Thursday, June 12, 2014

EduTECH Theme #1 - Changing Education Paradigms: Sugata Mitra

In this post I'd like to go back to the beginning. Sugata Mitra was the opening keynote speaker for EduTECH, and he definitely set the theme for the conference.

I've always been fascinated by Mitra's 'Hole in the Wall' project (if you're not familiar, it started in 1999 and involved installing computers into walls in remote Indian villages and observing the behaviour of the local children), so it was great to be able to hear him speak about it, and about his ideas around the 'School in the Cloud'. And he spoke so engagingly and eloquently. I loved his stories about the original project; how within 5 months of their very first use of the unfamiliar computers, the kids were using it to Google their homework and quote websites such as the 'Harvard Business Review'. I was also quite taken with his story of a further experiment (that by his admission was designed to produce a fail result) that was to investigate whether Tamil-speaking children could learn (in English) about DNA replication through these street-side computers. They didn't. In fact, they understood it quite well!

So, as a result of this research, Mitra proposed that perhaps there are some things that students can actually learn for themselves, and that 'Knowing' is obsolete. Not knowledge, but knowing. That perhaps the things that are traditionally taught (and tested) in schools are not really what we should be concentrating on. Can you see a pattern here? Like Jukes, Mitra emphasised that traditional schooling models, where students are taught skills for jobs that no longer exist, and behaviours that are no longer required, are also obsolete. That they are producing students that know a lot of useless facts, but can't think for themselves. He asked us what boss would want an employee that is constantly asking 'what should I do next'? Not many; they are after creative thinkers and problem solvers (again, can you see the pattern?).

At first glance, it would be easy to think that perhaps Mitra was saying that teachers are obsolete too. He isn't. He's saying that children can learn anyway. But seeing as how schools aren't going anywhere, he suggested that perhaps students could benefit from a different approach to learning, even if it was only for one session a week. They would do this with the assistance of an 'admiring figure' (the teacher?) that encourages students to go further, question themselves, come up with creative solutions. He used grandmothers in his first experiment. He put out a call for people that were willing to donate an hour of their time each week to talk online with students. These people (mainly retired people) would log in for an hour a week and talk to students, read to them, ask them questions, and provide encouragement and admiration for what the students were doing. Mitra called this the Granny Cloud. This approach has been very successful with Indian children, and also with children in Columbia.

The success of this approach has developed into the idea of what Mitra calls a 'SOLE': Self-Organised Learning Environment'. He suggested that learning should take place on the 'edge of chaos', and that students are pretty good at figuring things out with a bit of encouragement. He included a beautiful analogy of the surfer: who does not have someone on their shoulder saying 'tilt to the right now', they figure it out for themselves and sometimes fall off, but they have someone on the beach (or beside them on another board) shouting 'go for it!'; 'you can do it!'.

To create a SOLE, he said that the first things that are needed are a broadband connection, collaboration and encouragement/admiration. Schools can definitely provide this.
Three requirements to set up a SOLE: Broadband, collaboration, encouragement/admiration.
Interestingly, Mitra also suggested that 1:1 is maybe not the best approach for schools, as it does not allow for collaboration. While it's good for students to have their own device to use at home, Mitra suggests it's much better to use shared computers in class, so students can talk and collaborate (because this is where the big learning happens). What do you think about this?

The other things that are required are a curriculum of questions, peer assessment and certification without examination.

Certification without examination. Do we always have to test?
How do we do this? Well Mitra suggested that we (us, the students) can find the big, interesting questions in the curriculum, leave the children alone to find the answers by talking to each other, searching the web, critically analysing the sources of the information that they find. We can provide encouragement and admiration, but must try and refrain from giving them direction. We can then see if they've found the answer, or at least have gotten some way towards that. Not by testing. Just by judging for ourselves whether they've "done a good job"; whether it's "good enough".

Some interesting things to think about. And I tend to think that it's approaches like this that might get us somewhere towards the educational change that we're looking for. That Ian Jukes so passionately argued for. Changing one little thing at a time. Providing some flexibility and self-organised learning even just once a week, to give our students the opportunity to learn on their own, pursue topics of interest, and collaborate in meaningful ways. What do you think?

If you would like more information about SOLEs, you can download a free toolkit here

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