Who Needs a Teacher?

npr logo

npr logo (Photo credit: photologue_np)

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.

Sugata Mitra "Hole in the wall”

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!

1973 Delhi Slum

1973 Delhi Slum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.)

DNA replication or DNA synthesis is the proces...

DNA replication or DNA synthesis is the process of copying a double-stranded DNA molecule. This process is paramount to all life as we know it (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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6 comments on “Who Needs a Teacher?

  1. xiousgeonz says:

    Okay, Okay, sometime today or tomorrow I *will* clean this desk and listen to it. (Perhaps I’ll post before and after pics :)). Looking forward to teh “subsequent post.”

    • Karen Dougherty says:

      Thanks for checking in with us! The entire NPR TED Hour on “Unstoppable Learning” was really interesting. We’ve been focusing on the importance of relationships in learning at community colleges, so next week I plan a post on that aspect. I just love learning about learning. I also plan to feature The Resource Room as a Super Site in the near future…lots of great stuff there.

  2. kencasey99 says:

    Thanks so much Karen–this is educational dynamite–very explosive–now I have to ask, what do I need to blow up?

    • Karen Dougherty says:

      I’ve been wondering the same thing! As I listened, I first thought I should just pack my satchel and leave the building. Later in the program, though, the speakers discussed the importance of relationship with students, so maybe I’ll stick around for a bit. As to what to blow up, Dr. Mitra’s words might offer guidance: ““The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling] system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.” Maybe we should start with ditching anything that produces those identical people…you are known for doing exactly the opposite and for cultivating divergent points of view. Thanks for reading. Write a post soon, please!

  3. […] what we call Thursday on the four-day work weeks of summer… Yesterday at pleasureinlearning.com, I read “You really should allow yourself the pleasure of experiencing Dr. Sitra’s gentle, […]

  4. […] Who Needs a Teacher? (pleasureinlearning.com) […]

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