(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: