Independent Learning (to the max)

I recently came across a TED talk given by Sugata Mitra, a Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University. He reckoned there are places in every country where good teachers are rarely found. (In Scotland, we can wonder about the range of job applicants some Glasgow schools receive compared to their counterparts in East Ren.) Mitra was dealing with extremes: rural and slum areas of his home country of India where many children didn’t even attend school. He set out to answer the question of whether he could get kids to learn without guidance from teachers or indeed a school setting.

What he did was set up computers with internet access in public locations, left them then came back after a few months. The kids living in these areas hadn’t encountered a computer before. When he returned, he found that the children had organised themselves into small groups and worked together to become, basically, computer literate. In his next study, he found that Tamil-speaking children could teach themselves (and each other) biotechnology in English so effectively that they achieved similar test scores to children taught the same subject in the local state school. His work inspired Vikas Swarup to write “Q&A” which was later made into “Slumdog Millionaire”.

Mitra moved to England after this work and has looked to integrate these kinds of teaching strategies into mainstream education. “Self-Organised Learning Environments” (SOLEs) are small groups of children sat around one computer connected to the internet. They may talk to each other and other groups, using the internet to answer open ended questions set by the teacher e.g. “how does an iPad know where it is?” (You can even ask these questions in another language – translating into English can kick off their inquiry) The teacher acts as a mediator, encouraging and guiding the students in their discovery process.

I know this will stimulate responses of a “oh and now local authorities can just get computers in to replace teachers”, but it should rather be thought of as good evidence that we can give students more control over their learning, that they can learn from each other and that learning is best achieved by discovering, inquiring, making mistakes, “doing”. A perennial problem is the low achievers in our classrooms. Some boys may be dismissed at being “good at football and at Xbox”, but hang on, that’s still learning isn’t it? How many of us have learned how to effectively spring an offside trap or complete Call of Duty 3? Outside of school, kids learn constantly so what’s going on with the significant minority who struggle when they get into classrooms? It would be naïve to say sticking them in front of a computer is going to cure all their educational ills, but Mitra’s work is a  reminder not to underestimate what kids can achieve on their own and when they assist each other. It’s also a warning to educators: imagine being the teacher whose students are getting the same grades as the streetkids teaching themselves?

Sugata Mitra links:!/sugatam


After writing this, I noticed that another pedagoo-er (Kenny O’Donnell @Kenny73) has also been inspired by ‘Hole in the Wall’ and has even tried similar himself:

3 thoughts on “Independent Learning (to the max)

  1. Callum Mitchell Post author

    Cheers Kenny, missed your post before. Mitra’s work is inspiring stuff and really thought-provoking. I get the feeling that many teachers would be put off as they wouldn’t want to be accused of not doing any work! In terms of understanding what technology and the internet can do for education we’re just at the very start of the road I think.

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