Friday, April 18, 2014

The Rise of SOLEs (part 2): At the Heart of a SOLE

This is part 2 of a three-part series about SOLEs. (see also Part 1 and Part 3)

One of the keystones of Sugata Mitra's controversial plenary at the IATEFL conference this year was his belief in the positive effects of getting children learning with the Internet, clustered in groups around computers, solving a 'big question' on their own. This he has named the SOLE.

What is a SOLE?
SOLE stands for 'Self-Organised Learning Environment' and it is an idea which developed out of Sugata Mitra's interest in further exploring Minimally Invasive Education (MIE) - something which he experimented with during the Hole-in-the -Wall project.  

MIE has been defined by Sugata Mitra as a "pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher."

Sugata believes that the beauty of MIE is that children are 'driven purely by their own interests', whereas conventional pedagogy 'focuses on the teacher's ability to disseminate information in a classroom setting.' He goes on to say that MIE 'thus complements the formal schooling system by providing a much needed balance for a child to learn on her own.'


Since Sugata Mitra's early experiments with the Hole-in-the-Wall, he has moved onto exploring 'The School in the Cloud' with the SOLEs forming the basis of this and taking MIE further.

The most comprehensive information about what a SOLE is and how you can 'bring it to your community' can be found in the SOLE toolkit.

SOLE fundamentals
  • SOLEs are aimed at children from 8-12 years old
  • In a SOLE "educators play an important role in both teaching kids how to think, and giving them room to feed their curiosity"
  • The children work in groups of 4 and they can work with whoever they like, moving around freely
  • The children choose their own questions to explore
  • The computers should be shared (1 between 3-4)
  • Children can change groups whenever they like, for whatever reason
  • Children can look at what the other groups are doing and discuss this with them
  • Choosing the right question to ask the children is vital - it must capture their imagination
  • The children are given the opportunity to share the information they find and tell their friends what they learned after the SOLE
SOLEs seem to have been set up in two different educational settings. The first of these is, similar to the situation of the hole-in-the-wall experiments: in places such as rural India where there is a shortage of teachers. Although no teacher is required, there does need to be the presence of an adult (a peer helper), principally to encourage the children in their learning and to be responsible for behaviour management.

As well as rural India, where it seems that SOLEs are being set up without the need for a teacher to be present, SOLEs are also being set up in the North-East of England. In this situation, it is clear that teachers are most certainly involved.

For example, recently, Carol Goodey shared the following video of Emma Crawley, a teacher at St Aidan's Primary School in Gateshead talking about 'Lessons from the SOLE'



In the video, Emma explains how she and her colleagues took Sugata's ideas and transformed it into learning in the classroom for 8-9 year-olds. Key takeaways for me from this video were:
  • Teacher-directed SOLE means that a curriculum can be followed, with the teacher's careful planning and guidance. 
  • Choosing the right question to ask the children is fundamental. The question must motivate the children into action and should not be able to be answered easily.
  • The teacher was worried what might happen as she was leaving the children to their own devices and did not intervene - she did not have high expectations of it at first.
  • At the end of the activity, what the children found out astonished her - it was much richer than she thought it would be. 
  • Looking at what the children learned, she decided that she could get rid of half the science lessons to follow.
  • She uses the phrase "we used it to start off history and geography..." - this indicates that SOLE was used to complement regular teaching activities she did.
  • The teachers seems to always use a 'pre-SOLE' activity, showing a video or images related to the question.
  • The children were looking at and understanding complicated information that the teacher would normally expect to be "way above their understanding".
  • The way she uses SOLEs needs a teacher to do follow-up activities in class based on the information the children find
  • The unstructured nature of this type of discovery learning leads to the children finding information that a teacher would not usually present to a class of this age group. The children are therefore led to push themselves at a level higher than they normally would be learning at. 
  • Instead of telling teachers to 'use it once a term', she recommends teachers should use SOLE when they think it appropriate and that "this seems to be the best fit for SOLE" - there is no suggestion here that SOLE should replace most or even a large proportion of regular classroom time - Emma seems to be suggesting that it works as an occasional activity.
From what is said in the video, SOLEs certainly change the focus of the learning experience, with the children looking out at the real world as opposed to only what goes on inside and at the front of the classroom.
The video also underlines the role of the teacher in the SOLE, which I think changes the nature of the SOLE entirely. In fact, the main reason why Sugata Mitra annoyed teachers at the IATEFL Harrogate conference this month was because of the implication that no teacher was required for the SOLE to work. On further investigation, it seems that what was meant (as I now understand it) was more that although no teacher is necessary (if no teacher is available), it is preferable if a teacher is involved. In fact, Sugata Mitra said as much on Facebook earlier this week: 

Actually, I am curious about when and where I said teachers are no longer required. SOLEs are being used by teachers all around the world. They seem to like the idea. In places where you can't get teachers, SOLEs without teachers are better than nothing. In places where the English teacher does not know English, the cloud grannies are a great help. Why is this so abhorrent, curiously, to EFL teachers in particular?

He seems to not have realised that some (myself included when listening carefully to what he actually said and taking notes) have been given the wrong message. I won't examine the  'better than nothing' aspect of the SOLE without a teacher, but will say that this aspect of it has been discussed in the comments of part 1 of this blog post

Responses in Facebook to the video (above) on SOLEs 

Jeremy Harmer, when he shared the video on Facebook posted the following: "Fabulous teacher, great activities and/but for me an example of why, perhaps, teachers might have got riled after the IATEFL plenary. Watch it and ask is this a 'self-organised' learning environment? Does this mean 'the end of schooling as we know it?', does it prove that the education system is 'outdated' and crucially does Emma show that teachers are or are not necessary?"

The responses from people were interesting:

Anne Fox said "Excellent, practice-based, voluntary (for the teachers), not at all like a WebQuest (where the sources are of info are given by the teacher), not a full-time way of learning and teacher engaged in loads of useful meta-learning skills to enhance what the children are doing."

Paul Driver chipped in with "It's an ECTELE Extremely Contrived Technology Enhanced Learning Environment). I don't think he would have upset anyone at IATEFL if he'd just said that inquiry-based learning and Google are powerful allies."

And Jill Hadfield said "It's Discovery Learning. Extremely well- organised ( by the teacher) and very structured. Nothing like the 'no need for teachers' stance suggested by Mitra. In fact it shows exactly why the teacher is needed!"


It's Anne Fox's comment that I find most interesting here as SOLE's have often been compared to webquests. For this reason, I decided to compare them with SOLEs in this (three-part) blog post. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Rise of SOLEs (Part 1): The Decline of the Webquest

This is part 1 of a three-part series about SOLEs. (see also Part 2 and Part 3)

A few days ago, I was chatting to Anne Fox about webquests and she commented that she felt the webquest was dying. The leading proponents of the model seem to have stopped writing/talking about it and fewer teachers were interested in doing them. So, if not exactly dying, webquests do seem to be fading in popularity, and why has the SOLE (Self-Organised Learning Environment), which some commentators feel is just a variation of the webquest, become more popular? 


What is a webquest?
The webquest was developed by Bernie Dodge and Tom March while they were teaching at San Diego State University in 1995. A webquest is "
is a scaffolded learning structure that uses links to essential resources on the World Wide Web and an authentic task to motivate students’ investigation of an open-ended question" (Tom March).

The webquest model is very structured, with a number of key features for webquest designers to keep in mind and templates for teachers to use. A dedicated site, Questgarden was launched to make it easier for teachers to prepare webquests using this model. 

What a webquest isn't
The term webquest has become much used and abused during the years. I have heard teachers say they are going to do a webquest with their students when it was clear they were simply going to the computer room to ask the students to look for some information about a particular subject. 

Another activity often called a webquest by teachers is the popular Internet treasure hunt (or scavenger hunt) activity, that was popular in ELT when the Internet was first used by teachers. Usually, this consisted of a series of questions that students had to find quickly. They were usually questions that students could find easily (e.g. What is the weather like in Barcelona today?)

Mini-Webquests
Teachers who didn't want the structure imposed by the webquest model have always done their own versions of "webquests". One way of describing these is to use the term used by Tom Walton, 'mini-webquest'. His suggestion involves the students using the Internet to research a topic together (perhaps having a discussion or debate about it beforehand) and then giving a presentation afterwards. This looser form, which uses learner-generated questions, is a move towards the SOLE model, except perhaps that it is aimed at adult learners rather than the younger learners Sugata Mitra has in mind. 

The decline of the webquest
When you go to "the most complete and current source of information about the WebQuest Model" it is telling that the section 'latest news' was last update in 2008. Why is this? Well, the webquest model was very much based on the Web as it was (Web 1.0), when the analogy was often made of the Web as a massive online library of static pages to be consulted, and not the Web as it is (Web 2.0 or the social web), which has seen far more interaction and content creation than was possible before. 

So, with webquests declining in popularity, what is occupying their place? 

Anne feels that webquests are being replaced by teachers conducting enquiry-based learning built around essential questions (very much like the SOLE model promoted by Sugata Mitra), with the teacher acting more as a facilitator/coach than in the standard webquest model. The post-webquest models are similar in some ways, but seem to be less structured and encourage more learner autonomy

ELT Webquests

Sunday, April 13, 2014

IATEFL Harrogate Online: Russell Mayne (Pseudo Science)

During the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, I noticed that Russell Mayne's presentation was mentioned a lot on various social media channels. Russell, who is behind the Evidence-based EFL Twitter handle and blog of the same name has now also written about the buzz his talk created in a lively blog post. As you will understand, the subject of his talk is disruptive (you could describe it as edupunk, if that term hadn't already been used to describe something else), and with rock n' roll analogy being a particular theme of the conference this year, I suspect this presentation will be looked on as the ELT equivalent to the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall. Fortunately, the presentation was recorded and his presentation is also available to download, so we can all make the claim 'I was there' while chatting at the bar in future conferences. 

The focus of Russell's talk, A guide to pseudo-science in English language teaching, was "on aspects of English language teaching which have little or no scientific credibility" and he examines practices such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), learning styles, multiples intelligences and brain gym

Russell started with an explanation of pseudo-science: "something that looks like science...but, lacks the crucial ingredient of science,which is evidence." Often called brain-based learning, critics refer to this as neuromyths (Anderson and Reed, 2012: Buch, 2014Geake, 2008; Swain, 2008) 

How much support for neuromyths is there in TEFL?
There is surprisingly a lot of support for neuromyths in our field. Russell gave as an example: the CELTA, which promotes different learner styles, and the British Council's TeachingEnglish website has a lot of articles on NLP. English Teaching Professional was set up by a neuro-linguistic programmer. Humanistic Language Teaching run courses teaching you how to teach using multiple intelligences and NLP, articles have appeared in the ELT J and IATEFL Voices. There are talks about NLP at the IATEFL 2014 conference and Mario Rinvolucri has written a book on using NLP in teaching and is an NLP master practitioner. Herbert Puchta has written a book on multiple intelligences. Marjorie Rosenberg, coordinator of BESIG, has recently written a book about learning styles and is interested in NLP. Jim Scrivener includes it in his book on classroom management, although Russell points out that "he does say that we should take them with a pinch of salt". Jeremy Harmer has been a fan and Brian Tomlinson suggests thinking about students' learning styles when materials are written. Richards and Rogers also include sections on multiple intelligences and NLP, although "they are somewhat critical".

Why are they so popular?
Russell believes because "they sound intuitive and plausible...learner-centric...and they seem personal, in the same way that horoscopes do." There are also few people who are critics in the TEFL world. Russell mentioned Philip Kerr and Scott Thornbury and Hugh Dellar as exceptions. People also believe what they want to believe. 

What's the harm?
It is a waste of time. Students could be pigeon-holed. Our professional credibility and standards can also be affected. Bad practice can also be spread. With all that in mind, Russell has created a 'baloney detection kit', a series of questions you can ask: 

Q: Does it sound too good to be true?
For example, Brain Gym "can help students to...learn anything faster and more easily" and "reach new levels of excellence" among other boasts. NLP's claims are even more impressive. In medical science, Russell says, this type of claim would be called "a panacea, or
cure-all...and something touted as a cure-all usually cures nothing."

Q: Does it make illogical or impossible claims?
As an example, Russell mentioned  the '5 senses' mentioned by NLP/learning styles enthusiasts (see slide left), although "in actual fact human beings have many other senses, such as the sense of pain, sense of temperature and a sense of time and sense of taste. 

Brain Gym also boasts that it helps us use more of our brains than we normally use, promoting the myth that human beings normally use only 10% of our brains, debunked by cognitive scientists, but still believed by many people. 

Q: Does it make claims that are vague or hard to test?
Pseudo-scientific claims are often deliberately vague and hard to measure (improve creativity, raise student self-esteem, etc). 


Q: Does it use a lot of confusing "sciency" sounding terms?
Learning styles and their instruments (convergers, divergers) is an example. The very name of Neuro-Linguistic Programming is "particularly interesting" as "it has nothing to do with neuro-science, nothing to do with linguistics and nothing to do with computer programming." It also uses a number of sciency-sounding terms. 

Q: Does it have little or no scientific credibility?
Russell illustrated this with a number of citations from academic researchers stating that learning styles had "no credible evidence", etc. NLP has also been continually attacked, and yet continues to be popular in some circles. Multiple Intelligences has been criticised by many people too. The most interesting of these is Howard Gardner (who invented the theory). He is not happy with how the theory has been adopted in teaching and has said:

"In one video after another I saw youngsters crawling across the floor, with the superimposed legend ‘Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence’. I said, ‘That is not bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, that is kids crawling across the floor. And I feel like crawling up the wall." (Gardner, 199:142)

Q: Is contrary evidence ignored by supporters?
An example Russell gives is from the ELT Journal (Hatami 2013:2), which basically stated "there is no evidence that these work, but we feel good when we use them, so let's use them anyway." Jeremy Harmer is also quoted saying that although there is no evidence that NLP or multiple intelligences work, "they both address self-evident truths"  so we should use them anyway (Harmer, 2007:93). 

But, Teaching is an art!
In response to this, Russell quoted Michael Swan, who in 2000 complained about an article encouraging teachers to use crystals in the classroom: 

"Assertions - in both science and art - always need justification: you don't make things true just by saying they are"


Further Reading


Friday, April 11, 2014

IATEFL Harrogate Online: Mykhailo Noshchenko (Computer Games)

Using computer games in language teaching continues to be a rising trend, with more research and practice being conducted around the world. It's a subject that continues to attract me as I think the surface has only just been scratched and there is so much potential out there. As computer games develop, as they become more mainstream, so the ways in which they are used in language teaching will grow. Mykhailo Noshchenko's presentation on Teaching English via computer games: merits and critique is the second games-related presentation of the IATEFL Online recordings, although the other presentation, by Karenne Sylvester, was concerned with gamification (the use of game elements in non-game contexts).

My interest comes principally from having co-written the first book on exploiting computer games for language teachers, Digital Play: computer games and language aims (Delta, 2011), and participating in the accompanying blog of the same name. In both of these, Kyle Mawer and myself concentrate on adapting already existing free online games for the language classroom. The book and blog are meant to be practical guides to using these games for busy teachers (Part B of the book), with an introductory essay (Part A) meant to put forward our argument for using computer games and then ideas for extending further into the topic (Part C). We recommend using existing computer games rather than specially made educational games, because most of the latter are simply not good games, and the worst of these are dull and badly disguised exercises that leave learners cold. Fortunately, there are some exceptions, but that's for another day.

Since we published our book, there have been other, more academic studies published. One of these is digital games in language learning and teaching (ed. Reinders, 2012, Palgrave Macmillan). Of interest mostly to researchers, many of the chapters are concerned with World of Warcraft or other games that most teachers would find difficult to actually use with learners. 

A more recent book is Language at Play: Digital Games in Second and Foreign Language Teaching and Learning (Sykes, JM & Reinhardt, J, 2013, Pearson), which uses a greater variety of games as examples, although most of these are expensive and require either games consoles, tablets or high specification PCs, most of which would not be available to the average teacher. Nevertheless, there is much food for thought in the book for language teachers interested in the use of game-based-learning. 

Now, back to the presentation. One of the other Harrogate Online registered bloggers, Dave Dodgeson, has already written his live review of this here. The presentation itself is Mykhailo's "personal three-year experience in teaching English via computer games to various groups of students" and his presentation is available to download here

Skyrim for language learning 

One of the games that Mykhailo talks about is Skyrim, which, like Dave Dogeson, I found interesting, because I am also familiar with the game. In fact, when I bought the game for the PS3, I ended up with a version in French by mistake, and this led to me starting a blog about my efforts to learn French in Skyrim, although the blogging ran out of steam as I got more and more hooked on the game. I still have the idea of returning to the game and to learning some more French by using the game  - I didn't finish it (hardly surprising as the game world is enormous), and will most likely go back to it after I finish the two PS3 games I'm playing at the moment, the disappointing Beyond: Two Souls and the marvelous The Last of Us

Mykhailo is a teacher of International Relations at Kiev University, teaching primarily translation studies, though what the presentation at the conference is a personal undertaking that is nevertheless supported by the university. He became interested in the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (to give it its full title) because of its potential for learner autonomy and CLIL. The aim of his presentation is to help raise the role of computer games in ELT, which he believes are particularly relevant because they provide immersion in  more than just language.

Taking his cue from Karenne, Mykhailo joked that rather than the gamification of learning, he was goign to talk about the learnification of gaming. Genres that he recommends for ELT are Role-Playing Games (RPG) and Turn-Based Strategies (TBS). He doesn't recommend MMORPGS (surprising, as this genre features in the books mentioned above), Real Time Strategies or First Person Shooters

Mykhailo talks about his approach to using video games in the classroom as guided gaming, which he explained involved asking the students to play the Skyrim game and under his supervision, assume certain roles. The benefits of using this game are related to it being an open world role-playing game, so the students are free to do almost anything in the game, from "picking mushrooms to...saving the world from impending doom."

Mykhailo guided the students in their choice of path. They were not just playing the game during class. The students also had to present their ideas about the world in writing, and were asked to "compose their makeshift vocabulary of unknown words" and to undertake a dictation related to that vocabulary. Another thing the game presented the students with was a large amount of reading material.

note: this is a major feature of the Skyrim game and adds a lot of background knowledge about the underlying story - it is also an excellent feature for language learners, although there is far too much for students to read.

This type of game, according to Mykhailo, is a "linguistic sandbox", which he defined as being "a virtual worldspace that enables students to experience different close-to-life challenges while on the couch." The merits include "uninhibited lexis with high-quality visualisations and vocalisations" and "thought-provoking material presented in a way that does not involve and real-life edgy moments." Playing the game also allows students the "possibility for advanced students to learn more than just textbook lexis."

Using a game such as this can also "foster education of reluctant students" if properly guided, because they then think that "English is fun!" and even without a task, students can "absorb a score of language skills while playing any computer game on their own."

Mykhailo stated that "without proper reasoning, gaming as an ELT method could be successful mostly with people familiar with it "whereas "others may be reluctant to participate, dismissing it as immature, counterproductive or even frivolous.

note: I see this as a problem with fantasy role-playing games such as Skyrim, which are usually only popular with a certain section of the population - this prejudice against them, however, might go away depending on how the game was presented and what the students actually do when 'in-world' in the game.

Mykhailo also mentioned the reluctance that some female students may have with this type of game and also adult learners of English, who he believes "demand more task-specific English material." Another problem Mykhailo mentioned was the lack of speaking practice involved when playing this sort of game. 

A video of Mykhailo's students followed, with them talking about the game and the benefits that they found to their learning. These testimonials were very interesting - they clearly found it beneficial to their language learning. 

What's next?

As I do, Mykhailo believes that video games will "receive more traction" and that it's worth trying to utilise them in the English classroom. He urged the audience and the ELT community as a whole to participate and also urged developers of computer games to "fully realize the cultural relevance of their work and to enhance the quality of their products."

To finish, Mykhailo shared a fun fact with the audience, that he owes half of the vocabulary he uses and his use of English skills to the games he has played as a student.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

6 of the best of the Harrogate Online Registered Bloggers' posts

Now that the conference has finished, I'm looking forward to catching up on some of the things I missed, and the first place I've started is with the Harrogate Online Registered Bloggers (HORB). What follows is my personal selection of some of the best blog posts from the HORB bloggers.

1) TEFL GEEK: The Sugata Mitra Debate

I suspect the over-riding memory of The IATEFL 2014 Harrogate conference for many of those who participated in person and online will be the presence of Sugata Mitra and the hullabaloo that followed his plenary and interview. Here, David Petrie, writes a reflective and balanced account of the controversy. He also had the opportunity to ask Mitra about his ideas on the train from Harrogate, something a lot of other conference participants thought they should have had the opportunity to do (most of the plenary speakers had follow-up Q&A sessions). 


David "got the distinct impression that he sees no need for specialized language instruction." and comments that in all Mitra's experiments "the language development has been largely incidental" and perhaps David has discovered the crux of the matter and why so many people were offended by the views Mitra stated on Saturday. He seems to have little interest in all of the research and good practice that has taken place over the years in language classrooms, preferring to ignore this and focus on his own instinct and on what the children say they want. 


Lizzie reminds us that although the IATEFL conference experience is intense and brief, we should rise to some of the challenges that emerge from what we learn from interacting with others and their ideas in order to fully take advantage of the time and experience. 

She encourages us to also not just stick to what we know and to  "fully engage with anything you disagree with. Debate it. Argue with it. But don’t just say it’s wrong and dismiss it." Finally, and most importantly, she encourages everyone to share what we learn with others. Blogging about it seems to be a very fitting way of doing this. 


Christina has developed a wonderfully creative way of note-taking and reflection of what she experienced at the conference, called "sketch-noting" and she shares here her sketch-notes made while listening to Katherine Bilsborough's session at the MaWSIG PCE on 'Becoming a digital author'

Her sketch-notes shared with us here are fascinating and very informative. For anyone who is interested in following her lead and having a go themselves, she has written another blog post explaining how to get started with sketch-noting


It looks likely that I am going to India in May as a consultant, and before I go, I have been trying to get a better idea of how things are in ELT. I found Partha's blog post interesting, not only because it pointed me to an interview that I probably would have overlooked, but also because Partha shares with us reflections provoked by the interview of his own experience in the 90s when he was at "a small village of Sonitpur, Assam where we had gone for an in-service teacher training programme."


5) David Read: The Spelunky Revolution in ELT Edutech

David Read shares his reflections after the ELTJAm presentation at the conference. He thinks the warnings to us all about the threat of us all losing our jobs because of MOOCs, SOLEs and moves by large corproations into the language learning game are exaggerated. The rest of the post elabroates on why he thinks our jobs are safe, but also why he thinks we should have our 'Spelunky revolution in ELT' - a very thoughtful and interesting post indeed.

6) Dave Dodgeson: Teaching English via Computer Games

This talk is top of my list of the recordings I need to watch, and I will surely blog about it myself, but it was very interesting to read Dave's reflections on the presentation beforehand. 

In particular, I was very interested to read some of the observations Dave made while watching the talk and his blog posts is useful both as a summary of the main points made and also notes about areas to explore in the future. Looking forward to watching the actual session by Mykhailo Noschecko now. 

This is just a selection of what the HORB have been writing about, and I am sure that more will follow - why not go to the HORB page and check out some of the other posts people have been writing?

Monday, April 07, 2014

IATEFL Harrogate Online: Sugata Mitra (part 2)

This is part 2 - part 1 can be read here

Sugata Mitra's plenary on the last day of the IATEFL conference was entitled The Future of Learning, which "takes us through the origins of schooling as we know it" and explores his work related to self-organising learning environments.


In the introduction, Sugata offers a disclaimer to what is about to follow: "I'm just going to tell you a sequence of work, which leads to a certain kind of conclusion. That conclusion is not, perhaps, entirely cast in stone, but the experiment and results are there."

Mitra started with "a few things we know." 

We know that it is difficult to get good teachers in remote places. 

Here, Sugata Mitra talks about an experiment he conducted 7-8 years ago heading out of New Delhi and stopping at state primary schools to administer a test of English, Maths and Science. Mitra plotted the results (see left) of the test and compared them to the distance from Delhi and they showed clearly for him that schooling got worse as you moved away from Delhi. This was puzzling as he didn't have a reason to explain this. All of the schools had the same number of teachers and the same level of funding. He found the answer to this by asking a question (Would you like to work somewhere else?) in each of the schools. In Delhi, the teachers said they didn't want to. 50 miles out of Delhi, the teachers doubted. 100 miles outside of Delhi the teachers commented that they would rather be nearer to Delhi. At 250 miles from Delhi the teachers answered "anywhere but here." This showed that the best teachers generally got jobs in Delhi. A problem like this can be solved in various ways. He asked the teachers if they would be happier if they were paid more. The response was generally negative. The government's response was to train the teachers who worked in these remote areas until they become really good. Unfortunately, Sugata asks "What do you think will happen to the teacher who becomes really good? She goes off to Delhi!". This is a social problem, more than anything. 

I think the situation outlined above rings true in Uruguay too. In Montevideo, it is easier to find English teachers for state schools - in rural areas, as you move further from the capital, it is harder. Past programmes that concentrated on training primary teachers to become English teachers have led to many of them leaving the rural schools they worked at (what I don't know is where they move to).

In a developed economy, such as the UK, this does not happen because of the small differences between facilities in rural England and the cities. Also, "rural England can be very beautiful and people can choose to live there rather than live in a crowded city." However, if you look at the GCSE results, these are not uniform. There are really good schools and really bad ones. Looking at the data from the North-East of England, he looked for a correlation (see image on right), and he found one. The key piece of data (on the bottom scale in the image) seemed to be the density of council housing. The higher the density, the poorer the results. Mitra started visiting some of the places with higher density of council houses. In the primary schools, the teachers would say that they would like to work in a safer place. This seemed to explained what was happening in the UK. The 'remoteness' factor in the UK was socio-economic remoteness. Looking at data from the rest of the world, Mitra found the same situation, although this 'remoteness' may have been slightly different. What can be done about this? This is a aocial issue that cannot be solved by teacher training or by paying teachers more. This led Sugata Mitra to wonder if there was a way of solving this problem by "taking the teacher out of the equation". 

This is where I am guessing that some of the audience at the conference started shuffling on their seats. 

Sugata Mitra's experiment to the above problem involved exploring the use of computers, which work in the same way, whether they are in remote India or in the UK. Sugata Mitra followed by saying: "Well, you might say, a computer can't replace a teacher, which is quite right, but I'm not going to say that we are about to try that. All that I'm saying is that a computer, whatever it can do for children, will do it to the same extent wherever it is."

Here Sugata clarifies his position by saying quite clearly that computers can't replace teachers and that it is not his intention to do so.

We kn ow that groups of children can learn to use the Internet on their own

In Delhi, Sugata Mitra used to teach groups of children how to write computer programmes. They were expensive courses and he wasn't very happy about this because there was a slum next to where he worked. in 1999. Mitra wondered how many good programmers he was missing and wondered how making this distinction in education about rich children and poor children was going to help India as a nation, or indeed, the world. He also wondered where he would get the teachers from: "Who's going to go and teach computers in the slum?"

This led to his first hole-in-the-wall experiment of giving access to computers to the children from the slum next to where he worked. It was running Windows, connected to the Internet, had a touchpad and it was all in English. The first children who discovered it asked what it was, and Mitra took the decision not to help them and said "I don't know". About 8 hours later, his colleagues reported that the children were surfing the Internet and teaching each other how to do so.  

Sugata Mitra repeated the process in a village 200 miles from Delhi that had a school but no teachers, which sounds strange, but this is the case in come parts of India. Mitra said here (in jest?) that "it's only years later that we realise that that might be a good thing." (much of the audience laughs and applauds). 

Here we have another controversial comment from the talk. Some of the Facebook critics thought it outrageous that he should say such a thing. You could argue that he said this for comic effect or that he actually believes that a bad teacher is worse than no teacher at all. Either way, I don't see why this comment should have provoked the response it has. I think some of the critics of the talk have taken this to mean that Sugata Mitra thinks it's a good idea to get rid of teachers in all schools, which is, I believe, a clear misunderstanding of what he actually said.  

After installing the computer in a hole in the wall in the school, Sugata Mitra went away. He returend after a couple of months to find the children playing games on the computer. When they saw him, they said "we need a faster processor and a better mouse." He was quite taken aback at this, and asked them how they learned all those words, and Mitra found himself "dragged out of computer science and into education" because of what they said (as a complaint) "You've given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it.

Sugata Mitra did a lot of work after that to measure what the children understood and they found they had a functional understanding of English, "sufficient for them to navigate the machine." When reflecting on the causes of this learning, Sugata Mitra came to the conclusion that "this kind of learning was happening because I wasn't there'"

Again, Mitra suggests that taking the teacher out of the picture may be a good thing. Whether you agree with his conclusion or not is up to you, but it does seem that evidence suggests the children learnt English on their own with just the computer. What could be argued (I would argue this here) is that the children would have probably learned more and probably better English with the guidance of a 'good teacher' during the same time period (but probably not with a 'bad teacher').

After realising "You can have learning happening if the teacher is not there", Sugata Mitra wondered if the opposite was true: "Can you stop learning if the teacher is there?"

Again, I think asking this last question was a logical step to take, given the findings. If nothing else, it needs to be explored in order to be dismissed.  

After this, Sugata Mitra received funding from the World Bank, who wanted to know if he could measure it properly. He then conducted research for the next 5 years, measuring it in different places in India, from January 1999. There followed the showing of a short video of children in India learning in this way. The results were almost identical throughout India (see graph on left). The information in the graph tell us that "groups of children, given access to the Internet, and left unsupervised, will, in a period of nine months, reach the...same level of competency in computing literacy as the average office secretary in the West.

For Sugata Mitra, this "raised a few questions about training...and the purpose of training." He wondered how this was possible, especially with such "completely replicable results." He then spoke about the difficulty in finding out exactly what the children were doing. For this reason, in the paper he subsequently wrote in 2005, he could only say "this is what it does" not "how does it do it".

We know that groups of children can learn most things on their own

Years passed and Mitra started to ask children to do things using the computer. For example, he would tell the children to find out about quadratic equations, and then leave them on their own. He did this recently with a group of 9 year olds and they were able to tell them about it after 25 minutes. He tested with different subjects and he found that "we have managed to create a world where children can learn most things by themselves." and Sugata Mitra thinks we "shouldn't feel depressed about that, we should feel very proud of it."

The focus here is on promoting discovery learning, and what children can learn themselves with minimal intervention from an adult. 

The next set of slides showed a selection of research findings, including an interesting paper on Improving English Pronunciation: An automated Instructional Approach (Sugata Mitra, James Tooley, Parimala Inamdar and Pauline Dixon, 2003 - PDF), which seems to indicate that children using the hole-in-the-wall computers and appropriate software can help themselves to improve their own pronunciation with minimal intervention. The children in this study were learning English from local teachers, but these teachers had a strong accent, to such an extent that when these children later went for jobs, the interviewers would say that they could not understand them. Sugata Mitra gave some 12-year-old children computers with speech to text software (Dragon) and asked them to read into the computer. At first, the children spoke and what the software produced was nonsense. He told them that he would leave the computer here for 2 months and set them the challenge that they had to make themselves understood. The children asked him "How?" and Sugata Mitra joked that by then he "had perfected his pedagogical technique" and so he said he had no idea.

I saw someone refer to this last joke on Facebook or Twitter, taking it at face value and missing the point that it was obviously said in jest.  

Two months later, when he went back into the slum, the first thing he saw was a little boy waiting outside the room where the computer was, and asked him in English "How are you". The boy responded "Fantastic", which surprised him entirely. With a learning objective / task, but no pedagogy, the children invented a way of doing it, downloading the Speaking Oxford Dictionary and used this in combination with the text to speech software. Sugata Mitra said this showed that "Learners, if they have no choice, will invent pedagogy."

In the UK, Sugata Mitra conducted an experiment to explore if there was something that children could not learn by themselves. He decided to conduct an experiment to test for the limits to where this method can go. The research question was "Can Tamil speaking children in a South Indian village learn the biotechnology of how the DNA molecule reproduces, in English, from a street-side computer on their own?" He expected the children to fail, but when he came back after a couple of months since setting them the challenge, they surprised him with the amount that they had learned. The children had gone from knowing nothing to understanding 30% of what they he asked them to know. 

Sugata Mitra then wondered how the children could improve their knowledge to 50%. And asked one of the NGO volunteers to "use the method of the grandmother" to stand behind the children and ask questions as well as using admiration. The results after two more months, went up to 50%.

Here, what Sugata Mitra shares with the audience is vague. We are not aware of how the children were tested and there are so many other factors that could be involved, it sounds almost like we are in fairy tale territory. 

Sugata Mitra's response to this was "There's something about learning that we have missed. This is not learning as we have understood it." but he didn't know what was happening, so he published the results in the British Journal of Educational Technology (2010)  and this "attracted an enormous amount of comments from educators, ranging all the way from 'yes, you've hit on something really interesting' to 'this is complete rubbish - you must have cooked those results up.'"

As a result, on his return to England and after talking to directors of schools there, they convinced them to try the hole-in-the-wall in England. He said that was impossible - the children will freeze! He decided to try it by turning it inside out, turning it inside out, using one children per group of 1-4 children. The children started clustering and talking to each other. Giving the children an absurd problem (e.g. "why is it that almost all men can grow a moustache but most women cannot?"). Within 30-40 minutes, he found the children had started to explore cell evolution. He started to make up questions like that and called this a 'Self Organising Learning Environment' (SOLE).

Without a background in education, and looking at this "through the lens of physics", what he saw was a self-organising system: at the edge of chaos, order appears out of disorder. He asked himself whether this was happening inside the hole-in-the-wall. 

After sharing another video of kids in the UK working in SOLEs, he explained that the same things would happen all around the world. 

We know that teachers can be 'beamed' to other places using the Internet

Returning to the idea of needing a grandmother, Mitra said he sent out an appeal in the Guardian newspaper asking for British grandmothers with broadband and webcams to give him one hour of their time a week for free. He now has 600 signed up - they are not just grandmothers, but they form what is called 'the granny cloud' and they are "beamed into schools where good teachers cannot go".

This is similar to what we are doing in Uruguay, only we use paid teachers and video-conferencing technology, whereas Sugata Mitra uses retired volunteers (mainly non-teachers?) and Skype. This was familiar to me beforehand and it has always sounded like an effective way of using technology (Skype in this case) to match peole with time on their hands who would like to do something beneficial to others (the grannies) with children who do not have access to teachers.   

These volunteers "talk to the children" and because of this, they learn English.

This sounds like the language exchange classes that are popular in Spain (and I imagine in other countries all over the world), where two people with different languages meet to talk to each other, only the "grannies" are not doing this to learn the children's language. People usually do it when they cannot afford a teacher, or to supplement being in a language class with more conversation practice. I did this my first year in Spain and it works to a certain extent, although ultimately trying to get a non-teacher to explain grammar to you, for example, is often frustrating. 

Sugata Mitra then showed a video of the granny cloud, including footage of one of the grannies chanting (drilling) in English from a storybook, with children in a class repeating the sentences she was chanting. 

I now understand some of the criticism, and although (I believe) the granny cloud is run at no cost, it would surely be more effective to employ trained language teachers to teach the children English in this way (if grant money could be found to do so). If this is not possible, then surely there is a danger is that these grannies are worse than the 'bad teachers' that Sugata Mitra mentioned earlier in the talk, and they may do more harm than good? From what I can tell, it does seem that with the granny cloud he has launched an online language school full of untrained amateur non-teachers, and I can't see this to be an effective line to follow, unless it is the only way to provide learning assistance to these Indian children (because of cost reasons), although this seems unlikely. I also understand the frustration expressed by some of the Facebook critics at the lack of Q&A session to follow this plenary, as there are so many questions that spring to mind - I have asked IATEFL whether an online Q&A session (i.e. a webinar) could be organised as a follow-up to this, and so, hopefully that will take place in the near future. 

Sugata Mitra then followed "a few things we know" with "a few things we don't know" that we need to find out:

We don't know if children can learn to read by themselves

Sugata Mitra is doing some experiments in India at the moment to find this out, and he shared a video of two little girls trying to teach each other the meaning of the English word 'sheep'. In Uruguay, Sugata Mitra did a study and measured reading comprehension there, where the children all have laptops. He found that reading comprehension was better than in the UK at equivalent ages. 

He has noticed that collectively, children can read at higher levels than they can individually and he is trying to see that if he makes them do this time and time again, whether thir individual reading levels increase. 

We don't know if children can learn to search accurately by themselves

This remains to be seen.

What needs to be done:
  • Curriculum around the world needs to be revised to include the Internet
  • Pedagogy needs to include the Internet
No argument with this - it should be done. 
  • Examinations need to focus on the Internet and collaboration for problem solving and decision making
Sugata Mitra then criticises testing of students, showing a picture of learners sitting at desks in rows and individually completing exams. "Why is this considered the best way to end schooling?", he asked. Sugata Mitra believes that this is the one change that will change everything else - teaching will change, etc. 

Unfortunately, the school system as it stands today, is preparing children for a work culture that no longer exists, and this needs to change. 

  • Obsolescence of ideas, skills, methods and knowledge needs to be factored into learning methods, Curricula and Examinations
Agree with the above too. 
  • When teachers are friends, Curriculum, pedagogy and Examinations can be rolled into one

Sugata Mitra is now involved in building schools in the cloud, which are "really like cyber-cafes for children". They have computers with big screens, glass walls, a life-size screen on which a mediator can be Skyped in if required.  And a supervisor "who cannot teach anything because he cannot know anything" 

With this, Sugata Mitra showed one final video (a clip from his 2013 TED talk) of his idea of "the school in the cloud", with a voiceover:

"What is the future of learning? could it be that we don't need to go to school at all? Could it be that at the point in time when you need to know something you can find out in 2 minutes?

In theory, I like the idea of promoting discovery learning and agree that schools need to change, especially with regard to testing / exams. However, I strongly disagree that the future of school needs to remove teachers from the equation. I think this is a recipe for disaster and a step backwards. Before watching this plenary, I thought he believed in using the granny cloud only where there was no possibility of obtaining teachers, but I can see now, with the idea of the school in the cloud, that he seems to believe that all children would be better off without a teacher. Is this so? It is difficult to tell at this point in the plenary.

I would like to know more about what is happening in the north-east in the schools in the cloud he has set up here. If this is just part of the school curriculum, as it seems to be, because there is an interview with a teacher who says she has been redefining her role as a teacher and "thinking more carefully about her lessons", then this is probably a good thing, and I like the sight of the children in the video coming together and exploring how to learn together without much interference from a teacher - but only if this is part of what they do. 

To finish, Sugata Mitra shared some of his images of schools in the cloud and said "those faces say it about all, really" 


So, after watching and listening very carefully to Sugata Mitra's IATEFL plenary, I think I can better understand now why there was such a negative reaction, and I found myself becoming more disturbed as the talk went on. However, I defend the decision to invite him as a plenary speaker, and think that much of what he had to say in the plenary above was thought-provoking and worthwhile. Some of it, though, seems to be dubious and I can understand why some people found it insulting to the language teaching profession. I hope that IATEFL manages to persuade him and find time to organise a follow-up online Q&A session, where he can answer some of the questions that spring to mind when watching the plenary. 

Further reading

Blog posts prompted by SM's plenary at IATEFL 2014

Follow-up Discussions
Updated 20/4/2014 to include more references

General - Sugata Mitra
The full plenary session can be viewed below: