We need schools . . . not factories

By Sugata Mitra

From Plato to Aurobindo, from Vygotsky to Montessori,1 centuries of educational thinkers have vigorously debated a central pedagogical question: How do we spark creativity, curiosity and wonder in children?

But those who philosophised pre-Google were prevented from wondering just how the internet might influence the contemporary answer to this age-old question. Today, we can and must; a generation that has not known a world without vast global and online connectivity demands it of us.

But first, a bit of history: to keep the world’s militaryindustrial machine running at the zenith of the British Empire, Victorians assembled an education system to mass-produce workers with identical skills. Plucked from the classroom and plugged instantly into the system, citizens were churned through an educational factory engineered for maximum productivity. Like most things designed by the Victorians, it was a robust system. It worked. Schools, in a sense, manufactured generations of workers for an industrial age.

Schools past their expiration date

But what got us here, won’t get us there. Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardised curricula, outdated pedagogy and cookie-cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain – to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorisation, not imagination or resourcefulness.

Today we’re seeing institutions – banking, the stock exchange, entertainment, newspapers, even healthcare – capture and share knowledge inside the evolving internet… ‘the cloud’.2 While some fields are already far advanced in understanding how the internet age is transforming their structure and substance, we’re just beginning to understand the breadth and depth of its implications on the future of education.

Unlocking the power of new technologies for self-guided education is one of the 21st century superhighways that need to be paved. Profound changes to how children access vast information is yielding new forms of peer-to-peer and individual-guided learning. The cloud is already omnipresent and indestructible, democratising and ever changing; now we need to use it to spark the imaginations and build the mental muscles of children worldwide.

The power of the cloud

This journey, for me, began back in 1999, when I conducted an experiment called the ‘hole in the wall’. By installing internet-equipped computers in poor Indian villages and then watching how children interacted with them, unmediated, I first glimpsed the power of the cloud.

Groups of street children learned to use computers and the internet by themselves, with little or no knowledge of English and never having seen a computer before. Then they started instinctually teaching one another. In the next five years, through many experiments, I learned just how powerful adults can be when they give small groups of children the tools and the agency to guide their own learning and then get out of the way. It’s not just poor kids that can benefit from access to the internet and the space and time to wonder and wander.

Today, teachers around the world are using what I call ‘SOLEs’ – ‘self-organised learning environments’ – where children group around internetequipped computers to discuss big questions. The teacher merges into the background and observes as learning happens. I once asked a group of 10-year-olds in the little town of Villa Mercedes in Argentina: “Why do we have five fingers and toes on each limb?

What’s so special about five?” Their answer may surprise you. The children arrived at their answer by investigating both theology and evolution, discovering the five bones holding the web on the first amphibians’ fins, and studying geometry. Their investigation resulted in this final answer: the strongest web that can be stretched the widest must have five supports.

Do you have SOLE?

I have launched my SOLE toolkit – designed to empower teacher and parents to create their own spaces for sparking children’s curiosity and agency. My team and I are excited to see more educators trying this future-oriented pedagogical tool on for size and then sharing their learnings so we can all benefit from the hive mind.

Meanwhile, my team and I will build The School in the Cloud, a learning laboratory in India where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online. Technology, architecture, creative and educational partners will help us design and build it. Kids will help us explore a range of cloud-based, scalable approaches to self-directed learning. A global network of educators and retired teachers will support and engage the children through the web.

A new view

We need a curriculum of big questions, examinations where children can talk, share and use the internet, and new, peer assessment systems. We need children from a range of economic and geographic backgrounds and an army of visionary educators. We need a pedagogy free from fear and focused on the magic of children’s innate quest for information and understanding. In the networked age, we need schools, not structured like factories, but like clouds. Join us up there.

Professor Sugata Mitra is the winner of the TED Prize 2013. TED is a non-prof it organisation devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: technology, entertainment and design. Since then, its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences – the TED Conference on America’s West Coast each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, UK each summer – TED includes the awardwinning TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programmes, and the annual TED Prize. To learn more, visit http://www.ted.com/pages/about. Mitra is professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK. This piece appears here with his kind permission, and you can watch him at: http://www.ted.com/playlists/89/sugata_mitra_s_5_favorite_educ.html.

References:

1. See, for example, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/education-philosophy/.

2. Cloud computing is the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network (typically the internet). (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing.)

Category: Winter 2013

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