A visionary in the field of education and technology, Prof Sugata Mitra’s thoughts and concepts have seemed radical to many, and just plain reasonable to most. From his observation that all children have the potential to learn, whether formally or informally, to allowing internet in the examination hall, his views have found resonance – and some healthy resistance! – worldwide.
His statements mirror his revolutionary thought process, in a manner that’s simple and inspiring…
Knowing Vs. Learning
“Once we get past knowing, we move into an era of learning. Knowing is about repeating facts, like ‘I know how far it is from A to B’ or you could say, ‘I know to multiply three digit numbers’ or ‘I know that you are not in the best of moods’—these are different kinds of knowing. I think this is no longer the most important factor in education. Learning is the new skill. Imagination, creation and asking new questions are at its core.”
System Called School
“The Victorians created a global computer made up of people. It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine. In order to keep that running, you need lots and lots of people. They must be identical to each other … So they created a system, called school, to make parts [for this human computer]. They must have good handwriting, they must be able to read, and they must be able to add, subtract and do division… But these skills aren’t as necessary with the advent of computers.”
“The best schools tend to have the best teachers, not to mention parents who supervise homework, so there is less need for self-organised learning. But where a child comes from a less supportive home environment, where there are family tensions perhaps, their schoolwork can suffer. They need to be taught to think and study for themselves.”
“We spent 7000 years debating this issue of how do we educate everybody. We have never lived in a world where one standard educated everyone. And given that we have failed for over 7000 years, perhaps we will never have one standard. Maybe the right conclusion is that we do away with standard education. Maybe the convergence of technology and curiosity will solve this problem.”
“Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain - to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are.”
“We live in a world where, when we want to know something, we can learn it in two minutes. Could it be, the devastating question, that we’re heading towards a future where knowing is obsolete?”
Thinking Vs. Rote Learning
“In most schools, we measure children on what they know. By and large, they have to memorise the content of whatever test is coming up. Because measuring the results of rote learning is easy, rote prevails. What kids know is just not important in comparison with whether they can think.”
“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.”
“Profound changes to how children access vast information is yielding new forms of peer-to-peer and individual-guided learning.”
“Why do we have schools in the first place? I’ve been looking for an answer to that question for quite some time and there are many complex answers about fulfilling the human potential which I don’t quite understand. We view children like batteries to charge. What if you do not have an opportunity to go to school, are you only a half-charged human? All humans have the potential to learn, formally or informally.”
“Our current definition of education is to produce individuals who can fit into a bureaucratic machine. Education prepares to be one piece of a machine. Our current education system produces spare parts for the machine. Everything falls into place and that is why everyone dresses the same way and why everyone is taught to know the same things. The result is a society that creates identical factory workers. The day of the factory is done. The West needs a fresh model.”
“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 doesn’t see that. We just see a lot of interlinked web pages.”
Role of Teacher
“In Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs) the teacher becomes a friend. It’s as though a group of you are going somewhere unknown and you have a trustworthy friend, who also doesn’t know where you are going, but who could be useful. A comforting person to have around.”
Internet in the Examination Hall
“The examiner would need to ask questions that are much deeper, to which the internet doesn’t have the obvious answer. Change the environment and the assessment process, and that would very gently and quite quickly create a very profound change in the education system.”
“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.”
Education & Interest
“I got an interesting phone call once from Colombo, from the late Arthur C. Clarke, who said, ‘I want to see what's going on’. And he couldn't travel, so I went over there. He said two interesting things, ‘A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!’ The second thing he said was that, ‘If children have interest, then education happens’. And I was doing that in the field, so every time I would watch it and think of him.”
“Technology is no longer just an aid—a crutch to help you do things better or more quickly. Our tech is now increasingly doing things for us without us even asking. Some people find that scary or even distasteful, but I find it a good sign. On the way to the airport today my cell phone was updating me with traffic conditions automatically, and asked if I’d like to download my boarding pass. Technology has always been assistive, but in a reactive way. Now it’s proactive, and that’s a shift I like.”
“I think we need automated methods for testing questions which are open-ended, which ask the child what he thinks of a certain issue, which asks questions to which there are perhaps no answers. So then all you can say is: ‘current understanding tells us that this is what the answer might be.’ But who is going to evaluate?
I think governments need to put together task forces to re-examine how the assessment system can be overhauled completely. It’s not a question of improving the existing assessment system - we need a complete change.
I don’t know what that change will be. Perhaps one day it could be sort of biometric - so you don’t actually have questions and answers. Or you do have questions and answers, but what you’re measuring is what’s happening inside the brain.”
“The Hole in the Wall showed that children can learn with minimal supervision. Since then, the Internet has changed very dramatically. Information is everywhere. Consider how students react to examinations: ‘This is all rubbish, as it’s all on the Internet.’ Most information you can find online, within minutes. So maybe memorizing facts is no longer important.”
“A teacher makes you read many books for 12 years and memorize the content, simply because you cannot carry a library around on your shoulders. For example, many people learned how to solve a quadratic equation. But have you ever faced a situation where your life would change if you solved a quadratic equation? Arming children with memorized facts ‘in case you ever need them’ is no longer needed. Instead, children must have the ability to find information when they need it, quickly and accurately.”
“…Through what I call ‘self-organized learning environments’. This is when a semi-chaotic group of learners with no supervision are asked a big question, then go find the answer. Kids have a natural curiosity—they always want to know ‘why?’ So if you can learn science in the process of answering big questions, they remember that information.”
“I’d change what a school exam looks like. We all know what they look like now: The teacher asks us if an object falls at X feet per second and it’s Y meters above the ground, how long will it take to hit the ground? But is that relevant? If we can’t answer that, are we uneducated? And who decided that? Instead, I want exam questions to excite children. I just got a Twitter message from a kid whose question was ‘Are we real?’ That simple question covers so much. I’d like to give students an hour with the Internet and anyone they’d like to communicate with. Then they’d write a page on the topic. That’s more valuable than learning how fast an object will hit the ground when it’s placed so many meters in the air.”
“Too often we see that teachers and educational administrators feel threatened by self-organized learning. They, therefore, think it is not learning at all.”
“Just because you say something is obsolete it doesn’t mean that everything associated with it is also obsolete. There are many aspects of teaching that should still be used. For example, the ability to raise an interesting issue or question, which perhaps learners would not have raised by themselves, is a very important task of being a teacher.
As a teacher you can say something like: ‘Guess what, I was wondering why eggs are egg shaped.’ Usually nine-year-olds would react by saying: ‘Yeah, well they are egg shaped because...’ and they’ll say something absurd, so then you ask: ‘Are you sure?’ And they’ll say no, which means you can prompt: ‘Do you think you could use the internet and figure it out?’ Suddenly you’ve sparked research into three dimensional geometry.”
(Sources: TED Blog, Wired, The Guardian, The Spectator, hundrED)
Images used for representational purpose only, and are the copyright of their respective owners.
This article was published in our April 2018 special issue dedicated to Prof. Sugata Mitra and his work.
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