“Who taught the termites civil engineering?” (Sugata Mitra reminds us how we are all wired to learn by themselves)
In a true lesson of what keynote speaking should be, Sugata Mitra has taken the stage at ATD2015 to talk to us about how our world has changed and what this means for education. A funny, charming, entrepreneurial raconteur what he has to say is possibly the most important lesson for people in the world of education. Really.
The history of education
It’s only been a hundred years since we lived without telephones, computers and rapid transport. And that was the world for 100s of 1000s years before. How that world operated defined how we develop people.
Before we lived in today’s technologically enabled world, people needed to obey, repeat and not be creative. They needed to be able to sit still to read and write on paper and they needed to be able to do arithmetic in their heads. They needed to be able to stand still and do the same thing over and over again according to the rules.
In that world, there was a system whose sole job was to produce those people: School. The role of the school was to create this vast empire of conformity, knowledge and industrial repetition by telling people what they needed to know and making sure they did it right.
That world is gone. One day, our grandchildren will ask us “Hey grandpa. What does ‘knowing’ mean?”
How do children really learn today?
Mitra told us about an experiment he ran in an Indian slum in the late 90s: Placing a simple internet-connected computer in a hole-a-wall 3-feet from the ground, he waited to see what happened.
Children arrived. They asked “What is it?” He replied “I don’t know” and left them to it, giving no support at all.
8 hours later, they had figured it out, were browsing and 8yr-olds were teaching 6yr-olds how to do it.
After more research and observation, Mitra concluded that unsupervised children anywhere in the undeveloped world given access to an Internet enabled computer will, without any training, in 9 months get to the same computer-literacy level as an office secretary in the West.
In short: Children don’t need teachers.
All they need is broadband, collaboration and encouragement!
There is nothing else I want to say about Mitra’s keynote content right now. Nothing could do it more justice than saying that the answer to the above photo question is a resounding “Yes”.
But as a father of 3 small children, I do feel obliged to say something more. If children can do all this (and they can!) what is a risk if we don’t let them? If we keep telling them the answers, where will they end up? If we keep testing them to standards we have invented for ourselves, how can we expect something new? If we stifle their innate creative drive to figure things out, follow their own path and invent their own answers, where will the joy be? How will they find their passions? How will they innovate?
And sure, if we do keep telling, testing, standardising and stifling, everything will be “safe” and I won’t have to worry about “where they end up”.
But maybe I should just let it go?
- “The Granny Cloud” for how standing back and saying “Wow, that’s great. How did you do it?” is all you need to stimulate learning
- Wired magazine’s article on Sugata Mitra’s work
- More information on the School in the Cloud
- Mitra’s TED Talk
When we are young we believe anything. If, like me, you have small children you have already seen this in action. They will believe literally anything. They can believe anything.
This inherent naivety or open-mindedness is key to development. Without it, we cannot discover or learn anything new. We need first to be able to treat new concepts before later discarding them as “wrong” or ill-fitting to our own reality.
As we grow older, we develop the capacity to distinguish fact from make-believe. We know (spoiler alert!) that Father Christmas probably doesn’t really come down the chimney and we congratulate ourselves on our ability to be reasonable.
But being “reasonable” is in itself the first pre-requisite for being closed-minded and too much of it leads to lack of innovation and inability to change. Copernicus was unreasonable, as were the people who wanted to put a man on the moon and anyone who thought a computer-game couldn’t load faster than a Commodore 64 did it.
So why do we trade pure open-mindedness for “reason”, new for old and creativity for stability?
I suspect the answer is about security or “blending-in”. and it is highly linked to values. Classical schools still today prefer to teach everyone to the same curriculum and anyone who doesn’t fit in has failed. Seeing things differently is not the point. Most corporations don’t do much better. Idioms like “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” and the wish to maintain current processes in the name of “quality” and customer satisfaction are designed to ensure that things get done the same tomorrow. Attached to our own ideas of what is “good”, we start to live on autopilot.
Wouldn’t a little more childishness do some good?