, back by popular demand, and a selection of 10 subject-specific seminars, from literacy and expressive arts to numeracy and health and well-being. Mr Booth will "celebrate the courage and the spirit of a nation and its educators who are willing to undertake the challenging work of change", say the organisers. (Wednesday 4.45pm and Thursday at 11.30am.)


With the teacher education review by Graham Donaldson due to report in October, the former chief inspector of education will give a spotlight session on the emerging strengths and challenges in the current system. In a debate chaired by TESS editor Neil Munro, teachers and lecturers will have a chance to discuss some of the key issues with Mr Donaldson and hear possible ways forward. (Wednesday 1.30pm.)


The current chief inspector of education, Bill Maxwell, will hold his own session on Thursday (1pm), on the evolving role of school inspection. He will talk about an HMIE School Improvement Framework, which will be the first of a series of public documents setting out the nature of inspectionreview. HMIE will also run informal workshops on its stand in the Education Village, focusing on support work for CfE and developments in school inspections.


Assessment within Curriculum for Excellence will be the theme of an LTS spotlight session on Thursday morning. The new curriculum requires an assessment system that supports it, assists individual learners and provides reliable information about the standards they have achieved, says LTS. This presentation will provide further information on developments including the National Assessment Resource.

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