Peers and colleagues share insights into the educational legend

Team ScooNews
Peers and colleagues share insights into the educational legend

Leader Without Frontiers

Mabel Quiroga, Researcher, Buenos Aires, Argentina

“I became acquainted with Dr Mitra’s work more than twelve years ago towards the end of the Hole in the Wall experiments stage. In the year 2005, he travelled for the first time from India to Latin America, on that occasion to my country Argentina, for a keynote at an English teachers’ National Conference. It was his first of many travels to Latin America and Spanish speaking countries, an area of the world where his ideas caught on - probably more than anywhere else in the world - and where he developed over the years into an undiscussed educational leader.

The TED prize in 2013 has probably contributed to the dissemination of his ideas and the SOLE approach around the world but I don’t think that is the only explaining factor: people all over the world are willing to try his method and particularly so in Latin America. As a result, there is SOLE Argentina, SOLE Chile, SOLE Uruguay, SOLE Perú, SOLE Colombia, SOLE Mexico, all buzzing SOLE chapters, vibrant communities who advocate for a better education for children in this part of the world.

“Dr Mitra’s ideas have always been provocative and questioning of the status quo; perhaps that is why they are extremely motivating and engaging for all those teachers and educators who are unhappy about their education systems and practices. One important difference with many other international speakers and something that really caught my attention (and I am convinced that of many other educationists and practitioners) is that he always substantiates his claims with hard data and accumulated evidence from world-wide research projects.“Mitra’s love for children, his own curiosity about learning, his enormous capacity for communicating very complex ideas and his inexhaustible capacity to experiment and look at things from a different perspective have got him and us, his community of dedicated followers, where we are today: more hopeful that education can be changed for the better, that students and teachers can have fun while learning and that we are all getting better prepared to face an uncertain future.
“It has been a wonderful ride in the past decade in which Mitra touched the lives of quite a few educators who in turn prepare themselves to touch the lives and learning experiences of the children around. The years ahead look as promising as the road travelled so far and we can only wish there were many other figures like Dr Mitra fighting for children's educational rights around the world. In the meantime, we are happy to connect across the globe and help him and ourselves take his legacy forward.”

Real Educational Emancipation

James Tooley, Professor of Education Policy, Newcastle University

“Sugata Mitra is one of the world’s best loved educators. His ideas have huge impact and influence – not least on his students at Newcastle University, where I work alongside him as a devoted colleague. His concept of Self-Organized Learning Environments, or SOLEs, is truly important. Mitra defines a ‘self-organising system’ as consisting of “a set of entities that exhibit an emerging global system behaviour via local interactions without centralised control’.

“Mitra’s insight into the importance of self-organization in education can be extended to think what education would be like without any centralized government control or planning. Importantly, we have some historical insights into what did happen without government intervention, by looking at the history of education without the state.

“For instance, in 19th century England & Wales, before government got involved from 1870, private schools emerged spontaneously, that is, in a self-organized fashion. A government report of 1861, the Newcastle Commission report, showed that 95.5% of children in England & Wales were already in school for an average of 5.7 years, well before the state made its major intervention (see West, 1994, Tooley, 2008). They were in schools provided by philanthropy and churches, but a large proportion were in “dame schools”, what today we would call “low-cost private schools”. All were private schools paid for by parent fees. They taught a curriculum that wasn’t prescribed by the state – with a heavy emphasis on literacy and numeracy and a disciplined approach to learning – and had learning methods which also emerged spontaneously without any state intervention.

“But it wasn’t just in England that such low-cost private schools emerged. As I recount in my book The Beautiful Tree, the same was true in India, before the British got involved in education. Mahatma Gandhi, at Chatham House, London, October 20, 1931 wrote:

‘I say without fear of my figures being challenged successfully, that today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished….’

“The “beautiful tree” he described was a quiet revolution of private education that was existing before the British got involved. Indeed British evidence itself showed that, from Madras to Bengal, from Bombay to the Punjab, there was a vibrant indigenous education system serving as high a proportion of children at least as in other European countries, including England, just a few years earlier. In India, there were schools in almost every village before the British replaced them with the system that provided the foundations for today’s government system.

“These are genuine, historical example of self-organized learning environments emerging. They emerged through a spontaneous order of the people acting in their own perceived best interests, exactly what Sugata Mitra describes.

“But then the state took all this over. The genuinely self-organized learning environment, was taken over by governments which imposed structures and curricula, which was then “set in stone”, stultifying it, so that it becomes very hard to change and improve – something with which Mitra concurs: ‘Curricula around the world remained static: they assumed a top-down, hierarchical, predictable, and controllable world that progresses slowly.’ (p. 549).

“So the key question is: what would emerge as a self-organized learning environment in the 21st century? Presumably it would not be the same as that which emerged in the 19th century. The self-organized learning environment of that time, viz., schools of various shapes and sizes, might not be the appropriate self-organised learning environment of the 21st century. But the key is, we don’t know what genuinely self-organized learning environments would be like in the 21st century, because all over the world “centralised control” – for Mitra the anathema of self-organized learning – has power over education. Governments (i.e., centralized control) have power over the provision and funding of education, and impose curricular and assessment frameworks on schools. To really take Sugata’s ideas forward we need to reclaim education from government, to see real educational emancipation. Centralized planning doesn’t deliver what is desirable, self-organized learning can do.”

His one overriding quality - curiosity

Dr Suneeta Kulkarni, Director – The Granny Cloud

“Where and how does one begin to describe Sugata? Unendingly complex… Just as one begins to feel that one understands him, his charm, and his motivations, another layer peels off… unveiling another facet of his personality. Yet there is one overriding quality – curiosity. A sense of wonder about everything that crosses his path [and even that which doesn’t!]. In the process he thinks and acts in unconventional ways, many of which can be highly frustrating and even incomprehensible.

“I have watched him through many, many decades. Long before his ideas began to impact different fields and professionals. Not all his ideas are palatable to the world at large. Yet they warrant close examination, separate from whatever disagreements one may have with him. Because several of these ideas hold the seed to potentially viable and far-reaching impact, particularly in the field of children’s education. I will stick to just one of these – The Granny Cloud.

“It was in the midst of the OGEF Project of Newcastle University in Hyderabad in 2008-2009 that The Granny Cloud would take shape in what we then referred to as the SOME (Self Organized Mediation Environments).
“Started with the relatively focused goal of enabling children in disadvantaged settings to learn English through their interaction with native English speakers (the Grannies), the initiative developed in its own self-organised way and through the past 9 years has developed into an entirely independent, self-funded and still completely voluntary group with its own website (www.thegrannycloud.org) operating in a couple of School in the Cloud labs and also in many other independent locations across rural and urban slum areas. The goals include not just learning a language, but developing search and independent thinking skills, developing confidence, collaboration and other social skills, providing an exposure to different cultures and lifestyles, with a healthy dose of fun thrown in to ensure that learning becomes a way of life.

“Even as the Granny Cloud goes its own way, it chooses to retain its focus on vulnerable, disadvantaged and remote settings. Yet this does not negate the fact that the approach can be easily adapted to (and be meaningful) even in settings where every resource under the sun is available. Possibly, one of the biggest challenges is to scale up The Granny Cloud so it can reach vast numbers of children in India and elsewhere in the world where they are truly needed.
“Working with a relatively small group of volunteers in a relatively small number of locations is hard enough. Ensuring stable and adequate internet connectivity is just one essential to make this approach work. Many other setting characteristics feed into actual ‘success’ on the ground. But trying to reach millions of children requires governments stepping in without losing the essence of the approach.”

A Caring Genius

Rohan Wadhwa, Associate [Education Sector], Oliver Wyman

“Who would think of putting a computer in the wall of a slum in India in 1999? Who would think to have Grannies skype in from all around the world to help support the most impoverished students? Who would think to have students try their hand at some of the world’s biggest questions? The answer: someone who is both ingenious and caring. These are the two traits that most distinctively come to mind when I think of Dr Sugata Mitra.

“Dr Sugata Mitra is ingenious. At his roots, he is a physics researcher. Such a background provides a refreshing perspective to the world of education and one which is able to flip the conventional thinking that is so rooted in the system. Working with him, I have been able to notice how he takes the same researcher approach to education. He is constantly reading, hypothesising, and experimenting with new approaches. These new approaches have led to the most notable Hole in the Wall experiment, but also further refinement including the idea of ‘Grannies’ to support learners, and ‘Big Questions’ to motivate a Socratic-like way of getting students to work together. He even more recently has toyed with ideas to challenge the conventional way of conducting assessments by bringing to the table such radical ideas as having bots help with grading or running dynamic MRI scans to more objectively measure progress. The exponential effect of such a dramatic thinker is evidenced by what has now grown into the self-organized learning environment (SOLE) movement globally.

“Dr Sugata Mitra is also caring. It’s one thing to be creative, but it’s another to be kind. Sugata does not propose changes, because he wants to create a stir. Instead, he does so because he listens to what students are saying. His most favoured moments are spent in classrooms listening to children. In fact, in his humble home in the UK, he can often be found talking to neighbourhood children. Students want more agency in the classroom and have the ability to perform at incredible levels when given the type of agency a self-organized learning environment like the one Sugata advocates for can afford. Not only is Sugata caring among children, he is also caring towards the people he works with. That doesn’t necessarily mean he will say what you want to hear. Much like his proposed ideas for improving education, he will be the true friend that provides genuine advice and feedback. He will be there when you need him and tell you the truth when you need to hear it. It’s a large reason why he has garnered so much loyalty among so many educators, parents, students, and others around the world.

“Thank you for your ingenuity and care, Dr Sugata Mitra.”

Small Steps, Big Change

Ashis Biswas, Managing Director, eSkillport HR Services Pvt Ltd

“It was a great opportunity to be associated with Dr Sugata’s activities since 2007. We from eSkillport HR Services Pvt Ltd have worked for his projects at Hyderabad and Shirgaon (a village at Sindhudurg District, Maharashtra). We always showed keen interest in his unique method of learning. We were very happy to know that in February 2013, he received the prestigious TED Award. He wanted to donate all his award money for his dream project, SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environment). Newcastle University floated a global tender to execute his project in India and in the U.K. We were selected to execute the project in India.

“We opened our first School in the Cloud at a very remote place near Sundarbans, West Bengal on March 9, 2014. Then we kept on adding four such schools in India at different places. Children loved the method of learning. This unique teacherless method of learning is now gaining popularity, not at a fast pace though. It is difficult to replace age-old methods of teaching, evaluating and awarding certificates.

We, along with Sugata, are working hard to spread this method which children certainly love. We are now approaching corporates to use their CSR funds and build such schools. So far we got good responses and added two such schools for underprivileged children in Gurugram. One more is coming up shortly at Noida. We are looking forward to such assistance from corporates and setting up Schools in the Cloud in different parts of India.

“Who knows, this small step towards changing the learning environment would bring a big change in our education system?”

Visionary, Legend & Black Coffee Lover

Ritu Dangwal, Associate, Roundglass H20 Pvt Ltd

“It’s hard to define a person like Prof Mitra in few words. Simply put Prof Mitra is ‘larger than life'.

“This will be a pretty emotional description for me and intense at the same time. I have known Prof Mitra for over two decades. And, he is still an enigma to me. I will take the liberty of calling him Doc. We in CRCS, ie. Centre for Research in Cognitive Systems, the then research wing of NIIT Ltd, address him as Doc. It sounds less intimidating and warmer.

“Let me go back in time... I was working in National Open Schooling, as a researcher under Prof Mitra's wife, Dr Sushmita Mitra. One day, I landed up at their house in Green Park Extn. He, as usual, was sprawled on his big bed, looking pensive and majestic, smoking his pipe. He looked at me as a matter of fact, with no expressions and asked me what the hell I was doing in NIOS. He asked me join him in NIIT Ltd. And, before I knew it, I was there.

“He put me onto an assignment of which I had no clue and I was supposed to deliver by 'figuring it out'. I have come to realise that his favourite line is... 'Figure it out'. Yes, it can be very frustrating for an adult who is so used to getting instructions to complete a task. We all are practically anal about it, I guess because we love to control things, and also because most of us are not equipped to live in chaos. We are much more comfortable living in the zone of complacency.

“I have never related to him as a boss. To me, he has always been a mentor, a guide. A friend, who is wise and practical and equally perceptive. I hated travelling and I guess ever since I have known him, I have been traveling non-stop.

“Doc is someone who allows you to do what you want, with minimal instruction and he has always looked at the positive side of things and people. I have rarely ever seen him get mad, angry or upset. I have yet to see him get excited or agitated about things or people.

“Trust you me, it's darn difficult to talk about Doc in this manner... To me, he is a visionary, a legend, who has answers to everything under the sun. And, if he doesn't, he has no qualms about saying 'I don’t know', when all of us, including me, are struggling to look intelligent and give an answer!

His love for children is completely out of the blue. He travels like crazy. Relentlessly saying the same thing over and over again. I have asked him this question umpteen times... 'Doc, don’t you ever get tired?’....and he looks at me and smiles...and his response is 'Who else will do it?'

“He sits on the balcony apparently looking lost, smoking and drinking his black coffee and you think he is gazing around. Don’t get fooled for Doc is thinking... he is thinking maybe about how to bring internet into a remote village in Calcutta or maybe, what measure to use for the children or how trees are connected…
“Nobody, I mean nobody, can decipher what is going on in Doc's mind.

“He has changed my life... my complete perception about education and children. Every time that I have interacted with him, in person or over mail or telephone, I have only learnt. When he talks of things like Self Organising Learning Environments, it's not that he is talking abstractly; he actually practices what he says.

“Hole in the Wall, School in the Cloud, SOLE labs ...all of these have germinated because he lives his life that way. Because he can live no other way!

He is as young as a one-year-old child and as old as you can possibly think.

“He loves his black coffee, he loves his fried egg, he loves mutton and Kenny Rogers and Kris Kristofferson. He loves to cook exotic dishes, loves his Vodka and loves his kurta-pyjama, his bed and yes, he loves Sigmund Freud.

“He is an avid reader ...loves science fiction, can recite Rabindranath Tagore or Shakespeare or can chant the shiv stotra or sing ‘Ladies of Calcutta’...try googling that!
“I can keep talking about Doc non-stop...jumping from one thought to the next because there is too much that I can say.

To me, Doc has changed, shaped my life and given me a reason to live…to think...to believe…just like he has touched the lives of innumerable people! He is a simple man with a large heart and an enigmatic soul!

“Love you Doc and I hope I can carry your dreams forward alongside you.”

This story was published in ScooNews April 2018 special issue dedicated to Prof. Sugata Mitra and his work.

All images used for representational purposes only and are the copyright of their respective owners.

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