Excerpt from the presentation of Sugata Mitra. Sugata Mitra, the world-famous presenter shared his ideas with us at Brain Bar Budapest in 2015 at the invitation of PAGEO.
What will schools look like in the future? First, we should explain what these self-organized systems are. People often think by this we mean self-directed study, or worse, independent study. This is by no means the case!
HOLE IN THE WALL
Let’s take for instance clapping. When we listen to clapping in slow-motion, then we can hear that in the first seconds clapping is chaotic and random, then a common rhythm emerges. Emerge is really the only right word here. This is what we call a self-organized system. Some call it “spontaneous order”. It is everywhere in nature, but we know very little about it. For instance, relationships among children is such spontaneous order.
I would like to begin with an experiment of mine which I conducted 16 years ago, as at every talk where I left a “hole in the wall” the question came up: “What happened?” This hole is a computer in the wall, at three feet height. Three feet, because then every three-foot-high human being will flock to take a look, to play and understand. Why was this necessary? It was necessary so that the children formed groups, and once you have that, self-organized systems will come to be. What have we discovered with this experiment? That groups of children who use the Internet can learn everything on their own. 14-15 years ago, I said that groups of children can learn to use the Internet and computers on their own. But what happens
after they have learned to use the Internet? They begin to browse. They play games, they paint pictures, and finally they begin to browse. And the Internet gives them everything. I thought that this was not learning. But it is. The children come in, they copy their homework into a browser, they copy everything that appears on the screen, then they go back to school, and the children know they copied what they needed.
What do they do if they receive a difficult assignment in Geography, History, Natural Science, Mathematics or Biology? What if we ask 12-year-olds something about chemistry, postgraduate physics or quantum mechanics? They figure out the gist in 25 minutes and they talk like experienced physicists.
Let me cite an example from an experiment close to my heart. The children are 11-12 years old. I asked: what happens when I throw this ball to the wall? It bounces back. And will you catch it? Yes, you can catch it. And if you throw it to the wall again, it will again bounce back. If you do this many times, could it happen that the ball does not hit the wall but rather passes through it and comes out on its other side? Then they laughed and they said such a thing cannot happen.
They were given 25 minutes and the came back with Schrödinger’s equation. They said that the ball is a probability curve, it can compress, generally it aggregates on this side of the wall, that’s why it keeps coming back. But sometimes, somewhere in the universe it might aggregate on the other side. Which suggests the groups of children can learn anything on their own. What does this mean all this with regards to education, schooling, or anything else? These are experiments I conducted in several countries.
THE GATESHEAD EXPERIMENTS
In the course of the experiments we realized that when a spontaneous order emerges from a chaotic system, an adult may be present, but only one who admires the process.
So, I issued a call in England: “If you are an English grandmother who has an Internet connection and a web cam, would you give me an hour of your time per week for free?” Several hundred people wrote back, not all of them grandmothers. There were young men and women as well. You can also be a “Skype-granny” if you wish – that’s their nickname. All they do is they come up with a question, any old question, that the children need to find an answer to.
Gateshead is a small town on the banks of the Tyne river, across from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where my university is located. We emptied a room in a classroom, we put in 4-5 computers with big screens and let in 20 children. The kids asked why there were only 5 computers. Then we asked them a question: “how come only men can grow a beard? Why can women not grow a beard?” First everyone laughed, but then they got on with it, and the question pulled them into evolution, anthropology, into cells, genetics, the X and the Y chromosome, and the whole thing just went on and on, and in 25 minutes the usual miracle happened. This is a self-organized learning environment.
What did we need? Broadband, a cooperative environment, encouragement, recognition. How can we create a cooperative environment? The children only cooperate if they are alone, if no one is watching over them.
This is the SOLE method, and now let’s just take a look, how does it work? In a London school I asked the question: “Why do glowing hot rocks form at the edges of tectonic plates?” … I asked seven-year-old children! I remember to this day, for exactly 25 minutes there was huge noise and commotion, the children were running up and down. And then two little hands go up in one of the room’s corners. Everyone looked to that corner and saw the two little hands. Elementary school geology in 25 minutes.
Let us imagine an office at the end of the 19th century. There were no phones, no computers, there were barely any lights, a long row of clerks sat, because back then there were no such machines and people had to do it everything by hand. They read, understood, and followed instructions, they wrote the answers down, and if needed, they did mental arithmetic. In that system, two things were forbidden: asking a question and creativity. Then let us take a look at an examination room in India today, in 2015. Nothing has changed, the problem is exactly the same: we prepare our children for the world of 1890. But that world no longer exists.
When we take an exam, why can we have no access to computers, or to our smart phones? I thought, “what would happen if we took the Internet into the examination?” We could say here is paper and pen, and you can use the Internet, your smart phone, do what you want. We would have to tell them, look, you must learn to browse properly, to make a distinction between a good and a bad website, to compare them, to decide which one is good, what peer review means, and so forth. These are all things that everyone ought to know but it is not taught in schools. If we want to achieve change in a system, it is not sufficient to reshuffle it, but we must make an administrative decision and must change everything dramatically and fast. I have traveled all over the world and tried to tell people: “Look, this is the easiest way to do it, just give it a try.” Instead of general questions we should ask questions such as: “Where do living beings get their energy from?” The answer is obviously: “From food.” The next question would be: “How does food become energy?” They will say out of two molecules which have phosphorus in the middle.
If we want to create an unsupervised, slightly chaotic cooperative environment, then we naturally need fewer computers than children. Otherwise we would have to tell them to form groups, but this is a prescription which does not correspond to the basic principles of the method. But if there are five computers for 20 children, then you don’t need to tell them anything, because they will form groups. They have no other choice. In a way, I am trying to bring the Ph.D. system down to the level of 9-year-olds.
THERE ARE FEWER COMPUTERS THAN PUPILS. WHY?
What happens today, in the more developed part of the world, anyway, is that there are only a few computers in the SOLE or School in the Cloud system. Therefore, groups form, but when the children go home, they all have their own computers. So then they begin to write to each other, research some more, and so forth. But if we do this in school, they cease to communicate with each other, that spoils collaboration. But what do we need conversations, interactions for? It’s very simple. There is a theory in physics on why different people clapping eventually clap in sync. The human ear hears only clapping by 7-8 other people, and responds to this average.
Why, however, did nature select phosphorus as the basis of all of energy? And then we will have the answer to our big question.
SCHOOL IN THE CLOUD
When I received the one-million-dollar TED-Prize money, they called me and told me that they found a project and if we liked the idea, they would transfer the money to the university. The project was called School in the Cloud.
When you pose questions to children, including examination questions, and leave them alone to use the Internet and work in groups, and then examine them a few months later, with a paper and pencil exam without Internet, you will see how tremendously they developed. This is an atypical result. How can it be that they remember better than on the first day? Because they Googled on after the first day. When they worked in groups, they reach a certain point. Individual memory formation is another, higher step. I gave secondary school questions to 8-year-olds, and this time I examined them beforehand, too. Most examination results are good, of course they use the Internet here, and they get the answers. Individual answer scores are high, too, but not as high as before, with the exception of one subject, Geography. I asked the parents why, and they responded: “We have no idea what they do in school, but when they come home, they ask terribly difficult questions. We could only answer where we remembered something from Geography.” When children browse the Internet, the Internet does not know that they are children, and it gives them all sorts of results: scientific papers, articles, studies. The children read them and seem to understand what they read.
I began to measure this and I found some interesting things. The harder the exam and the material is, the better the results. The easier you try to make it, the worse the results become. If you say to children: now I will give you a really easy task, how will you do it? Alone or in groups? – they will respond at once that they will work alone. But when I give them something really difficult, that only 17-year-olds can solve, and ask them whether they wish to work alone or in groups, they will respond that they will work in groups.
I used the TED-Prize money that I won in 2013 to take the method to seven places in the world. Out of these five were located in India, and two in North-England. Among the Indian locations there were some where there was nothing, no electricity, no health care, no school system. On the other end of the spectrum there were middle-class English schoolchildren. I studied for three years how far the children advanced. Jerry Rothwell, the filmmaker, made a documentary film about it.
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION?
I would like to have such institutions where children study the big questions posed by their mediators. I call them “Schools in the Cloud”. You can build your own group, you can join another, you can walk back and forth from one to another, you can take a look at what others are doing – in other words it is not like a classroom at all. Korakati may be different or no different at all from English schools, but now we are looking for something like this.
Almost every order that emerges spontaneously appears at the height of chaos. This is SOLE: we put the children into an environment which permits them to be themselves and we just wait for order to emerge. Along with order comes learning. The worst that can happen is that we return in five years and nothing has changed. The best that can happen is that the examination system has been changed… It is not us effecting change. We let it happen.
He is an Australian, I am not sure what he is doing to the kids’ pronunciation, but they love him. The Internet cuts out all the time, it is extremely challenging to provide the technology, but there they are, in the largest classroom, where forty children can cooperate. Here we measured very good things. In the meantime, teachers all over the world tried out SOLE, I cannot even remember how many, several tens of thousands on all continents. So here is the next billion people. If you invite me next year as well, I can tell you where they ended up.
EARLY SCIENTIFIC WORK
Sugata Mitra received his Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) on Solid State Physics in the 1970s. During his doctoral research, he discovered that the structure of molecules determines their function more than the constituent atoms. After completing his Ph.D., he began researching energy storage systems, first in the Center for Energy Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, then at Technische Universität, Vienna, Austria. This scientific pursuit resulted in a new design for zinc-chlorine batteries (1982), which is used by the military. In addition, he studied the flow of electricity through biological systems, computer networks, the human mind, memory, and learning. Mitra was one of the first in the world to show that stimulating nerve networks can help decipher the mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease (1994).
THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION
Sugata Mitra is the initiator of Minimally Invasive Education (MIE), a pedagogical method which in essence advocates that children
learn in unsupervised environments from experiments and experiences that they themselves dream up. He proved this by the “Hole in the Wall” experiment, which started out in 1999 in a district of New Delhi, and was eventually expanded to include other countries as well. In this experiment Mitra literally put a “hole in the wall” and left a computer for the slum’s youth to use as they wished to. It quickly became clear that free and public access to a computer and the Internet provided to a group of children results in the children independently developing their computer, English language, and learning skills such that it improved their school achievement. Moreover, their ability to interact socially was affected as well: they formed individual opinions and value systems.
Mitra developed this method further in the SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environment) program. He gave a talk about this project at the Budapest Brain Bar in 2015. Mitra showed that, building on a spontaneously formed order, children can be left alone to learn under minimal external intervention. There is no need to spoon feed them information and knowledge. If we let the children form groups themselves in order to answer an appropriately stimulating, complex, but smart and interesting question, then we will see such marvelous results as young school children understanding how it is possible, according to Schrödinger’s theory, that when we throw a ball at the wall that the ball may drop down on the wall’s other side. In addition, Mitra saw that children retain an extraordinary amount of information, because if a question awakens their curiosity, then they continue the research at home.
The SOLE method and cloud-based learning may reform the education system: it might motivate reform of the examination system to spur students on to creative problem resolution instead of accumulating factual knowledge, which corresponds a great deal better to teamwork at the modern workplace. Moreover, it motivates the questioner to pose ever more complex questions that focus on research, not just the answers that the Internet browser lists as first hit. It is of paramount importance that we do not enforce learning, but we simply let it emerge in groups, in chaos that slowly becomes more systematic, creatively, without supervision. With adequate pointers and motivating support people’s natural curiosity and adaptability finds the answer to any question, be that about the English language, the mysteries of Internet browsing, or plate tectonics.
excerpt from the presentation of Sugata Mitra
Sugata Mitra, the world-famous presenter shared his ideas with us at Brain Bar Budapest at the invitation of PAGEO.