‘The Power Of The Unsaid’ With Sugata Mitra @ Harrogate Online

Sugata Mitra’s plenary at Harrogate has probably been the most discussed in the blogosphere so far, and it’s certainly got many educators talking and thinking about the future of education. He won the TED  prize in 2013 and expressed his wish to ‘build a school in the cloud where children can explore and learn from one another’.

It all started with his well-known ‘hole in the wall’ experiments. On one hand he is famous for his work with poor children in India and, on the other hand, he is seen in some quarters as a dangerous radical. The truth may lie in the fact that we are at a pivotal moment in time where there is much confusion as to the role of educational technology in the future of education.

To learn about his hole in the wall experiments and read between the lines, you must watch this video. Much of the controversy is centred around the silences, pauses and what he ‘doesn’t say’.


He starts off by telling his story about how he started his hole in the wall experiments and what the children were able to accomplish. He showed interesting graphs about how the remoteness of schools is directly correlated to poor teaching standards in India, and then goes on to say that a similar kind of remoteness can be seen in England, though this remoteness is not geographical but socio-economical.

It may be the case that Sugata’s experiments were more acceptable to the wider ELT community when they were based in India and when they were about helping poor children. Bringing the experiments to Britain, closer to ‘home’, may have set off alarm bells where some teachers fear that Sugata’s vision is to take teachers entirely out of the equation – which will mean the end of the teaching profession……………or will it…??

In my opinion it may just mean the end of the teaching profession – as we know it…..

This means that teachers are not being made obsolete but it does mean that we’ve got to use this pivotal moment in time to pro-actively shape a collective vision where technology, creativity, learner autonomy and a re-framed model of the modern teacher can be seamlessly interwoven into a clear, focused agenda that should be consciously and responsibly inclusive of all.

Sugata Mitra goes on to describe his ‘pedogagy’ of zero intervention, meaning that he gave children full autonomy. This was necessary to make the experiment scalable, but also necessary to see how much initiative children would muster up through peer-to-peer influence.

This is also what disturbed educators, as zero intervention was seen to mean that teachers are being pushed out of the equation. Yet, it could also just be an interesting eye-opener for us. The fact is that children need some time away from adult eyes, and this could become part of our pedogagy, where we are indispensible teachers guiding our students on one hand, but where we also give them free pockets of creative autonomy in peer-to peer situations. There is nothing radical in this. I also don’t think that Sugata is the one who ‘invented’ this. Lots of good teachers use creative techniques where the onus is on learners to take the initiative.

The main thing I noticed in the aftermath of the plenary was that throughout the blogosphere people were criticising Sugata Mitra directly rather then objectively  analysing the implications of his experiments. It seemed as if Sugata were being made an example of –  in what seemed to be an outright rejection of educational technology itself.

Could the power of a presentation lie in what’s left unsaid?

People were also disturbed by the vagueness of his presentation and that he  seemed to have nothing to back up his experiments. The way I see it is that he was sharing his experiments and not dictating any brave new world. Also, he may have been deliberately vague to spark off the very controversy we’re now discussing as it has got the ELT community talking and thinking.

All in all, I think that too much is being made of the man, the figure, Sugata Mitra, and not enough is being made of our opportunity to use technology for the greater good. The fact the Sugata Mitra’s plenary should be used to drag in wider issues surrounding educational technology itself could mean that this issue has been seething beneath the surface for some time.

I’ll quote Shelly Terrell here on what technology has done for us.

“Which is why I wrote about teachers being the necessary component, but why Sugata? Governments create policy that literally take away teachers’ tools, benefits, and make their lives so much more difficult. They are the ones to put IWBs in classrooms that need electricity. Yet, we are in an uproar over 1 man who has grannies with children in India slums. It’s silly. Why not argue for progress rather than our feelings are hurt? We might be able to change society instead of making one man the Scapegoat. We’ve had robot teachers in Korea, Busuu, Rosetta, & apps get millions of Language users. Teachers aren’t part of these platforms. They have been replaced with millions of students who learn from devices and the computer. They don’t even have grannies. I don’t see Dr. Sugata’s SOLE in danger of replacing teachers at all and I think that when we begin saying comments like wouldn’t be so great digitalized or our phones can’t do this or etc. we are bashing technology. We’ve managed to once again not attack the greater institutions who continue to ruin learning and make our lives as teachers worse.”

Shelly Terrell

As for making Sugata Mitra responsible for plotting an ominous metamorphosis in education, I feel that this is highly exaggerated and puts him on a sinister pedestal.

He’s not Moses claiming to bring us the Ten Commandments of the future in stone tablets – ( though, God forbid, it may use other types of tablets) ….

He has experimented and he has done more than others in empowering the poor. Where he’s going now is up to us – we are the future – not one man – whatever vested interests people say he may have, I ‘d say that the status quo is its own self-interest – and much more likely to be cast in stone.

In the Matrix, Keanu Reeves is forced to choose between the blue pill and the red pill.


In ELT, we are being forced to choose between the tablet and the tablet.

Which would you choose?

The stone tablet or the dynamic tablet?

Our choice is easier than Keanu Reeve’s, wouldn’t you say?

Or maybe not….maybe I’ve lost touch with the established matrix…and forget what it’s like to leave the comfort zone)

I will now quote something that may remind us that we all share the same vision deep down, despite differences.

“The need for an education like this is not just personal, in the depths of the individual student, but also historical. Looking back at history, we see we have been living in a series of caves. Our own society, where truth and meaning have parted company, is no exception. There is no hope of leaving this cave if there is not a shared enquiry about who or what we are, about where we have come from, and where we are going. At the moment that enquiry is thwarted by its fragmentation into a science dogmatically cut off from experience and an art whose claim to truth is being denied“..

Torn Halves

In actual fact,  the above quote was written by a teacher whose blog is called The Digital Countrrevolution and who passionately writes against the work of Sugata Mitra. So what can we say when our own ideologies are suddenly pitted against other incompatible world views?

When I see writing such as we have in the above quote with metaphors, analogies, deep thoughts, the heart of the matter and humanity of education expressed just so, I feel that I can totally relate to it – and then it dawns on me that although we can have a shared collective ‘vision’ such as the one described above – we can still be so far apart – the fragmentation….

And then it occurs to me that some may think that saying ‘little’ is dangerous – as Sugata has been vague and therefore, dangerous. But saying ‘a lot’ can be dangerous in other ways. We can use our way with words or intellectualism to influence the reader on subliminal levels without even knowing we are doing it.

The Cult Of The Granny?



Why do we insist that he’s a phony Moses forcing us into the technology cult and communes of the grannies? Because we’ve been too lazy to shape a new vision that can view SOLE as nothing but old-fashioned creativity unimpeded by top-down control. We can be closer to our students and more indispensible than ever by combining good practice with the new knowledge that students need freedom and spaces to create without us – Vygotsky and proximal zone of development – for one thing. In Vygotsky’s model, the teacher is a powerful presence who also recognises the need for students to  learn alone. It’s sophisticated and powerful as a concept, not divisive or anarchic.

As Chia Suan Chong also says in her article:

“And this goes hand in hand with the rest of Mitra’s message:

That the teacher solely as knowledge-transmitter is a model that is no longer viable;

  • that learners can learn a lot more in groups than they could individually;
  • that it is important that teachers learn to let go of the control they have over how lessons should take place and allow their students more autonomy;
  • that increased learner autonomy leads to motivation;
  • that encouragement can go a long way.

None of these points are of course new. Vygotsky wrote of the power of learning in groups when he spoke about ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), Prabhu found out how tasks could empower students and encourage peer teaching and co-learning in his Bangalore Project, and the term ‘learner autonomy’ has been such a buzzword since it was coined by Henri Holec in 1981 that there is even a SIG (Special Interest Group) at IATEFL named after it.”

Using ‘Granny’ networks for social/emotional and linguistic support in the cloud arguably raised the most controversy. However, to my mind,  we have strayed too far from the notion that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. In the modern age extended families are broken up and we live with latch-key kid syndrome.

I will also digress by saying that that technology has empowered women to such an  extent that we can overcome latch-key realities. I had four kids in the space of five years and the internet allowed me to continue my profession, develop professionally and help other teachers to do the same.

As long as teachers have designed creative programmes it should be useful to have outside facilitators who do not replace teachers but add something extra as assistants. Traditional societies still hep each other as a village and care for all children collectively in the village.

Of course, they are not all ‘Grannies’…they are facilitators in general and they don’t need to know everything….does your uncle Bob know everything??

Well, if you have a question, Bob’s your uncle, even if he doesn’t know anything – he’ll help you to find what you know yourself!!

As Chia Suan Chong says:

“Mitra jokingly mentions in his talk that in order to facilitate this learning, he often pretends that he does not know the answer. When the school children ask him how to use the computer, he answers, ‘I don’t know’.” I feel Mitra is doing the same thing with us: acting as the facilitator, raising awareness, enabling us to push the debate forward.”

Nothing like confirmation bias to confirm that you’re always right.

I’ve been trying to steer clear of confirmation bias by reading and listening to people who are vocal in their issues with technology in ELT. Even the best of us are prone to confirmation bias – what if this confirmation bias were weaved into the most intellectual or damning of articles – that what we write is really just backing up our own beliefs?

I think that Marisa Constantinides addressed this issue when she examined her own educational experiences, expressed honest insights into the possible implications of Sugata Mitra’s work, while stating that there was still much to learn and discuss.

” Have been thinking about all this and your comments… am wondering if Professor Sugata Mitra is not just acting as a catalyst for all our discussions and getting us to think about the state of our education. On thinking back to my own learning background, I cannot help but come to the conclusion that I actually learnt what I sought to learn for myself and not what was imposed on me by my schooling. Where my school – or schools of the future – ought to work towards, is helping people discover what it is they want to learn and train them in ways of learning. Perhaps this is our future role. As to the inapplicability of Sugata Mitra’s ideas into ELT, I am not so sure. Look at all these people following you to catch glimpses of good English language use – all these learners following English teachers or just learning on their own, here on Facebook and in so many other places on the internet”

“But my thought was not complete – there are many questions to be asked as to the future he predicts. In the current system, I was helped by my university, a place of learning – in Prof Mitra’s future what will will take on that role, who will supply the verification needed for me to exercise my profession, etc … this is a bigger than just a facebook update discussion and it’s great that IATEFL has staged a follow up Q & A for this very purpose”


Marisa has contributed a lot towards the debate through organising an #ELTCHAT on the subject, which you can check out here.

She has also collected the many blog posts surrounding this issue on Pinterest.

As for questions and concerns, my questions would be which kids in the slums benefited most? Did they all get a chance to learn or just the leaders of the pack? What about special needs, shy kids, how did they self-organise their social dynamics without bullying or fighting and establishing street gang pecking orders?

I feel that we can answer these questions and develop new models of learning by openly examining the issues without judgement. This takes self-awareness and cognizance of our own cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. We need to sharpen our networking skills and conflict resolution skills. We need to humanise our own natures to greater degrees than mainstream education can  envision at this point in time.

Recommended reading for conflict resolution: Mistakes were made but not by me.

(Suggested by Nick Michelioudakis)

Vygotsky and Creativity

A Cultural-historical Approach to Play, Meaning Making and The Arts.

Some other articles containing diverse viewpoints:

The obsolescence of teachers

The ignorant school teacher

The teacher as a midwife

Why we should be afraid of the big Bad Wolf

Angel or Devil? The strange case of Sugata Mitra

Edtech and neo-imperialism
I’m sure that you’ll also find these and many more on Marisa’s Pinterest.

A final point inspired by what David Deubelbeiss wrote in ‘the ignorant school teacher’

” We’ve got to think beyond ELT – and traditional teaching paradigms – and get the feel of humanism and how it evolves along the way – hand in hand with technology & the soul it takes to befriend technology-

I say that students can learn without externally imposed intellectualism but they still need the human touch of kindness – that’s what we can keep giving them if/when top down ‘expertise’ becomes obsolete;).”

I may be wrong about everything I’ve said, but if  I am, I hope I’ll admit my mistake and not say it was made by someone else;)

Concluding quote from Jason R. Levine:

“I believe Mitra’s role is to raise awareness, especially among the less educated and less economically privileged. He is not claiming to be Dewey, Vygotsky, or Montessori; he’s not saying that he has made some revolutionary discovery about how children learn. He is simply making observations about social learning in the internet age and spreading the word, fighting for the same things all passionate educators are fighting for.


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Sylvia is is an online teacher & writer with a background in English Literature, history and education. She is also an award winning blogger featured by The British Council, online teacher, official blogger for WiziQ, professional development organiser, and passionate researcher into creative learning via Educational Technology @Eslbrain. She is currently focusing on ELT publishing and children’s publishing. Her personal projects for 2014 include writing ELT books through story-telling, comics, poetry, and social and emotional learning, while continually creating and sharing brain-friendly learning materials and ideas online. Her other main interests are art, writing, poetry, and psychology, which which help her to create fun quality time with her children and add colour to her language lessons. When she's not teaching online, she's writing course books, blogging or running her English language Facebook groups.
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  • Hi Sylvia,

    A nice reasoned summary.

    I think in essence, what is being debated reflects the failure of our own profession (and that of most of education) to enact the promise and cries for “learner autonomy” of the 70s/80s. We paid lip service to this notion and made it but a liberal critical pedagogic academic exercise instead of something practical that happens in our classrooms.

    Teaching is the problem, not teachers. Teachers need a different role. Let’s allow students to control their learning experiences. Why? Because traditional education suppresses some very essential ingredients in the learning recipe mainly, the inner capacity and drive of students for curiosity, discovery, joy of learning for learning and ego gratification. This suppression won’t be suffered much more now that students have alternatives. As teaching is at the moment, most students all learn at the same place, same time, same pace. This is vastly, terribly ineffective and inefficient and the reason schools get damn poor results for all the time students “do” there (analogy to prison and doing time and how poor prisoners are at reform, intended).

    We need to institute a declaration of students’ rights and breathe into the corpse that is learner autonomy new life, now given the potential of connective technologies.

    1. The right to choose and negotiate the teachers of their own choice.
    2. The right to learn in the way and in the time of their own choosing
    3. The right to learn on their own or in groups if they choose
    4. The right to exercise responsibility for their own learning, along with the consequences of not learning
    5. The right to determine the direction and objectives / goals for their own learning.
    6. The right and access to tools and content for learning (not teaching).

    David Deubelbeiss Reply
  • Thanks for this response David.

    The psychology and feelings of our students are rarely discussed explicitly in academic terms – which is why I’m glad you spelt it out here..

    “Because traditional education suppresses some very essential ingredients in the learning recipe mainly, the inner capacity and drive of students for curiosity, discovery, joy of learning for learning and ego gratification.”

    The establishment seems to be in denial – I was recently shocked to notice how depersonalised yet unprofessional some ‘academic’ discussions can be.

    silversal Reply
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  • “We’ve been too lazy to shape a new vision” Surely this is one of the keys. And if we reflect upon that a little, then doesn’t the case for Mitra start to look a little flimsy?

    There is a vision deficit in education. Teaching has suffered massively from the division of labour into subjects. And the problem has got much worse with things like the imposition of a market discipline in schooling that tends to keep teachers’ heads down and focused almost exclusively on the maximisation of exam marks. Discussion of the overriding values of education dwindles to a murmur. And teachers are hurried out of education departments at universities as quickly as possible partly because of the risk of them beginning to talk about what the whole non-business of education should be about.

    We need a vision. Not just for the job satisfaction of the teacher, but because the whole quality of education starts to suffer if there isn’t one. With every new intake, teachers are assisting the birth of a new world, but there is little hope of a new and better world emerging if the people providing the assistance don’t have a coherent (if provisional) view of what that new world ought to be like and how it differs from the way things currently are. What are the highest values? How are we to understand them? How are they to be lived?

    It is our responsibility as educators to have a go at answering those questions.

    Mitra’s response ignores any such responsibility. A little stimulation and encouragement are enough. Children don’t need the vision of their tutors (and of course the vision could be one that embraces conflict and positively encourages the children to challenge it – it doesn’t have to involve handing out little red books).

    From a hard scientific point of view, what would the likely effect of that approach be? Surely the children will be more likely to just accept the imperatives of the system that confronts them outside school – imperatives that confront children with the force of a second nature. The result is not likely to be the revolution that the TED website credits Mitra with initiating, but a servile submission to the imperatives of the status quo. And the problem for us with Mitra is not that he is too radical, but that he is too conservative.

    And so, although you set up only two choices: the stone and the silicon, the old and the new, there are more than two. It would be nice to think that the future is not entirely closed, and we might be able to push for a vision of the future that is different from a slavish perpetuation of the current imperatives. But we can only push for something if we have a vision of what it might be. And if we can’t come up with something, is there really any hope of the children, unaided, doing any better?

    Torn Halves Reply
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