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.”
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)
“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“..
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”
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)
A Cultural-historical Approach to Play, Meaning Making and The Arts.
Some other articles containing diverse viewpoints:
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.