One of the pleasures, indeed the only real pleasure, of a recurrent 850-mile solo drive that I endure, is the freedom to gorge on hour upon hour of NPR. (OK, so there is also the transient pleasure of consuming gas station goodies, but the subsequent guilt—not to mention the car full of accusatory crumbs and wrappers—quickly cancels any joy in that indulgence.) In the interval between predawn takeoff and sunset arrival, a nerd like me can amass an impressive array of new info, the sharing of which my dear husband patiently endures on our evening walks. (Sample from Sunday’s excursion: An experienced dealer in Afghan carpets can assay the quality of a rug by rubbing his fingernails across its back and noting the pitch of the sound. Who knew?)
The best of the best on this journey was an episode of TED Radio Hour hosted by Guy Raz on “Unstoppable Learning.” The show featured the ever-intriguing Annie Murphy Paul…can’t wait for her new book Brilliant…and the talk by Rita Pierson that we featured in this blog on 5/30/13, along with some interesting follow-up discussion.
But the most riveting, and perhaps a bit unsettling, segment featured Sugata Mitra addressing “How Can Children Teach Themselves?” Dr. Mitra designed the astounding “Hole in the Wall” experiments which indicated, in his own words, that “In nine months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language will reach the same standard as an office secretary in the West.” He was awarded the million-dollar 2013 TED prize to “build a place where children can explore and learn on their own — and teach one another — using resouces from the worldwide cloud.” (Read more about this by clicking here.)
You really should allow yourself the pleasure of experiencing Dr. Sitra’s gentle, humorous, and humble explanation of his work by clicking here. It’s truly delightful and will make you happy that you share the planet with someone like him. Don’t you have 12 minutes and 29 seconds for that? Listen while you clear off that messy desk!
In 1999, while trying to determine how people interact with kiosks, Dr. Sitra stuck a computer in a hole in the wall three feet above the ground in a New Delhi slum. It quickly attracted a crowd of children. Dr. Sitra offered no explanation to them. He returned to his office to monitor that computer remotely. Nothing happened for a long time, but suddenly, despite the lack of a keyboard, Microsoft Paint appeared, followed by Microsoft Word. The children had figured out the character map and were using it to type on the screen.
When skeptics insisted that someone had assisted the children, Dr. Sitra tried the same experiment in a remote village. When he returned, the children were playing games on the computer, demanding a better mouse and explaining that because the computer only used English, they had been forced to teach themselves English.
After an American critic labeled the phenomenon “minimally effective learning,” Dr. Sitra designed “an experiment doomed to fail.” He set up a computer–again, English only—at a roadside in an impoverished village to see if children could teach themselves the mechanisms of DNA replication. And left it there. Upon his return, the students said that they “understood nothing.” You will have to listen to the talk to find out what really happened in his absence. (Teaser: it’s the best line in the whole talk.)
Dr. Sitra feels that we should “look at learning as the product of educational self-organization.” As I listened, I began to wonder if the best thing that I could do for my college students might be to hand them a bunch of complex material, leave the room, and return in a couple of months. Could that be right? Am I actually useless, or worse, obstructive? Was Rita Pierson wrong about the role of relationship in learning?
I need not have worried. In a subsequent talk during the same episode, Dr. Sitra explains the importance of an encouraging presence to assist learning. I’m saving that for a subsequent post.
- A Response to Mitra Part 2: Classroom Pedagogy (thelongwalkblog.wordpress.com)
- A school in the cloud: Sugata Mitra accepts the TED Prize at TED2013 (ted.com)
- Unstoppable Learning: NPR: TED Radio Hour (cluelesshomonyms.wordpress.com)
- A Response to Mitra Part 1: Education and Employability (thelongwalkblog.wordpress.com)
- From the Hole in the Wall to Yale: A Q&A with Arun Chavan (ted.com)
- Super Site of the Week: Rita Pierson Lets It Rip (pleasureinlearning.com)