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Sugata Mitra on the future of schools and teachers

Sugata Mitra
Sugata Mitra

What do you know about Sugata Mitra?  A limited response might be one of the following:

  • He’s the guy who put a computer in a hole in the wall in India
  • He invented the School in the Cloud
  • He recruits grannies
  • He thinks children can learn all they need from computers
  • He wants to get rid of teachers.

There are varying degrees of truth and accuracy in these statements.  The Hole in the Wall experiment was instigated in 1999 and saw children who had never seen a computer before teaching themselves to use it and its applications.  The School in the Cloud brings together Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs) – groups of children wanting to learn and with access to a computer and the internet, either through a school or not – and grannies (who can be young, and male) are volunteers who interact with those children to according to the website ‘stimulate curiosity, develop confidence and generally have fun’.

And no – he doesn’t think children can learn all they need from computers.  It’s much more complex than that.  But the computer – or rather any device that supports comprehension and communication, and which links to the internet – provides a medium that it would be crazy to ignore.  Where do YOU look things up?

So what are schools for?  For Mitra, a nine-year-old would say ‘I go to school to meet my friends first, and I hope something interesting will happen in class’.  But schools also have a role in helping us become productive – and if they are to do that they need to keep a weather eye on what ‘productive’ means, as it changes pretty quickly.  The basic skills of reading and writing, for example, are important – but they no longer come near to encompassing all the things we need to comprehend and all the ways there are to communicate in the 21st century.  And schools don’t necessarily do a great deal to help with those…

‘Schools are meant to produce happy, healthy, productive people.  Are they actually doing that?’

And the role of teachers?  For Mitra, it is important for children to have someone to encourage them.  The term ‘friend’ might be used instead of ‘teacher’ – and he is clear that we need to be more focused on learning than on traditional ‘teaching’ – but whatever the title, this is someone who can pose the Big Questions that SOLEs are built on, and crucially who can facilitate and provide support where needed.  And that doesn’t mean that traditional ‘teaching’, or the imparting of knowledge or concepts, goes out of the window – because sometimes that might be the best way of helping children move on.  But crucially, the best people to decide on that best way are the children themselves.

‘The teacher in today’s environment is at his or her best… if they are dealing with the question to which they do not know the answer and they are finding out along with their children’

What Mitra suggests is a system which would focus on enabling children to access, understand and use knowledge, rather to regurgitate it.  There are positive implications for teachers too, who could focus more on facilitating than checking learning.  The big question for us is, are we ready to trust children to come up with the answers?

Access the podcast for a fascinating interview, and follow Sugata Mitra @sugatam on Twitter

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