How to learn at the School in the Cloud

Jessica Holland
Jessica Holland

Children learn fastest when left to teach themselves, according to prize-winning educational expert Sugata Mitra, which means that schools need to be radically reimagined

There’s a new type of creature beginning to colonise the world. It is small but powerful. It can speak hundreds of languages, recall obscure facts in an instant and figure out the answers to deep questions about the origin of the universe and how it will end. These creatures are going to be running the world soon and we need to give them the right tools to do so while we’re still in charge. They’re half-human, half-machine. They’re children with smartphones.

“We need to design a school for that composite creature,” says Professor Sugata Mitra. The TED prize-winning scientist and educational reformist is in Dubai, readying himself to speak at a World Government Summit that featured keynotes from the likes of Barack Obama, who urged governments to listen to their people.

Mitra’s own advocacy focuses on the argument he has been championing for the better part of two decades – a new style of schooling that involves leaving groups of kids alone to solve problems, using the internet. The role of a teacher within this system is less of an instructor and more of a curious friend, offering occasional encouragement, but mostly staying in the background. What helps the kids stay focused on the task at hand, according to Mitra, are big computer screens, glass partition walls and working on projects collaboratively.

Minimally invasive education, as it has been dubbed, doesn’t look like the old educational method of desks in rows, a teacher in charge and lots of reading, writing and ’rithmetic. There are plenty of people who question whether any learning is actually going on in this new system – whether looking up information about black holes and neurons on Wikipedia is really the same as grasping and retaining the concepts that underpin these facts. Don’t children sometimes just need to sit still and listen? But Mitra – who began letting his son use computers unassisted at the age of five, and found the hobby was sparking the boy’s curiosity about all sorts of complicated concepts – is adamant that the world is changing and schools are failing to keep up.

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An American fifth-grader uses an iPad to create a sock puppet video to entertain her classmates

The educational system currently in use around the globe “was essentially built to mass-produce clerks and assembly-line workers”, during the British Empire, “in a world where clerks and assembly-line workers were absolutely essential”, says Mitra. “We couldn’t have had progress without that. But we don’t need them now.”

These now-obsolete workers were required to write neatly, calculate numbers, follow orders to the letter and maintain the internal discipline needed to stay quiet and obedient and carry out repetitive tasks. Because of technological automation, however, this type of routine job can now be carried out by machines, and as the tech becomes more sophisticated, this effect will inevitably accelerate.

“There are jobs that are going to disappear very rapidly now,” Mitra says. “We’re not only talking about drivers and street cleaners, we’re also talking carpenters, general practitioners and eventually even heart surgeons.”

The only jobs remaining for humans, according to Mitra, will be those that involve creativity. “That’s the one thing – so far, at least – that machines can’t do,” he says. “This means that areas like design, communications, algorithms – these esoteric ends of human endeavour – they have to be brought to primary schools right away, to prepare the child who is now four for when he is 20. Creativity and imagination will become the two great requirements that the schooling system needs to provide.”

Mitra himself was born to a Bengali family in Calcutta, India, and went on to earn a PhD in physics from the Indian Institute of Technology, before working at NIIT, a multinational Indian company that designs and delivers training and educational programmes. While working there he conducted the now-famous Hole-in-the-Wall experiment, which involved installing an internet-connected computer in the wall of a slum near his office in New Delhi, designing it so that it was awkward for adults to reach but easy for children, and leaving it there. On his return a few hours later, he found kids teaching one another how to browse the web, and when he repeated the experiment in an even more remote location and followed up after two months, he found that poor rural Indian kids had taught themselves English to access information online. They didn’t ask him for advice on using the computer – they asked for a faster processor and a better mouse.

Later variations on this programme showed that kids left alone with speech-to-text software were able to radically improve their English pronunciation. Mitra also found that while it was unnecessary – perhaps even counterproductive – to have teachers offering guidance to these children, what worked well was having a facilitator in the room to act as a “grandmother”, sitting quietly and praising the kids on their progress every so often.

These ‘grandmothers’ were incorporated into a programme that Mitra went on to design, which currently is being tested in a handful of schools in India and the UK. He recruited women from around the world (including in Dubai) to act collectively as “the granny cloud”, Skyping in to classrooms to offer encouragement for an hour each week. Within these schools, students were arranged in “SOLEs” (self-organised learning environments), clustered in small groups around computers, which they used to explore answers to “big questions” posed by teachers at the start of the session.

“Children can learn almost anything by themselves,” Mitra says. “But they have to be in groups, and you have to leave them alone. Don’t mess around with them.”

Creativity and imagination will become the two great requirements that the schooling system needs to provide

Professor Sugata Mitra, TED prize-winning scientist and educational reformist

Results have been positive, but some teachers have struggled to adapt to the shift in classroom culture. At an Indian government school that has started using SOLEs, Mitra says that the principal complained to him that her students had become “rude, aggressive and overconfident”.

When pressed for an example, she said that the students had begun to correct their teachers on facts and English pronunciation. “Of course, it’s true,” she said – the kids had been right – “but that’s not how you speak to your teachers.”

While it might take a while for some educators to grasp the value of this disruptive pedagogical style, it’s imperative they do so, Mitra insists.

As gadgets shrink and perhaps one day even integrate into our bodies, it will become impossible to quiz children without knowing if they are secretly accessing the internet. There’s no use in trying to stem this tide, according to Mitra. Adults use the internet to answer all the day-to-day questions they encounter at home and at work. Why create an artificial barrier to this access on exam day?

When we embrace the idea that the internet, rather than our brains, can be our tool for storing facts and calculating figures, we free children up to develop their creativity, and to focus on interpersonal skills and ethical questions that will turn them into responsible, engaged citizens.

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A child works on creating an e-book, using two iPads

“‘Who are we? How should we interact with each other? What does race mean? How valuable are you?’” When you start asking small children questions such as this, Mitra suggests, “you’d be surprised at the richness of the answers”. He cites an example he likes to use: if two men are thirsty and one gives away his glass of water to the other, should he be admired or disparaged as a fool?

“Instead of trying to give an answer,” Mitra suggests, “you should tell kids, ‘You figure it out.’”

Once Mitra’s system of SOLEs is in place, every interaction in the classroom is an opportunity for intellectual investigation, a fact familiar to kids at one British school which has implemented the method. Mitra remembers children at the school watching raindrops run down a window, and noticing that occasionally one drop would move sideways. “I wonder why that happens,” one kid mused aloud, and another shushed her:

“Don’t say that too loudly, our teacher will make us find out.”