If children have interest, then education happens.
At a recent conference in New York, I spent a week exploring alternative education from an American perspective (a lot of talk about homeschooling, unschooling, “deschooling”, which I will come back to in a later post). A refreshing departure was a keynote speech by Sugata Mitra; he was the first at the conference to focus on ACCESS for students who don’t have the choice of any school at all!
Mitra is the man behind the “hole in the wall” experiments, and has gained popularity through TED Talks (such as this one, and this one). Essentially, Mitra placed a computer in the wall of a slum in New Delhi in 1999, where kids had never used a computer before. With an internet connection, Mitra left the computer for kids to play with. What he found was that groups of kids, within days, were able to learn impressive things on their own - from browsing to recording music, to googling their homework!
That initial experiment evolved into Mitra’s current project (funded through Newcastle University in the UK), in creating SOLEs - Self-Organized Learning Environments.
He clarifies that the term self-organized is not the same as self-directed or self-regulated learning, but rather connected to Chaos Theory in physics. A post on the School in the Cloud website describes Mitra’s approach (emphasis mine):
A self organising system is basically a concept that comes out of maths and physics which is that if you allow a system to be chaotic then, under certain circumstances, you get spontaneous order.
The idea then, is to give kids the freedom to explore, through small group collaboration and the internet, “Big questions". At the end of it all, they are able to present their findings to the larger group - turning initial chaos into order that makes sense.
These environments may or may not have a physical teacher present in the classroom; in many remote areas, there are no teachers willing or available to teach. What Mitra did show us though, were some impressive images of these SOLE environments - large computer screens for collaborative use and for public visibility, and comfortable, open spaces for kids to move around. Many kids in Mitra’s experimental classrooms are becoming English Language Learners through the guidance of virtual “grannies” - people of a range of ages who volunteer to connect with the kids online, guiding their english progress.
Another key to the SOLE approach is the value of “Big Questions” posed by facilitators. The School in the Cloud site explains:
Big Questions are the spark that ignites a SOLE session. Asking an interesting and relevant question is the thing that fires children’s imaginations and curiosity. They are meant to inspire a child's imagination and encourage a genuine process of discovery. Developing a big question can also be the hardest part of running a SOLE session.
Mitra boldly calls his School in the Cloud experiments "the Future of Learning”. I find Mitra’s exploration fascinating. I think he has a few things right with his experiments: access, technology, big questions, relevance of schooling for the future.
But I also feel there are pieces missing.
The first, is the need for learning beyond the internet. We know that learning also happens in the outside environment and through hands-on skills development, that I believe need to be designed into educational programs. Also, facilitation/teaching is needed to guide deeper learning and expose students to areas they may not find on their own. Finally, Mitra’s assessments so far of these kids’ learning has centred around test scores which don’t assess deep learning. Pedagogically, there is more to explore here.
Nonetheless, the School in the Cloud experiments are a humbling reminder for teachers and parents to not get in the way of real learning, and to keep in mind that “If children have interest, education happens,” as Mitra mentions in his talks.
A passionate educator.. on a quest for a schooling model to love!