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Saturday, July 02, 2016

Sugata Mitra – the professor with his head in the cloud | Online learning | The Guardian

Photo: Peter Wilby
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The story of how Sugata Mitra put a computer in a hole in a Delhi wall at the end of the last century and how uneducated children used it to teach themselves all manner of things is now well known. So is the story of how Mitra’s work inspired the novel, Q&A, that became the film Slumdog Millionaire. But no government has taken more than a passing interest in his vision. Nor, although teachers have often tried his methods and reported miraculous results, have professional associations and university education departments responded with much enthusiasm. Seventeen years after Mitra conceived the idea that a computer could act as a kind of village well from which children could freely draw knowledge, the educational world treats him with deep scepticism.

So when I meet him over lunch at Newcastle University, where he is professor of educational technology, I intend to ask how he plans to get his ideas more widely adopted and what answers he has to critics who accuse him of “magical thinking”.

But Mitra launches into a speech about “what is happening to the world”. He says: “A generation of children has grown up with continuous connectivity to the internet. A few years ago, nobody had a piece of plastic to which they could ask questions and have it answer back. The Greeks spoke of the oracle of Delphi. We’ve created it. People don’t talk to a machine. They talk to a huge collective of people, a kind of hive. Our generation [Mitra is 64] doesn’t see that. We just see a lot of interlinked web pages.

“In India, I found two illiterate people texting each other. They had invented a language for themselves which you and I would not understand. I wonder: are there such things as illiterates at all? Yes, if we give them an examination on grammar, but maybe we’ve got the definition wrong and there’s a new literacy that we’re unaware of.

“You can ask nine-year-olds to find out about the entanglement of particles and they will come back to you and explain in their nine-year-old way – not as a graduate would of course – exactly what it is. Things can be in two places at the same time, they say.”

Mitra says all this with fluency, conviction and wit, laced with just enough self-deprecation and speculative doubt to win you over. He’s a star turn at conferences, even if audiences frequently shout “rubbish” at him. “I hate to say it, but I think they invite me for entertainment,” he says.

And what entertainment! He brushes aside all established thinking about education. Examinations as we know them will have to go, he says. In India, the army is needed to stop students taking their smartphones into exams. Before long, the soldiers will need to ban wristwatches and eye-glasses.

“Within five years, you will not be able to tell if somebody is consulting the internet or not. The internet will be inside our heads anywhere and at any time. What then will be the value of knowing things? We shall have acquired a new sense. Knowing will have become collective.”

The status of reading, writing and arithmetic as fundamental skills – that, too, must be questioned, Mitra argues. Though “not usually a particularly aggressive fellow”, he has become aggressive about this, he says. “I can find on my phone a piece of Japanese and the phone will read it to me in English. So can I read Japanese? No. But if you imagine me and my phone as a single entity, yes. Very soon, asking somebody to read without their phone will be like telling them to read without their glasses.”

Mitra with year 4 pupils at
St Aidan’s Church of England primary school, Gateshead.
Photograph: Mark Pinder 

Even Jean Piaget’s supposedly immutable stages of child development – familiar to every trained teacher – now need a rethink, according to Mitra. His iconoclastic approach is, I think, at least partly attributable to his having no experience of school teaching and no academic background in education. His visionary ideas are reminiscent of the de-schooling movement of the early 1970s. That, too, argued that the conventional baggage of education, such as teaching knowledge in classrooms, was outdated. That, too, was led by a man with no professional background in education: Ivan Illich, an Austrian Catholic priest and philosopher. It faded away within a decade. 

Related links

Photo by it's learning
Professor Sugata Mitra talking at the it's learning conference 2008 in Bergen, Norway.
He delivered an inspiring and witty keynote where he presented his well-known Hole in the Wall experiments.

Beyond the Hole in the Wall:
Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning
(Kindle Single) (TED Books)
"Ten years ago, educator Sugata Mitra and his colleagues cracked open a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed a networked PC, and left it there for the local children to freely explore..."

Source: The Guardian

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