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Can Children Teach Themselves?

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ted.com/sugata

Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra gave street kids in a slum in New Delhi access to a computer connected to the Internet, and found that they quickly taught themselves how to use it. This was the moment he says he discovered a new way of teaching.

He calls it the grandmother technique, and it goes like this: expose a half dozen or so kids to a computer, and let them have at it. The only supervision required is an adult to listen the kids brag about what they learn. It’s the opposite, he says, of the disciplinary ways of many parents—more like a kindly grandmother, who rewards curiosity with acceptance and encouragement. And it is a challenge to the past century and a half of formalized schooling.

Since this first experience in 1999, Mitra has been working to extend the notion of self-organized learning to address the needs of poor children, especially in developing countries, who have little or no educational resources. He is convinced that school children can teach themselves just about anything—that they can achieve educational objectives without formal direction. For these kids, formal education, at least as practiced in the U.K., where he is professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, is of little help.

His ideas, however, have implications for formal education in the west, too. Mitra doesn’t have kind words for English schooling, which he says is better suited to the needs of the British empire than the age of Twitter. England ran three quarters of the globe through a vast bureaucracy that relied on the ability of clerks to write letters and tally spreadsheets by hand. Competency in reading, writing and arithmetic was paramount, and formal classroom teaching was the best way to instill the three Rs. But as the tools of education have changed radically, schooling hasn’t.  The British system, he says, “was a phenomenal achievement, but it’s out of date. It’s not needed.”

The question is, what is needed—or what will be needed in the future? Mitra thinks self-organized learning will be an important part. “There may be 10 different ways to do this. I believe I have touched on one of the ways.”

Last night Mitra won the $1 million TED Prize for his work. He will use the money to establish a lab in New Delhi that will put his ideas of a “School in the Cloud” to the test. The lab will be set up as a kind of cyber café, where 48 kids at any one time can go to learn English, considered in India to be key to any child’s future. Volunteer “grandmothers”—retired school teachers, for the most part—will participate via Skype to lend guidance. The cyber café will serve as a lab to see how self-organized learning can be scaled globally. “I want to see if this is feasible,” he says. “What are the technical problems, what are the management problems? If it works, we’ll have a technique that will level the playing field, and that is the big missing piece.”

Self-organized learning is potentially disruptive to traditional education in the west, and in talking about it Mitra has alienated some teachers. For now, he’s keeping to the developing world, and to the teaching of English.

His long-term ambitions go further, however. “My agenda,” he says, “is to see how far this can go.”

Fred Guterl About the Author: Fred Guterl is the executive editor of Scientific American and author of Fate of the Species (Bloomsbury). Follow on Twitter @fredguterl.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Katelyn_Thompson 8:17 am 02/27/2013

    just as Jose implied I didn’t even know that some people can get paid $5147 in one month on the computer. did you see this page… http://www.snag4.cℴm

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  2. 2. collettedesmaris 8:53 am 02/27/2013

    If the child can read, the child can educate him or herself. I know – I self-educated at a very young age, and continue to do so.
    The article states: “Mitra has been working to extend the notion of self-organized learning to address the needs of poor children, especially in developing countries, who have little or no educational resources.”

    If the poor children he speaks of here have little or no educational resources, they probably won’t have access to computer systems. In that event, books will do just fine – books were my learning resource.

    I am in complete agreement with Mitra – children can self-educate; providing they can read.

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  3. 3. kfreels 2:06 pm 02/27/2013

    The problem is managing a way to document this education in a way that others who have never met you can readily gauge your knowledge on the subjects that are important in a particular line of work. Right now, the degree system, although antiquated, is all we have.

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  4. 4. ersmit 2:15 pm 02/27/2013

    Lovely story, congratulations to Sugata Mitra on his well-deserved award!

    I would like to point out to Mr. Guteri, though, that this idea that children can teach themselves is nothing new.

    Free schools and democratic schools have been experimenting with child-led education for decades now. Unschooling is more popular than ever. Alfie Kohn, Gever Tulley, Sir Ken Robinson, and other innovators of progressive education are sharing the TED limelight with Mitra.

    And increasingly, science is recognizing that self-directed learning is the natural state of education. Modern hunter-gatherer children learn this way, and our ancestors probably did, too.

    Consistent with Mitra’s observations, One Laptop Per Child has found that illiterate children from developing countries will teach themselves to read, given access to written language. (See http://www.technologyreview.com/news/506466/given-tablets-but-no-teachers-ethiopian-children-teach-themselves/ )

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  5. 5. Matthewt69 8:18 pm 02/27/2013

    I doubt kids would be able to educate themselves much beyond the surface of any given subject. Learning English is a great example – how can you learn English without speaking to competent English speakers? And why would a small child think learning English is important enough to exert any significant effort towards it? Learning is a social process that requires interaction with people competent in the area in which you want to learn. It also requires some direction regarding which areas are valuable and important.

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  6. 6. Wayne Williamson 6:32 pm 02/28/2013

    Interesting…this is a lot along the lines of 4 and 5 year olds telling their parents how to do something on the computer in the US…granted, not as common any more but 10 to 15 years ago it was.

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  7. 7. bluefish 9:47 pm 02/28/2013

    Matthewt69 I would suggest you find the TED talk he did a few years ago about the computer self teaching this references. It answers quite a few of the questions you bring up, and in general gives a better explanation of what this particular fellow is up to in education.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Quinn the Eskimo 9:57 pm 03/2/2013

    Kinda puts a teaching degree in a new light, eh?

    But the question before us is: “Can Children Teach Themselves?”

    We already have.

    Link to this
  9. 9. bucketofsquid 6:05 pm 03/5/2013

    Many decades ago I was placed in a self teaching math class in 8th grade. I did so well that they put me in an instructor led algebra class. I barely passed because I was so bored. In the self teaching class I got more personal time with the teacher simply because we only talked to her when we were stuck on something.

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