The future of education: Sugata Mitra on self-organized learning

Students at the School in the Cloud in Korakati, India, investigate the questions that matter to them online, with the assistance of a teacher via the Granny Cloud.

Students at the School in the Cloud in Korakati, India, investigate the questions that matter to them online, with the assistance of a teacher via the Granny Cloud. Photo: Jerry Rothwell

By Sugata Mitra, 2013 TED Prize winner

Schools need to please parents. If they don’t, parents won’t send their children to school. So schools try to create what parents want: children who grow up into happy people, marry the kind of people their parents want, produce wonderful grandchildren and, in general, live a happy life.

Schools need to please the Government as the Government pays for schools. The Government wants people who are law abiding, upright citizens, who, when needed, will defend their country and be loyal and worthy citizens of it.

Schools do not try to please employers because employers don’t fund schools. Most employers today need to train the products of schools to suit their purpose because the schools don’t bother to.

Your peers want you to grow up to be cool. They want you to dress well, be tech savvy, talk the language of the day, enjoy music and movies, drink and be fun. Schools don’t design their education for any of these things, because peers don’t matter. They can be ignored.

Fifty years later, when your parents are gone, the government has changed 20 times and the employers are unrecognizable, you are left with the only people who your education was not designed for – Your peers: people with whom you will live for the rest of your life.

Schools, as we know them now, are the product of an age that has ended. They are out-dated and obsolete.

Until well past the middle of the twentieth century, the only ICT available to manage the world were telephones and the bureaucratic administrative machinery made of people. Until the end of the 19th century even the telephone was not available; data was written on paper and moved by people on foot, bicycle, horses and ships. The data was processed by clerks and managers. The system was perfected by the Victorians in the zenith of the British Empire. Like most things designed by the Victorians, it was a robust system. It worked. Networks of identical human computers, sitting in identical buildings across the continents created most of the world we live in today.

In order to keep this gigantic military-industrial machine working, the Victorians needed identical people who would fit into the right place in the machine, anywhere on the planet. Schools were designed to produce these people. Schools had identical curricula, pedagogy and assessment systems. They were efficient engines that would convert children into identical people in just ten years. The predominant skills would be reading, writing and arithmetic. Knowledge would be contained in books. Since books are not always accessible, their salient points would be stored in each human brain and used when needed. The government, major religions and the military would decide what these salient points are. Schools would ensure their storage and retrieval.

Brains are made of switches connected to other switches. In the 1950s we learned to mimic this with silicon, to make the digital computer. Then we learned to connect computers to computers with telephones. As the Age of Empires ended with devastating wars, the Internet emerged. The change was so rapid that there was no time to dismantle the old machinery. The schools continued to churn out their identical products – parts for a gigantic human computer that no longer existed, nor needed.

Within a few decades, institutions began to dematerialise – banking, the stock exchange, entertainment, newspapers, books, money were all strings of zeros and ones inside the evolving Internet that is now simply called ‘The Cloud’. It is already omnipresent and indestructible. In a few more decades, it will probably be sentient, non-material and, therefore, eternal.

In 1999, I accidentally glimpsed ‘The Cloud’ though an experiment often called ‘The Hole in the Wall’. I found that groups of children living in the streets of India would learn to use computers and the Internet by themselves. Children who had very little or no knowledge of English and had never seen a computer before. In the next five years, through many experiments, I learned that groups of children can complete educational objectives by themselves, using the Internet, if you leave them alone. By 2009, it was possible to ‘beam’ teachers to places where they could not or did not want to go. I made a ‘granny cloud’ of retired school teachers who would encourage children to learn by themselves.

By 2012, teachers around the world were using SOLEs, ‘self organised learning environments’, where children would group around Internet connections to discuss Big Questions. The teacher would merge into the background and watch as learning happened. ‘Why do we have five fingers and toes on each limb? What is so special about five?’, I once asked a group of 10 year olds in the little town of Villa Mercedes in Argentina. The answer would surprise you.

“How do you multiply two numbers?,” I asked a child. ‘With my phone’, he says.

We need a curriculum of Big Questions, pedagogy of self-organised learning, examinations where children can talk, share and use the Internet, and new, peer assessment systems. People don’t need to be machines anymore. In the Age of The Cloud, schools have to become Schools of The Cloud.

Governments will find it hard to do this, but teachers can – if they stand back and let the Cloud in.

Find out more about about Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize wish »

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