Why TED Prize Winner Sugata Mitra Thinks Classrooms Should Look Like Airline Lounges

April 6, 2016 • Blog Post • BY JAMES DALY, WIRED BRAND LAB

IN THIS ARTICLE

  • Advancing education requires breaking the mold of traditional systems—Self Organized Learning Environments is one way to achieve this goal
  • Children in unsupervised groups can learn, even if given no formal instruction

The classroom of the future will be an environment where students can eat, drink, study, play and learn all in the same space

Innovation pops up in the strangest places. For Sugata Mitra, a professor at Newcastle University, it happened in a sprawling slum in New Delhi.

In 1999, Mitra was looking into new ways of injecting excitement into the often-tedious world of schooling, and he wondered: Can kids teach themselves? Mitra cut a hole in the wall of a building that bordered the notorious Kalkaji urban slum. In that small opening he placed a PC and keyboard with Internet access, but posted no instructions. Curious children soon began toying with the mysterious machine and within a few hours, several had figured out how to operate it, go online and even send messages. Mitra had his answer: Children in unsupervised groups can learn, even if given no formal instruction.

In years since, Mitra took the insights sparked by the “Hole in the Wall” experiment and showed how Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE), as he called them, can create dynamic learning environments in schools. He also revealed that unsupervised learning can be facilitated by a friendly, if not necessarily knowledgeable, adult. (If a real adult was not physically around they could be brought in via Skype—a setup he fondly calls “The Granny Cloud.”)

Mitra’s current project, called School in the Cloud, ties those two concepts together. Through it, children research a big question such as, “Can trees think?” in unsupervised groups. This sort of activity can improve reading comprehension, self-confidence, communication, collaboration and Internet skills.

Mitra’s work, for which he received the $1 million TED Prize in 2013, showed that a child’s natural curiosity is the best impetus for learning. His ideas about what he calls “minimally invasive education” could help boost the learning and life skills of children throughout the world, and dramatically reshape the way children are taught.

Mitra spoke with HPE Matter about the technology that powers School in the Cloud and his hopes for the future of education.

How many kids and classrooms are involved in the School in the Cloud?

There are seven Schools in the Cloud that are part of the TED Prize project. Five are in India and two are in the U.K. They range in location from extremely remote (the Sunderbans, India) to urban England (Newcastle). Other than these, thousands of teachers and schools all around the world are practicing SOLE.

You’re several years into the School in the Cloud project. What has surprised you about its progress? 

The speed with which non-English speaking children pick up English. Children who had no knowledge of English a year ago are speaking and reading in English within one year, with just one hour of Internet every day. It’s amazing how quickly they can pick up skills. In one village in Bengal, I found a boy of about 12 years writing Java code. He says he learned it himself with a little help, over Skype, from an Australian friend of mine who is a part of the Granny Cloud.

What we’ve seen is that if you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making it happen, it’s about letting it happen. The School in the Cloud is like a sixth sense. It’s a combination of a human and tech, a composite entity. This kind of learning will turn classrooms and education as we know it into museums.

How so? What do you think the classroom of the future will look like?
 

Classrooms should look like airline lounges, where studying, working, playing, eating and drinking all happen together.
 

That’s a big change. What hurdles do you face?

Too many educational systems are locked into sticking with what they’ve always done despite the changing times. The examination system in most countries tests exactly the opposite of what a School in the Cloud does. Exams look for individual, memory-based ability to answer questions and write the answers down by hand on pieces of paper. Within this system, the School in the Cloud is a useless waste of time and money. Unless examinations change, my work will remain unnecessary and unwanted.

So how can the education system keep up with the pace of accelerated tech change?

Somewhat similar to how the transportation system adapted to the change from horse to automobile—build new roads, traffic lights, new signs, licensing systems, traffic police, driving etiquette, etc. It’s a big job but it will get done—eventually.

It has to get done. Children get a little surprised when they hear the adults in the room talk about the word “technology.” Soon, they will say, “What’s that?” In a few years, we will see the traditional definition of “knowing,” which is this mindless memorizing that we’ve become so accustomed to, become obsolete. Many organizations are working to get free Internet into the hands of many.
 

How important is reliable Internet access to the educational situation? 

It is as essential to many as electricity and clean drinking water. Internet access needs to become a right. Children need to have free access everywhere. The Internet makes it possible for the passengers to become the drivers just as the automobile did a generation ago.
 

What would you say to the parents of a child entering kindergarten today? How should they best encourage learning in this new world?

Encourage them to use the Internet in groups using a large screen in a living room—never a tiny device up in a bedroom! Ask them questions that matter to you. They will feel proud they helped. Admire them. Don’t teach them the way you were taught. They are born in another time. Let them learn in that time and space.


 

To download the HPE + 451 Research report “The Transformative Impact of the Cloud,” CLICK HERE.

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