Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

A Response To Questions About Sugata Mitra

| 24 Comments

Sugata Mitra has now joined the active discussion thread on this post

A few days ago, I posted Questions About Sugata Mitra & His “Holes In The Wall.”

Here’s a guest post Rory Gallagher wrote in response. Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section.

Rory Gallagher’s “bio”: Teacher of French and Japanese at a UK secondary school (13-18). Interested in complexity theory, self-organised learning, equal intelligence and, well, the whole learning process. An ignorant (but curious) schoolmaster… I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Sugata Mitra when he came to give a talk at my school in October 2012, and have stayed in contact with him since to exchange ideas, to update him on my experiments with SOLEs in the classroom, and to share with him my research on complexity thinking.

Professor Sugata Mitra certainly seems to raise more questions than he answers, but that is, I believe, the essence of his philosophy. He challenges us to take ownership of, and to justify, our own beliefs on education and pedagogy. His child-like curiosity is infectious, and at many moments as he recounts his experiences one genuinely gets the impression that he is “winging it”.

His ideas and and the publicity he has received, starting with his contribution to the film “Slumdog millionaire”, and continuing with his TED talks and the TED prize this year, have sparked a great deal of debate and criticism. TED talks themselves have been criticised for giving a public forum (and thereby credence and gravitas) to ideas that have not been academically verified. Whilst Mitra has published his findings and he is encouraging others to do the same (there is a growing movement of teachers experimenting with Self-Organised Learning Environments), much of the evidence so far is anecdotal.

Interestingly much of the criticism of Mitra on the web seems to refer back to this article by Donald Clark. Clark himself is referring to an article by Payal Arora  which is far less critical of Mitra or his ideas. Arora makes the difference between the idea and the initiative, and suggests that many Hole in the Wall projects failed because of the lack of community help to run them.

Another criticism is that Mitra is “anti-teacher” and his use of Arthur C Clarke’s quotation – “Any teacher that can be replaced by a robot, should be” –  can certainly be interpreted in many ways. Mitra’s (actually Negroponte’s) oft-quoted question “Is knowing obsolete?” is highly provocative, but it is indicative of the wider interest that Mitra’s ideas are generating that the British council and WISE – Qatar Foundation were recently seriously debating whether the teaching profession as we have known it will become obsolete.

Questions to further provoke and engage.

  1. Why does Mitra provoke such a negative reaction among some people? Are his ideas dangerous?
  2. What do the findings that Mitra has published actually demonstrate? Is there only anecdotal evidence?
  3. Can education really be a self-organising environment where learning is an emergent phenomenon? Is it already in certain cases?
  4. What is the role of the teacher in the future of education? Will it change fundamentally?
  5. Will we be discussing Sugata Mitra in 10 years time?
Print Friendly

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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

24 Comments

  1. let kids be kids. pure humans who soak interesting information. and sometimes naughty and unfocused. Thinking only of the reward, and not the work to get to the reward. The role of the traditional teacher has evolved to become instiller of good values to ensure future decisions for the good of all, facilitator of an environment of peace, tolerance and engagement for efficient uptake of usable knowledge, and guider in selecting what real world problems and relevant questions to challenge kids with such that they can offer innovative solutions while being excited to learn. the modern day teacher is that of student. On one hand, there is a risk that individuals with strengths and interests might not fully realize their full potential. However, with a teaching approach that encourages the learning of practical knowledge for solving problems that benefit humanity as a whole and not that of one individual’s own ego driven behaviors, we create citizens of this planet whose priorities are the the helping of others over themselves. There is much truth to be learnt and shared. I really like the idea of self sustaining systems. Building a fully functional fruit forest from non fertile land takes about 6 years of close care and monitoring. Similarly in education, intervention is necessary to ensure the purpose is that kids can learn on their own in addition to teach how to learn and teach because if you teach how to learn and teach, then those learners can teach others to learn and teach and so forth. Its almost as if though individual genetic, innate intelligence is becoming less important while unique experiences in a specific problem area eg. Energy efficiency of solar panels or legal tax structure loopholes accessible to few or unruly lending practices or antiquated teaching methodologies etc etc I hear this increasingly more. “I don’t care how “smart or philosophical you are. I want to know what you can do!” While I agree somewhat, I also think its pivotal that kids be encouraged to discuss with other kids philosophical discourse regarding existence and figure out common human goals from early on. This I believe can result in more creative solutions. Goals can evolve through generations as problem types change. free thinking in conversation, unbound by simple spoonfed answers and practiced to quench the everlasting question “why?” Brings humanity closer to understanding we all are more similar and connected than many religion, companies, families, and other beneficiaries of artificial conflict would like you to think. Technology can mediate such discourse globally and dispel the fears of billions. self sustaining systems can be dangerous with the wrong initial philosophies. Which is why it’s pivotal that students are genuinely free. For example, the way creationism vs evolution is taught in schools is somewhat farfetched. The concept of a conscious entity with a purpose that supersedes any single individual. Discussions regarding the reasons for such spawning should be freely discussed. However it is easy for me to associate creationism with existing mainstream religions. A simple spoonfed answer. though the law states its necessity in textbooks so that “students critically analyze key aspects of evolutionary theory.” which to me sounds like balderdash. What do you think?

    • Thank you very much for your comments. You touch on many issues here, but I agree that the fostering of critical thinking (perhaps through the teaching of philosophy in schools) is an important point.

  2. I think Mitra’s ideas are only dangerous to educators who have not yet caught on to the 21st century. If a teacher still values the sage on the stage model, with neat little desks in a row and compliant children (which I see far too often), then his ideas are indeed dangerous because they threaten the foundation on which those teachers stand. Teachers’ roles have changed – knowledge can be found everywhere by anyone with access to the Internet. Teachers are more important as engagers of knowledge… We inspire, provoke, engage, and encourage, much as Mitra’s does when he puts a computer in the village center. If we fail in that mission, then yes, we probably should be replaced.

    • Thanks for your comment, Laura. Teachers who are unable or unwilling to adapt may well be threatened by Mitra’s ideas. Professor Mitra has stated in interviews that his is definitely not “anti-teacher”, and his work stresses the importance of teachers (and other participants!) in the learning process.

  3. I applaud Mitra’s effort to bring learning to remote regions without access to good teachers. If we are to progress in learning, we must engage in experimentation and the SOLE’s are not very far removed from the IB which poses a big question and encourages students to grapple with it. Perhaps the difference is that the teacher (I prefer the word “facilitator” in view of how the teacher role has changed in my 46 year teaching career) encourages and guides somewhat more consciously in light of the stringent high stakes testing in which we are all involved but I do not find this far removed from Mitra’s methodology! I also would ask that you consider children who are school dropouts (my own daughter and myself) – we learn and do not stop learning with the absence of a “teacher.” The Australian “School of the Air” and other unconventional approaches to remote education surely has a lengthy history of excellent results!
    Perhaps a more helpful approach might be to consider the changing role of the teacher. I hardly ever use that word – I prefer “facilitator” – I find when I set a group of students to work on a problem that interests them and engages their minds, I hardly intervene at all. We must change the dynamic and examine ideas in a scholarly way. It seems that Mitra is doing a service as he plans to investigate results and build a full curriculum but needs data to do so. I am excited by the possibilities, not afraid of them and applaud out of the box thinkers such as the high school students in Detroit who asked the school board to give them their academic dollars as the school to which they were assigned was failing them and when the board refused, they walked out into the park and started a “freedom school” of their own! We are going to see more of this. Let’s be proactive and examine good ideas and give them time to produce results that stand up to scrutiny.

  4. My only questions to Professor Mitra is around the content of the SOLE’s that he is creating. It seems much of the research is funded by companies that are looking for cheap, english speaking workers to employee for customer-service related jobs.

    The research around SOLE’s is important, but should not be utilized as a means to exploit cheap workers around the world. It’s impossible to tell for sure if this is happening. Would love to hear Professor Mitra address it.

    • The initial Hole in the Wall project was funded by NIIT and the IFC, and there may be some concern over the aims of these two organisations – namely the expansion of the use of technology in education, and the encouragement of a private sector in education. I do not believe, however, that they are dicatating what children are accessing via the internet.

      Two of the most important results that came from the Hole in the Wall experiments were that children can learn by themselves basic English and basic computer skills. This does not mean that they will be exploited by employers. Surely it puts them in a better position than many of their peers?

      I would love to see any references that you have linking Mitra’s ideas to exploitation of cheap labour. Are you quoting this link? http://www.digitalcounterrevolution.co.uk/2013/sugata-mitra-edtech-empire-ted-prize-talk/

      Unfortunately education in general has historically been used as a tool by nations and business to provide cheap labour. Personally I do not see that as being a danger with SOLEs – they are freeing up the curriculum and encouraging independent thought.

      • I am only speaking from anecdotal evidence. Many of the examples, including the idea behind the Granny cloud, seems to focus on teaching students in foreign countries how to speak English. That’s why I’m curious to hear the reasoning behind techniques such as the “Granny Cloud”/

        I completely agree with the potential here, but I’m not sure why local people can not be trained in the same techniques as a “granny” over Skype. I’d much rather see local people become more involved in education in their community than simply outsource it to english speaking “grannies”.

        It should be possible to train local people to demonstrate curiosity, to act as example learners for the children, and to provide encouraging words to students as they struggle.

    • I think I might somewhat understand what you mean by exploit. The results of implementing SOLEs could be that of better trained employees for major technology and consulting industry needs. Teaching basic English and basic computer skills are just that. Basic. It’s similar to teaching a baby how to walk but not exploring why they walk, which is important. To get kids to answer why for themselves through guided questions. You will also get some hilarious responses guaranteed. The key is a philosophy of anti-imperialism must be instituted in order for long term progress. A system where people are not dependent on the imperialist technology industry and vice versa. The content should definitely be carefully shown to include practical needs and inspire creativity in those practical needs. If they had access to anything who’s to say the kids wouldn’t discover pron and violent videos and other content that inspires dreams of INDIVIDUAL superhero style success like athletes and actors. Well this should be where the role of the facilitator is emphasized for it’s importance. I mean what would realistically be done if the kids were to start watching pron? The facilitator could either punish them, deeming them immature and not yet ready. Or they could use the resources of the internet to teach them about sex. Like this, the thirst for any type of knowledge can be quenched in real time, thus eliminating misguided speculation. Speculations is good but not if its misguided. One of the problems with our current schooling system globally is the prioritization of the needs of the elite companies and people when it should be that of the greater good. For example, the role of doctors, pharmacists and insurers are widely considered respectable professions. However, there exist much more deeper rooted problems with our industry such as incentivizing doctors to overprescribe drugs that are not needed. The use of SOLEs could provide information about the problems of our current healthcare system and provide alternative preventative medicinal means such as ayurveda and accupuncture to the mainstream. It is unfortunate that today, experts in law and science have gained their label through a conservative, antiquated, risk-aversive education structure whose actions protect the status quo, in many aspects of life. Is this what you mean by exploit? The article Rory included does a much better job than I did but is, in my non-expert opinion, too dismissive of technology’s potential to be used to thwart the imperialist culture of this planet rather than propogate it :P

    • The Granny Cloud which is a key element of the SOLEs has existed mainly without funding. The emediators encourage children to explore the language through stories, songs, games and activities [simulating to some extent the way one would have picked up one's first language]. And it is certainly not a one way street. Over and over again, we observe both the ‘grannies’ and the children learning about each other’s culture and growing in acceptance of different lifestyles, ways of thinking etc .

      The reason behind the SOLEs is to ensure that children [even in disadvantaged settings] will be able to access the resources on the internet to explore BIG questions. Even if we wanted to [which we DO NOT], it wouldn’t be possible to dictate content if you were using the SOLE approach. We’ve often left interesting software on desktops [inviting them to try them out] but children will use what interests them, that fits in with their current capabilities, and then move on to other interesting questions with different group members enabling each other.

  5. Hi Anne. Many thanks for your comment. I love your statement ‘we learn and do not stop learning with the absence of a “teacher.”’ It sums up a lot of things and makes me think of Ivan Illych’s book Deschooling Society. I agree that we should encourage “out of the box” thinkers like Mitra, and like the Detroit students. There are many ways of learning, but they all must involve the learner!

  6. A brief answer to your first question:

    It is interesting that you assume that Mitra might be perceived as dangerous. Quite the opposite. And this is what angers some of us. He has found a way to tap into a desire for change – a desire that could lead in some deliciously dangerous directions – but then defuses the danger completely by creating the impression that the only changes that need to be made are those that leave the prevaling empire intact – an empire that, in his discourse, never comes into view because the only place he sees oppression is in brick and mortar schools construed as vestiges of an empire that no longer exists.

    In one of the comments above someone said: “Let children be children.” This is a potentially very dangerous idea, but it stops being dangerous when we limit ourselves to talking about children. Older children (whom Mitra avoids) will become aware of the world that awaits them. Having beome imbued with the values of the SOLE, they need to see a vision of the world in which we let people be people. If collaboration, creativity and power emerging from below are so important, surely they need to be at the centre of our adult world as well. Mitra’s 2013 TED talk created the impression that with the new tech that kind of society is just around the corner. Just as the tech will liberate the children, so it will also liberate the workers. How can you not get angry when you hear such a naive reading of historical trends?

    There is something potentially revolutionary here, but Mitra succeeds in turning it into the pedagogical equivalent of a bumper sticker. How can we not get angry?

    But it is not simply the loss of revolutionary potential; it is also Mitra’s criminal derrogation of duty as a public intellectual. We feel it is something verging on a crime against the intellect for a man in such a privileged position not to acknowledge his debt to thinkers like Rousseau, for instance. Mitra takes his audience into the shallows and leaves them there, instead of helping his audience appreciate that there is a topic here that has depth and historical breadth. In effect, his SOLEs are a way of applying one concern voiced by Rousseau in the 1760s, and applying it only to a tiny slice of education to a very limited age group. Rousseau’s book (“Emile”) is 480 pages long. If he had had access to the technology, he might have devoted 4 or 5 pages of that book to the SOLEs. The other 475 pages are rich with masses of other ideas about how learner autonomy can be encouraged, and how we might bring children up so that we really do open up the prospect of history taking a very different course.

    One of the most depressing things for those who believe passionately in democracy is the poverty of public debate. Mitra does nothing to challenge that. He seems perfectly happy to work with tweet-length cliches when wrapping up a 17-minute monologue that leaves his audience with the impression that there is nothing that needs to be read or that there is nothing that they need to investigate further. All they need to do is download the SOLE package from the TED site and get cracking.

    Have you read his latest piece in the Guardian? It is a sad state of affairs when the people hailed as the greatest minds in education write and say stuff which cannot be distinguished from advertising copy.

    Will we be discussing Mitra in 10 years time? If we are, it will simply confirm the depths to which we have sunk.

    • It would be very difficult to reply to the depth and breadth of the arguments in your post, but I will try to address one or two points I felt were adressed particularly at me rather than at Mitra himself. I do not assume that people perceive Mitra as dangerous, I note that there is a negative reaction. I ask the question if his ideas are dangerous as a way of stimulating debate.

      I have tried to use SOLEs in my classroom, with students aged 13-14. I am very interested to discuss the results of this project with people who are interested. I do not believe that Mitra leaves us with the idea that “there is nothing that needs to be read or that there is nothing that they need to investigate further”. On the contrary, I find that Mitra is stimulating a public debate and inspiring people in education to read further on this subject, and to investigate and experiment. The proof of this is in this very forum for debate on Mitra’s ideas. As I said in my post above, Mitra is asking challenging questions.

      I love your comment “He has found a way to tap into a desire for change – a desire that could lead in some deliciously dangerous directions..” but do not agree that he has defused the situation. He has opened (or re-opened as you rightly point out) a debate and I look forward to continuing and participating in this debate.
      Thank you for your ideas, and I will keep reading your (is the we a plural or a “royal” we?!) posts.

  7. Sugata Mitra is dangerous only to those who perceive that their circle in the universe is changing and do not wish to change. I have read and listened to many comments stating why this won’t work. Every day I stand in my class and watch in wonder at how much my students are enjoying it and using it. They come up with the questions, form groups , research and present it as well as taking questions and criticism from their peers. I find that I am growing disdainful of theorists whose knowledge of application on a daily basis is woefully lacking.

    • Great to hear from you Bill. Have read previous posts of yours about your use of SOLEs. I look forward to hearing more and more stories of how these ideas are working out for people in the classroom. Mitra has just starting the ball rolling: it is up to us to experiment for ourselves, and to start collating the evidence we produce.

    • Very well said Bill. I’m head of a very small school and we are just about to start the new school session. We are going to adopt the SOLE method and use this to, we hope, teach the children how to learn. The traditional way of ‘teaching’ doesn’t work and is not fit for the 21st century. We do not want to create anymore passive learners who are told they are doing well because they can memorise facts.
      Teaching children how to ask questions and be curious about their world while collaborating and communication is now our aim.
      Delighted to hear you are having success and actually ‘doing’ rather than pontificating.

      • Well said Fiona! I would love to hear more about your school and how the project evolves. Please try to stay in touch via this forum, or by email if you prefer. If you search my name and “thomas hardye school” you can contact me via linked in or through my school website. Look forward to hearing from you!

      • The message from thsjapan was from me – sorry I was logged in under another name when I posted…

  8. For the first time in my rather lengthy teaching career all of my students are reading at at mid grade level to well above grade level. I credit the work they are doing using SOLE for this. They are more engaged in their learning.

  9. SOLEs work anywhere with an Internet connection, with or without teachers. In the hands of good teachers, they result in very effective learning. In the absence of teachers, they sometimes produce astonishing results. So, I would think, there is a case for doing them.

    Schools cannot be built, as of now, without teachers. There are many places where they cannot be built at all.

    Some of my recent work appears anecdotal because a key paper on the subject of SOLEs in England was rejected by one journal and is with referees with another journal since January. I hope it gets published one day….

    • Hi Sugata,
      Thanks for joining the discussion. I look forward to reading the paper, and can only encourage those teachers who have not yet tried SOLEs to have a go and see for themselves. I am sure that the academic evidence will gradually build up as more people try this method of helping children to learn. It is also good to be reminded of the context of the initial experiments.

  10. I have been using SOLEs in my junior classroom for two years now and support the concept whole heartedly. I have seen very clear, positive results, putting students in charge of their learning while providing them with the necessary resources and support. They grow in independence every day and never fail to exceed my expectations. I often learn more from them then I feel I am teaching. This last year, I placed two computers in each of my groups of four students (class size of 28) and explained that one computer was strictly for research and the other was strictly for communicating, collaborating (often using public documents) and creating (using using a wikispace). Again, I was amazed at the results. Conceptually, I think of it as placing the students mid stream in the data flow, and I’ll even assign one student each to a mouse and one student each to a keyboard. They research, collaborate, and create in real time. It is simply awesome to watch. Thank you Sugata for your inspiration.

    • Thanks Ray for your feedback – it is great to hear from teachers who are using SOLEs. Would love to learn more about your experiments – do you have a blog or webpage? Thanks again and best wishes, Rory.

  11. Thank you for this piece, Rory, and in particular for your thought-provoking questions at the end.

    I’ve written my own critique of Dr Mitra’s educational approach in a post entitled ‘Can you kill a goat by staring at it? A critical look at minimally invasive education’, which has just been published as a guest post on the Philosophy Foundation’s blog at http://philosophyfoundation.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/

    I noticed that in your reply to a comment above, you proposed philosophy in schools as a promising way of fostering critical thinking, so I expect you’ll be sympathetic to my arguments in support of collaborative philosophical enquiry among children. I’ve written more about this my own blog, The Philosophy Club – http://thephilosophyclub.wordpress.com – particularly in my posts in April and May this year. I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.