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.
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.
Blog posts prompted by SM's plenary at IATEFL 2014
- Bytheway (2014) Mitra future learning
- Dellar, H (2014) Why we should be afraid of the big bad wolf
- Deubel, D (2014) Sugata Mitra: The Ignorant School-Teacher?
- EFL Notes (2014) IATEFL 2014: Mitra having a jelly good time
- ELTchat (2014) The future of learning (transcript of Twitter chat)
- Guinan, S (2014) The power of the unsaid with Sugata Mitra @Harrogate Online
- Hancock, M (2014) Sugata Mitra, ed-tech evangelist
- Harmer, J (2014) Angel or Devil? The strange case of Sugata Mitra
- Harrison, M (2014) Sugata Mitra at IATEFL 2014 - my reaction
- Mauchline, F (2014) The SM Debate
- McCall, R (2014) What can teachers learn from physics?
- Pinard, L (2014) IATEFL 2014 Final Day Pleanry: Sugata Mitra
- Secret Dos (2014) Baloney Detection and the Grandmas of Sole
- Suan Chong, C (2014) The obsolescence of teachers: The Sugata Mitra controversy
- TEFL Geek (2014) The Sugata Mitra Debate
- Wiktor K (2014) How Sugata Mitra annoyed English teachers (and why I care)
Updated 20/4/2014 to include more references
General - Sugata Mitra
- Cuban, L (2013) No end to amgical thinking when it comes to high-tech schooling
- Ferguson, B (2014) My SOLE experience
- Ferlazzo, L (2013) Questions about Sugata Mitra and His "Holes in the Wall"
- Galagher, R (2013) Response to Questions about Sugata Mitra
- Harmer, J (2013) Is technology killing school? Should it?
- James, L (2013) A response to Mitra Part 1: Educations and Enployability / Part 2: Classroom Pedagogy / Part 3: The Past
- Mitra,S (2014) What is School in the Cloud? - video that Sugatra showed
- Mitra, etc. (various dates) Hole-in-the-wall research publications (various journals)
- Mitra, S (2005) Self organising systems for mass computer literacy: Findings from the ‘hole in the wall’ experiments
- Mitra, S (2010) The future of learning (video)
- Mitra, S (2012) Children and the Internet – A Preliminary Study in Uruguay
- Sowey, M (2013) Can you kill a goat by staring at it? A Critical look at minimally invasive education
- Watters, A (2013) Hacking at Education: TED, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Uncollege and the Hole in the Wall
The full plenary session can be viewed below: