Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, believes so.
Q.What did you learn from the original “hole in the wall” experiment?
A.The first thing to point out is that it was done 14 years ago, at a time when few children in India had access to computers. I noticed the rich parents saying that their sons and daughters must be gifted, because they were so good with computers. And since we know that gifted kids are not born only to rich parents, why would there not be similar children in the slums? I was curious to see what would happen if I gave an Internet-connected computer to the kind of kids who never had one.
We noticed that they learned how to surf within hours. It was a bit of a surprise. Long story short, they would teach themselves whatever they had to to use the computer, such was the attraction of the machine.
Q.What does this mean for education?
A.In those days, the main question was what does it mean for training, because back then people were trained to use computers. So I said it looks like we don’t have to do that.
But I got curious about the fact that the children were teaching themselves a smattering of English. So I started doing a whole range of experiments, and I found that if you left them alone, working in groups, they could learn almost anything once they’ve gotten used to the fact that you can research on the Internet. This was done between 2000 and 2006.
I came to England in 2006, and the schools said, why aren’t you doing it here? So I did, and I realized that what I’ve got has nothing to do with poor children. It probably is just a new way in which children learn in this new environment. It needs two things. First, broadband. That’s fine, everybody loves that. The second thing is, it needs the teacher to stand back.
At first I thought that the children were learning in spite of the teacher not interfering. But I changed my opinion, and realized this was happening because the teacher was not interfering. At that point, I didn’t become entirely popular with teachers. But I explained to them that the job has changed. You ask the right kind of question, then you stand back and let the learning happen.
Q.Do schools need to be radically changed to implement this, or is this a technique that fits into the current structure of schools?
A.At the moment I pitch it as a technique that you can bring into your schools. But that’s not the real story, which is that the current schooling system is a leftover from the Victorian age of empire. In that world, there were no computers, no telegraphs and data was carried around on ships. This meant that the pillars of education were reading, writing and arithmetic. That age is gone. The system was wonderfully engineered, but we don’t need it anymore; we need something else. But you can’t just say that without saying how you do it.
What I’m doing is I’m putting my foot in the door by saying here’s a new way. Try it. If you’re happy with it, then I’ll say let’s look at the curriculum top to bottom. If we can convert the curriculum into big questions, if we can turn assessment into peer assessment, then neurophysiology tells us that learning gets enhanced. Finally, if you add admiration — what I call the grandmother’s method, where you stand behind and encourage them. Put all of this together and you get a new way to do schooling.
Q.So it seems that you’re saying we don’t need teachers at all.
A.We need teachers to do different things. The teacher has to ask the question, and tell the children what they have learned. She comes in at the two ends, a cap at the end and a starter at the beginning.
Teachers are not supposed to be repositories of information which they dish out. That is from an age when there were no other repositories of information, other than books or teachers, neither of which were portable. A lot of my big task is retraining these teachers. Now they have to watch as children learn.
Q.Is there a problem with this in that it will serve the good students well, but leave those who need more coaching behind?
A.Well, yes, to some extent. But there are some interesting things about children working in groups if those groups are self-made. Once you let children do that, the system has a self-correcting ability. Having said that, will there be good students and bad students? Of course.
Q.Does this work for all levels of instruction?
A.It doesn’t work the same way with adolescents, and definitely not with adults. With 8- to 12-year-olds, that’s the age where big questions turn them on.
Q.What are your specific plans with the prize?
A.In order to see if this sort of self-organized learning environment is suitable I need to have one in which I have some control over and can do measurements with. So I want to build one of these learning spaces somewhere.
It will be totally automatic, completely controlled from the cloud. There will be a supervisor, but that person is not going to be a computer expert or a teacher in anything. She — and it will probably be a she — will be there only for health and safety requirements.
The rest of the school, if we call it a school, is a facility that I can hand over to a mediator from the cloud. She logs in from her home, wherever her home is, and she’s able to control everything inside, the lights, the air-conditioning, you name it. Then there are four mediators who Skype in and use the pedagogical method. That’s going to take a lot of work.
The second bit is that schools all over the world have been using this method. We need to do a massive multiplication, and TED is going to help me do that. I am going to try to put that into homes; get your children and their friends together. Then, every time they do it, I’ll ask them to collect data and send it to a Web site. If I succeed, in two years I’ll have massive data from all over the world. By that time I’ll be done building the facility and I’ll be ready to build a new model.
Q.Where do you think this school will be?
A.I’d like to do it in India, because I’d know how to get it done. There will be less of a learning curve, I know who the contractors are, and I know how not to get cheated. So I’d like to do it there, but it’s not set in stone.