Sunday, April 06, 2014

IATEFL Harrogate Online: Sugata Mitra (part 1)

The final day's IATEFL opening plenary speaker, Sugata Mitra, I think was an inspired choice and proved to be a very controversial speaker. Mitra is best known for the hole-in-the-wall project in India (watch the 2007 TED Talk on the HiW and the related 2010 TED Talk on Child-driven education), the success of which has been reported in various places. This work, however, has not been without criticism, with Donald Clark in particular, being the most vocal critic of the scheme, and Brent Silby worrying about Mitra's downplaying of the skills learned at school. Recently, the focus of his work has been on SOLEs (Self-Organised Learning Environments) and particularly on building the school in the cloud (watch the 2013 TED Talk), which was recipient of a $1 million 2013 TED prize. An interesting response to this was written by Jeremy Harmer (make sure you read the comments too). As for me, I am happy that educators such as Sugata Mitra are exploring alternatives to an outdated school system, and have loosely followed what he has done with a generally positive feeling. 

After the talk, Facebook and Twitter exploded and is still abuzz with commentary today, a day after the conference ended.

What was all the fuss about? I responded to many of the comments on Facebook and Twitter based on what I previously knew about Sugata Mitra's ideas, but before I had time to watch the actual plenary and the post-plenary interview he gave. As an outsider, and based on what I know of the man and his work, many of the responses seemed to be based on exaggerated fear that Sugata Mitra was proposing to do away with trained teachers and replace them all with grannies with time on their hands (i.e. volunteer OAPs who don't need to be paid).

Luke Meddings, in particular, seemed to be grossly offended and told us that he was "drafting a sceptical response to the idea of remote non-teachers in the UK replacing actual teachers in India" As far as I am aware (writing this before watching the plenary), Sugata Mitra's so called granny cloud uses retired people (not all, but mostly female) in the UK (many of them retired teachers, actually) to teach in India where there is no teacher. As such, Luke's comments are unhelpful and only serve to misrepresent and confuse the work that Sugata Mitra is involved in. It was these comments that provoked me to action, responding to what I assumed was a knee-jerk reaction to something that had been said in the plenary. 
The negative reaction seemed to focus upon Sugata Mitra saying that "a teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be", a provocative statement that Sugata Mitra has made in the past in a TED talk. 

As Cathy Davidson (author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, 2010has mentioned, this pronouncement, which she has often made, "is meant as a challenge, not a prescription" and (principally referring to tertiary education here, I think) " if we profs are adding no other value to our teaching but that which could be replicated on line, then, well, turn on the computers and get the over-priced profs out of the classrooms." She, like Sugata Mitra, is interested in redesigning learning for the 21st century. This is particularly true of university lecturers who stand in front of hundreds of students and read pre-prepared notes. This kind of "teaching" is one that seems ideal for the flipped classroom approach, with the teachers' time best spent in facilitating discussion after the students have read the lecturer's paper or watched a pre-recorded video of the talk. Take this one step further and we have the development of MOOCs and low-cost university education for the masses. 

Sugata Mitra, like many others, such as Will Richardson, believes that the concept of school needs to be re-examined as it is clear that is simply does not work for many of the children of the world, who are left behind and who emerge from the school system not having learned much at all.

The criticism, however, and the need to find alternatives refer to the (principally state) school system. When it comes to language learning, however, I think things are very different. 
Especially when it comes to the typical communcative private language school environment that most of the IATEFL conference participants work in. Here, with its small class sizes, experienced and qualified teachers, and learner-centred communicative teaching, the situation is different. I can only guess that the negative reaction expressed by some of the audience to Saturday's plenary felt that the speaker was referring to their own 'private language academy' situation. This also would explain why many of the audience reacted positively to the talk, and gave a standing ovation to the speaker. I am guessing that it makes sense if you listen to Sugata Mitra's views and have in mind a broken and inadequate, under-funded state school system. Perhaps by not making this clear, the speaker provoked the reaction he did.

However, I digress. I am going to watch the plenary and interview and comment upon them, making reference to some of the claims, worries and statements I saw on the social media channels yesterday.

This is part 1 - part 2 is here


  1. Most of what he said sounded eminently sensible to me! It made me think we need to allow a lot more time in our Ceibal English lessons for groupwork based around the OLPC laptops - where the class teachers (like Mitra's grannies) can pose provocative questions and let the children find the answers themselves, The class teachers dont have the detailed subject knowledge but they can encourage and praise the learners!.

    1. I agree with you, Paul. I think we can definitely take some of his ideas and make use of them in our project.

  2. Ceibal classes B/C are a perfect testing ground, given that the alternative is not a qualified English teacher and the nature of the programme a) calls for edgy ideas, b) allows for a mix, where the A class presents traditionally and/or checks/gives orientation on the learners' findings. A sort of "language quest of the week" activity with support in CREA would even help with B/C lesson compliance from the CTs, come to think of it.

  3. I think you're right, Pablo. For the secondary project proposal, the BC team have added webquests into it, which I think is a great idea - it would be interesting to explore the idea of doing that for the primary classes too.

  4. Anonymous11:17 am

    Graham, I enjoyed both parts of your summary but I really think that many people (both in the audience in Harrogate & online) missed many of the points Sugata Mitra was making. It's not about taking the teacher out of the equation, it's about reframing educational goals. One of the key points is about the power collaborative learning (which can be done without computers / internet, as well). In fact, this might be a lesson for the one-laptop per child idea. Adrian

    1. Adrian, I'd like to think you're right here, but that's not what I got from a careful listening/viewing of both Saturday's plenary and the interview that followed. I think you have to listen carefully to what Sugata Mitra actually says and respond to this, not to what you think he means because of what he has spoken about in the past - this is what I was doing before I sat down on Sunday and carefully listened to him.