When ‘learning’ becomes obsolete

When ‘learning’ becomes obsolete

by Sugata Mitra, Educational Technology Expert 

Children, given access to the Internet in groups, can learn anything by themselves. Indeed, ‘learning’ itself may no longer be as important as it used to be. 

I knew nothing of this when I did an experiment with children and a computer connected to the Internet embedded in a wall of a slum in New Delhi (1999). 

Children began to surf and teach each other to surf in about eight hours. There was nobody to show them anything. They learnt how to play games, paint and finally how to look for information. They learnt some crude but workable English to enable them to do all this. We, admiring adults, were astounded. The press called it the ‘hole in the wall’.

We (my research colleagues and I), funded by the World Bank, ICICI bank and the Government of Delhi, repeated the experiment many times over in the slums and villages of India. The results were always the same – digital literacy out of nowhere. 

The children began to use the Internet for their homework. They copied down things from websites and took them to their astounded teachers. ‘This is not learning’, everyone admonished me. They, and I, had missed a vital point, a mistake that would cost me several years. The children were, almost always, copying the right things down. How did they find the websites that were relevant? How did they find the right answers? 

Sugata Mitra - hole in the wall

Credit: TED/Sugata Mitra

We continued with several years of experiments until it was clear that children in groups do have an understanding that is much greater than that of each individual. It was this collective ‘hive’ mind that was working like an efficient teacher. I had seen nothing like this before and it took me years to realise that what we were witnessing at the ‘holes in the walls’ was an example of a self organising system – where spontaneous order appears out of nowhere. 

I brought the results to England in 2006. There, with the help of a teacher, we created the hole in the wall inside the classroom. We called it a Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE). It consisted of a mildly chaotic situation caused by a few Internet connections, about a quarter of the number of children present. The children formed groups and milled around, much as they did in the Indian experiments. They began to answer questions years beyond their time. We admired them – they laughed and went still further. 

I made a ‘Granny Cloud’ for children in India, consisting of people who had the time and inclination to talk to children over Skype. Children who are in places where good teachers do not, or cannot, go.  They don’t teach, they encourage the children to learn by themselves. 

In 2013, using the TED prize, I built seven experimental ‘Schools in the Cloud’. Five of them are in India ranging from the remote Sunderbans to urban, middle class Maharashtra. Two are in England inside urban, middle class schools. ‘Schools in the Cloud’ – spaces where SOLEs and the Granny Cloud come together. 

The results are not yet fully analysed but we do find significant improvements in English reading comprehension, conversation, self confidence and, of course, Internet usage and searching skills.

A ‘School in the Cloud’ is easier to make and maintain inside a regular school, rather than a stand-alone facility in the community. At least that is what I feel at the moment. 

The teaching profession as we know it is obsolete because it caters to an examination system that was created to serve the needs of another time. 

Most national curricula for children consist of out-dated norms from the last century. These include excessive emphasis on spelling, grammar, cursive writing, multiplication tables and mental arithmetic. These skills were needed and valued in the last century, mostly for clerical work. 

The examination system requires learners to answer questions on paper, using handwriting. The learner must be alone and not in any communication with anyone. The learner must not use any assistive technology other than a pencil, and perhaps a ruler, namely, technology from the 18th century.

In order to cater to the needs of such examination systems, teachers, good or bad, need to use teaching methods from 18th century consisting of rote learning, drill and practice and negative reinforcement.

After the school years, when the erstwhile learner enters the real world, he is expected to solve problems using the Internet, to collaborate with others while solving problems, to type rather than write by hand, to use calculators and not their minds to calculate, to use spell checkers and grammar checkers while typing, and so on. 

In other words, the learner is asked to do the opposite of what he did in school. 

The examination system needs to be changed to include collaborative problem solving using assistive technology. If this is done, teachers will be free to enable learning in newer ways. The easiest and cheapest way to cause global change in education is to change the examination system.

This has to happen. There is a generation that uses assistive technology, particularly the mobile tablet phone, all the time, except when they are in school. They learn continuously from these devices.

There is powerful resistance to these ideas. The resistance comes from an older generation with a subconscious desire to return to the 1920s, a time that they believe was the best the world ever had. 

The examination system is obsolete and so are the teachers that are forced to cater to it.

Fortunately, teachers understand this. Since 2014, teachers in all five continents were making SOLEs in their schools. I have lost count of how many they are. Collectively, they are changing the nature of education. 

When automobiles took over from horse drawn carriages, the coachmen went away and the passengers became the drivers. Eventually, cars will drive themselves and ‘driving’ will become an obsolete skill. A child, 20 years from now, will ask, ‘what does ‘driving’ mean?’

When the Internet takes over from ‘taught’ schools, the learners become their own teachers. But only for a while, until the immense network drives all learning and makes ‘learning’ itself obsolete. 

A child, 20 years from now, may well ask ‘what does ‘learning’ mean?’


Sugata Mitra will keynote at i4pl in Toronto, November 2-4, 2016. Get your tickets and learn more here.

1 Comment
  • Deepak Nemlekar

    September 15, 2016 at 1:51 pm Reply

    Dear Mr Sugata Mitra,

    I appreciate this methodology. I remember in 1973 when I started my 4 years engg diploma, our principle introduced an open book test, many students including some merit holders failed in those test.

    It would be a great idea to have this system which allows the student to explore what he likes and learn in the process. However do we have a sort of a guideline or a structure which the takes the student along, step by step, upto say high school level.

    Are their any evaluation processes established to qualify a certain level.

    Warm Regards,

    Deepak Nemlekar

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