Pupils can perform at more than seven years above their expected academic level by using the internet, a pioneering study concludes.
Sugata Mitra found that eight- and nine-year-olds who were allowed to do online research before answering GCSE questions remembered what they had learned three months later when tested under exam conditions.
Now Professor Mitra is giving undergraduate-level exams to 14-year-olds, and has told TES that these students are also achieving results far beyond their chronological age.
The Newcastle University academic, whose famous Hole in the Wall experiment showed how children in a Delhi slum could learn independently if given access to the internet, argues that his latest work in the UK could challenge the entire exam system. A reliance on testing memory means that other cognitive skills are not being adequately stretched, he believes.
Committed to memory
"Why do we have [memory-based] questions like this? Because it's very convenient for an examiner," Professor Mitra said, describing assessment in schools and universities as "a bit of a horror story".
Tests of memory would become increasingly redundant in a world of ubiquitous internet-connected computing power, he added, arguing that devices used by students would become harder to detect, as they moved from phones to watches and perhaps even smaller gadgets in the future.
The findings on primary pupils answering GCSE questions were revealed in a paper published to little fanfare earlier this year by Professor Mitra and Emma Crawley, a teacher at St Aidan's Church of England Primary School in Gateshead.
Year 4 pupils worked together on GCSE questions in biology and physics using one computer between four - a system that Professor Mitra calls a Self Organised Learning Environment (see panel, right). The children had to answer increasingly difficult questions under timed conditions. Tested as a group, they achieved an average score of 76.8 per cent over five questions.
Three months later, they were tested individually under exam conditions, without conferring and without the internet, to see how much information they had retained. This time, the average score was 80 per cent. Professor Mitra said pupils reported that they had carried out research in their own time, contributing to their improved scores.
"All the data is saying [that] they did above the national average in answering those questions," he told TES. "They're nine years old, so they're going seven years ahead of their time. What does it say about the exam question? That the exam question was merely testing for memory and nothing else."
Now he says he is achieving similar feats with Year 9 pupils at Greenfield Community College in County Durham, who are taking on degree-level questions.
Professor Mitra does not yet have a view on what form of assessment could replace the existing exam system. The academic aims to investigate this after discovering how far he can push students' ability to answer complex questions.
"It's for academics and researchers to figure this out. We need to change the assessment process," he said. "How is a PhD evaluated? How is a music exam evaluated?"
Assessment experts said the experiments suggested that students were demonstrating characteristics of advanced learners. But they questioned whether the results justified Professor Mitra's wholesale criticism of the exam system.
Tina Isaacs, course leader of the MA in educational assessment at the UCL Institute of Education, said Professor Mitra had highlighted a weakness: "In looking at mark schemes, students seem to be rewarded for recall above all else. We do tend to assess in examinations that which is easily assessable."
Dr Isaacs said that increased teacher assessment might provide an answer, but in a system that used exams as the basis of school accountability that could lead to inflated results.
Jo-Anne Baird, Pearson professor of educational assessment at the University of Oxford, said the range of questions in Professor Mitra's experiments might be too narrow to properly test students' understanding. "I would be more convinced if the selection of GCSE questions had been better explained and there was a broader range of them," she added.
Niall Winters, associate professor of learning and new technologies at the University of Oxford, said that future experiments needed to separate the effects of collaborative working from the effects of using the internet. Professor Mitra's approach confused the issue by changing both variables at once, he said.
Hole in the Wall to School in the Cloud
The current work of Sugata Mitra (above) builds on his Hole in the Wall experiment, which began in 1999 when he was based in India and which inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire.
The project gave local children free access to a computer embedded in a wall between Professor Mitra's office and an adjoining slum in Kalkaji, Delhi. The results indicated that groups of children, irrespective of background, could learn independently if given access to the internet.
The academic went on to develop the concepts of the Self Organised Learning Environment (Sole) and the "Granny Cloud", in which non-expert adults, often pensioners, act as online guides to pupils working in a Sole.
In 2013, Professor Mitra used his $1 million (pound;670,000) TED Prize winnings to bring the ideas together in seven "Schools in the Cloud", five in India and two in secondaries in the North East of England.