Why Sugata Mitra wants pupils with heads in the Cloud

We go inside his experiment on self-organised learning

Joseph Lee

Room 13 at Greenfield Arts, a community centre attached to Greenfield Community School in County Durham, is unlike any other classroom.

It's not just the way it looks, although that's extraordinary enough. The floor is covered with artificial turf that rises up to wrap around computers dotted around the room, leaving their screens and keyboards exposed.

On the walls are illuminated clouds. Cartoonish bunny figurines perch on the grass. Colourful modernist furniture is scattered around and CCTV cameras watch from the corners of the room. It's as if Tellytubbyland has been crossed with the Big Brother house.

What's most unusual about this classroom, however, is that when it's time for learning to begin, the teachers are kicked out. This is one of two locations in the UK where Professor Sugata Mitra is experimenting with his idea of self-organised learning.

Professor Mitra won the 2013 TED Prize, which gave him $1 million of seed funding to establish his idea of "Schools in the Cloud" - hence the motif on the walls of Room 13. The idea builds on his famous "Hole in the Wall" experiment in India, where a computer kiosk was set up in a Delhi slum in 1999 and children taught themselves to use it with no adult input.

Now the Newcastle University academic is experimenting with how students can undertake self-organised learning in a formal education setting. Supervision is carried out over the internet on video-conferencing software such as Skype - a particularly important feature for the five cloud schools in India, some of which are very remote (see panel, right).

At Greenfield and the other UK cloud school, George Stephenson High in North Tyneside, the focus is on seeing how much children can achieve when they are released from the constraints of the curriculum and given free rein to collaborate and use the internet.

`Oh yeah. We need to get work done'

When I visited Room 13 earlier this summer, pupils were about to be set what Professor Mitra said were undergraduate-level questions on fundamental particles in physics and passages of literature.

Just like their teachers, I couldn't be in the room while they were working for fear of interfering with the experiment and changing the dynamics between the students. But beforehand, the pupils told me about their experiences since the room opened in February last year.

"I guess at first, without the teacher there, you think: `Free rein!' Then you think: `Oh, yeah. We need to get work done'," said Sam Burnside, one of eight 14-year-olds who have become ambassadors for the project, promoting it within the school and externally. "Then you start realising the opportunities you have."

Lucy Roberts, another pupil, recalled: "Our first couple of lessons we, like, messed around and played with the grass and the bunnies." But there were always some in the group who wanted to get on with the task. And the pressure of needing something to report in a later feedback session soon encouraged them to focus, she said.

"Engagement doesn't look like you think it will in this room," said Katy Milne, director of arts and creativity at the centre. "It's not just getting your head down and getting on with it."

She told the story of one student who seemed to be wandering from group to group, playing with one of the bunny figurines. But in the feedback session, he had some of the best contributions. Ms Milne said that he had been engaging with different groups and "pollinating" new ideas between them.

Looking at each other's findings turns out to be a natural feature of the cloud school. Professor Mitra calls it "flocking", when students gather as a group to examine something interesting, before breaking up again.

Each student tends to take on a different role in their group of four, with one at the keyboard, another taking notes, a third directing the research and a fourth who "entertains, or often disturbs" the others. Professor Mitra told me that the learning within the group is quite uniform, whatever role the pupils take at any particular time.

"Once you come up with the realisation that you have no boundaries to your thinking in here, and there's nothing stopping you from branching out into all different things - it's not just one set thing - then you become more curious to learn," Year 9 pupil Alfie Briggs said.

It's question time

Students come to Room 13 when their class teachers decide. But once they are here and have been set a question - anything from "How have languages evolved over time?" to "Why don't we live for ever?" - the teachers are excluded.

Some staff struggled to adjust to the change in the balance of power, the students said, especially when the roles were reversed and the teachers worked in the cloud school on a question set by their pupils: what's the best way to teach?

"It was the question they didn't agree with, because they were kind of rebellious," said Millie Tezcan-Fotoohi, 14. " `We know how to teach, so what's the point of doing that kind of question?' We actually got quite intimidated by them and most of the teachers apologised."

Ms Milne said that teachers were more comfortable with the approach after working with the student ambassadors. "For some teachers that is a massive risk, and for others it's a bit more normal," she added.

Traditional teaching can be intimidating for pupils, too, and that is part of the inspiration for the cloud school's other element: the "granny cloud". This is a team of volunteer older people from all over the world with no special expertise except a willingness to listen to young people talk about their learning.

Professor Mitra said he wanted people who would push students on without criticising them for being wrong. He said: "Little children often say to their grandmothers, `You're so stupid, don't you know this?' And the granny says, `Oh, I couldn't have done that myself, show me a little bit more.' "

The grannies' appearance in the room, beamed from their homes, is startlingly high-tech: telepresence robots with video screens for faces can explore Room 13 and show the elderly volunteers what pupils are working on. The idea came from whistleblower Edward Snowden's "appearance" at a TED conference, despite being exiled in Russia. "This makes it cuter," Professor Mitra said, comparing it to the "King Kong" image of a talking head on the big screen.

Despite the playful environment, he describes the teaching method as nothing less than a PhD approach applied to young people.

"If you look at schooling, the method is unidirectional delivery, drill and practice, examination. This goes on until finally you get to the PhD, the pinnacle degree of our system," he said.

"And what's a PhD? You're given a question, you're told no one knows the answer and you're asked to answer it. My question is: why, after 14 years of drill and practice, are you suddenly left on your own to do it yourself?"

The Schools in the Cloud

Lab 0

The flagship lab - a purpose-built hexagonal glass pod in Gocharan in Bengal, India - opened in January 2015

Lab 1

The remotest lab, in the village of Korakati in mangrove swamps in West Bengal, opened in March 2014

Lab 2

Opened in a classroom in the town of Chandrakoma, West Bengal, in March 2014

Lab 3

Opened in a secondary classroom in Kalkaji, an impoverished part of New Delhi, in February 2014

Lab 4

Opened in a classroom in the city of Phaltan, about 150 miles inland from Mumbai, in December 2014

Lab 5

Opened at George Stephenson High School, North Tyneside, in November 2013

Lab 6

Opened in Room 13, at the Greenfield Arts centre at Greenfield Community College in County Durham, in February 2014

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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