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Questions About Sugata Mitra & His “Holes In The Wall”


(Also see A Response To Questions About Sugata Mitra)

Professor Sugata Mitra is famous for his “holes in the wall” experiments where he placed computers in impoverished Indian communities and students “self-organized” their instruction.

Now, with a substantial grant from TED Talks, he’s planning an ambitious expansion of his program.

You certainly can’t beat his story, and I’m sure that some children have benefited from his work. I’ve got to say, though, I’ve had questions about his approach for awhile, and it goes back to my nineteen year community organizing career (prior to becoming a teacher ten years ago).

When I was organizing, I periodically would hear or read about people’s romanticized view of community organizing — about how everything just needs to “bubble-up” from “the people.”

Well, that’s not what organizing is really about. Yes, the issues and relationships are based in local communities. However, we organizers are not “potted plants” (a great phrase, unfortunately borrowed from Oliver North’s attorney during the Iran/Contra hearings many years ago). We’re paid (by our members and their institutions) to think about strategy and tactics, and have the time to do it while our members are dealing with the myriad challenges of their own lives.

We then take the concerns they have told us and develop ideas for tactics and strategies which we share with them. Then — and this is the key — they react to our ideas, change them, modify them, and make them into their own.

That’s how change and growth typically happens.

From what I read, Professor Mitra raises important questions about how teaching is often done ineffectively in our traditional institutions, and key questions about the role of the teacher. It just seems a little too simplistic to me:

We need teachers to do different things. The teacher has to ask the question, and tell the children what they have learned. She comes in at the two ends, a cap at the end and a starter at the beginning.

I also find it interesting that, in that same interview, he says his approach only works with 8-12 year olds — not younger or older children, and not with adults.

A search for critiques of his work are easy to find online, though I have no way of judging their validiy. There are many that question the accuracy of his reports on the effectiveness of his experiments.

I’m concerned that when people make broad claims for success, and then are not successful, often “the baby gets tossed with the bathwater” — that many of the valid questions about how schools function now that Professor Mitra makes will be dismissed if, and when, he doesn’t deliver his promised results.

And there is reason to be concerned. I’ve posted in the past about studies that show pretty clearly that Professor Mitra’s kind of “unassisted discovery learning” is typically ineffective.

What do you think? Am I being overly-critical? Am I misrepresenting Professor Mitra’s work? What might I be missing?

(You also might be interested in Hacking at Education: TED, Technology Entrepreneurship, Uncollege, and the Hole in the Wall by Audrey Watters)

For your information, here’s Professor Mitra’s recent TED Talk:

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. The idea did seem somehow incomplete in the talk. It almost came across like he had just watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and came up with a social experiment.

    My issue with many of these TED talks especially newer ones that are education in nature is that people tend to add another log to the fire of “innovation” and “excellence” that we need to implement now with little fore thought. Case in point would be recent Bill Gates ed talk that was offensive and downright disingenuous. Now another Gates edict will be cause a stampede of grant writing to get a share of that 5 billion for cameras in the classroom. I couldn’t help but respond to the Gates talk and a related Huffington Post Education piece by the woman in the video that Gates showed.

    I think TED has expanded too fast, the quality has declined and some of the ideas may have negative unintended consequences.

    One thing that I was intrigued by was the voice to text program that was used. I would find that incredibly useful for the second language learners that I teach to improve their oral pronunciation skills.

  2. It works… And here is our efforts to fund and scale it.. ….. Have u experienced SOLE first hand by sitting in on a class of students? I have… In 2 months of 70 min sessions the grade 4/5 split class tested 1 to 2 years advanced!!!!! The testing was the regular independent provincial govt testing… The director of the school board is now a proponenet of SOLE and its spread to 10 other class rooms in just the 2 months.. There are many other SOLE classes in public schools hat we have connected with that have very similar results.

  3. I’ve Also seen it work with younger ages.. Kindergarten and highschool and adults…

  4. In my class the students develop the questions. Once done they then research answers to the questions and write up their answers. They then stand in front of their peers and present their findings. And at the end they face their toughest critics, their peers as their peers ask questions and discuss the findings. At times it is not pretty as the class critiques their research and presentation skills. In the end it works. Reading levels have improved. Presentation skills have improved. Weaker students now feel they can contribute equally because they have thoughts and questions that before would never have made it down onto paper. Everyone is happy because they have been a part of something that allows them to feel like a part of the learning, rather than the end result.

    • Bill,

      What age are your students, and what is their socio-economic background?


      • Larry they are Grade age 9 and 10. The income levels are low middle to low income levels. Before I started this it was a struggle getting anything from the boys. Now participation is pretty much equal.

    • Sounds like “Project-based Learning” or the Inquiry method. Both are student-centered learning methods where the students begin with an open-ended question and work to find answers and present their findings with the teacher as facilitator. I use this method with a variety of other methods including teacher-centered methods such as direct instruction with mini-lessons, and text-centered methods like close reading. I think that variety helps to mitigate the negative unintended consequences of each method and highlights the positives.

  5. How might the extreme poverty and lack of digital devices in the streets of India affect the kids’ curiosity and collaboration as compared to American kids in different cultural situations?

    Mitra’s description of his own work is compelling and he’s trying to scale it. I hope he and others do some rigorous measuring.

  6. Thank you for this neat overview of Sugata Mitra’s arguments, Larry. You can find my commentary on his latest plenary, given at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate last April, at

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