If you step back, kids achieve the impossible, emergent properties are always astonishing – Sugata Mitra at ALT-C

The full transcript of Sugata Mitra’s keynote to the ALT-C conference last month will be published shortly but I took some notes to embed my own learning. I thought these might be helpful to others, as they’re easier to skim than either a full transcript or 54 minutes of video.

The (or A) Future of Learning: Education as a Self-Organising System

  • 50 million children have more than adequate resources to support learning and lifestyle
  • 200 m have adequate resources
  • 750 m have inadequate resources

In the the UK, we’re dealing with top two blocks plus top slice of the third.

Learners here know they can find stuff out in 5 mins online, that professional qualifications are no guarantee of a job, and that bus drivers can earn as much as professors. So what are the convincing reasons to commit to education.

In the top two blocks, the problems are relevance and aspiration; in the third block, it’s problems of resources.

“There are places on Earth, in every country, where, for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go…”

In the developing world, it’s geographically remote places; in the UK it’s socially/culturally remote places. (In the UK, the correlation is between high density of council housing and poor school results.)

It’s the places where teachers won’t go that they’re needed the most. In 1999, the rich kids in Delhi had computers bought by their parents; the poor kids didn’t know what a computer was.

Measures of computer literacy: kids left alone reach the same level as an office secretary within nine months. This finding is independent of gender, ethnicity, geography, socio-economic status or any other variable.

Around this time (circa 2002) something different started to happen. Many of the schools where the computers had been placed started to report improvements in English, Science and Mathematics. At first this was puzzling because they seemed to be playing games all the time.

Hyderabad experiment

Private schools in poor areas of Hyderabad which make money by promising to teach English. However, they have difficulty getting good teachers for reasons mentioned above they get teachers with poor accents, so they fail at job interview.

Sugata Mitra (SM) loaded speech-to-text software onto computers. Voice recognition only works with a voice it has been ‘trained’ to. So SM trained it with a neutral English accent, and then locked down the training function. At first, the children could only get it to type out nonsense. SM said, You have to make it work, I don’t know how you can do that, and I’m going away now. They downloaded films and all sorts of stuff to help them.

Children will do things when they have a reason. In the west, they don’t seem to have a reason.

Arthur C Clarke

Two quotes:

  • A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be.
  • If children are interested, education happens.

Kalikuppam Experiment, 2007

Hypothesis that groups of children can navigate the Internet to achieve educational objectives on their own. The questions are how many objectives, when, where?

Moved to Newcastle in 2006 when the university got > £1m for improvement of schooling in poor areas of India.

The first staff meeting was critical of the idea that children can take care of their own schooling. “That’s too much.” So let’s design an experiment to show that there are some things that kids cannot teach themselves.

Kalikuppam village in 2007 many parents had died folllowing the 02004 Tsunami.

Let’s show that they can’t teach themselves about replication of DNA. SM left the kids with some material that he said was quite complex. The kids asked him what it was about, and he said he didn’t quite know.

Afterwards the kids said they couldn’t understand it at all. How long did it take them to realise that? They said they’d looked at it every day. Why did they do that, if they couldn’t understand? “Apart from the fact that improper replication of DNA causes causes genetic disease we didn’t understand anything.” Lesson: the bars children set for themselves are higher than those we might set for them.

Pre-test scores were about 5% correct. Post-test were 26 & 30%. But 30% is still a fail. SM found the kids had a 22-year-old friend, who he enlisted to use the “method of the grandmother”: you stand behind them and you admire them, you say what was that diagram, let me see that again, my goodness, I couldn’t possibly have understood that on my own. The post-test results went up to 50%.

Gateshead Experiment 2009

Every one of the students had a computer. Make yourselves into groups of four. Three rules:

  1. each group can use only one computer between four
  2. if you don’t like your group, you can move to another one; if you like someone in another group, you can invite them to join your group
  3. you can look over the shoulders of other groups, then come back to your own group and claim what you’ve learnt as your own work (yes, it’s cheating)

Gave the 10 year olds, six GCSE questions. The hardest problem was getting the teacher out of the room. The best group got everything right in 20 minutes; the worst in 45 minutes.

The teacher asked, Is this learning? SM said he didn’t know, but came back a few months later and give them the same questions in exam conditions. The scores were exactly the same.

SM put an ad in The Guardian asking for British grandmothers with broadband access at home who could spare one hour a week. He got 200, which were boiled down to 40. Some of them had decades of experience as primary teachers. They use Skype to act as grandmothers to the kids in rural India.

Self-organised learning environments are basically big screen computers with broadband, with furniture to support clustering around the screen.

How far can we go with this?

If you step back, kids will achieve impossible results. SM went to Turin and asked the teachers to let him show them how it works. He asked the teachers to leave. He started to write questions on the blackboard in English, then asked the kids to answer, having organised them into fours. They stared blankly. So shall I bring the teachers back? No. One child entered the English question into Google Translate, wrote the translation on the board, and then they got to work. It took 20 minutes to get the answer. Questions were things like, Where is Calcutta? Who was Pythagoras and what did he do?

Melbourne 2010

Mixed group of white and aborigine children. Qs: What is lightning? What are ions? A lot of curricular knowledge is learnt in a short time.

Kids say the method is easier and more fun.

Key underpinning skills:

  • information search and analysis
  • reading comprehension

Nine year olds learn good search and analysis in about a year, and by this point are as good as Masters students (this is based on observations in Gateshead). But this only works with students in groups.

What does it all mean?

A self organising system is one where the system structure appears without explicit intervention from outside the system. Emergence is the appearance of a property not previously observed as a functional characteristic of the system. Emergent properties are always astonishing. SM says this is the future of learning.


Q: Can we do this with adults as well?

A: Adults are better at analysis (verbal abilities) but have problems with their ego being hurt. They’re not as adventurous, because they fear making fools of themselves. 40-50 year olds won’t even join the groups. With 65+ it starts to work again.

Q: What if the adults were made anonymous?

A: Yes, possibly it would work then.

Q: Would it work with a smaller device like a mobile phone or a larger one like a whiteboard?

A: It’s very hard to share the mobile screen. On a wall-sized screen, 20 people can see at once, and it becomes more disorganised because too many people are trying to give instructions.

Q: How did you motivate the kids?

A: It takes a full day for kids in England to sense that they are free and there’s no ‘catch’. Once they do that, the way you frame the question is the art of teaching. This is not a method that does away with teachers, but the role changes from providing content to framing questions. The Internet is full of answers, but the questions are not up there. It’s a great art to provide the questions. A typical question would be, In winter we slip on the road; in summer we don’t why? After an hour you get an exposition of friction, Newton’s third law, and electrostatic forces. Kids have an urge to be admired by adults.

Q: Is curiosity a function of self-organisation, rather than an emotion?

A: Any self-organising system has to have an attractor. We forget where the curriculum came from. Why not convert the curriculum back into the fundamental questions that inspired it.

3 Responses to “If you step back, kids achieve the impossible, emergent properties are always astonishing – Sugata Mitra at ALT-C”
  1. Lucy Johnson says:

    @agilelearn I saw him at the guardian’s Activate con a year ago-if he is the hole in the wall guy. Amazing.

    • Yep, that’s the guy… I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about this. The implications of his research — if replicated etc — are profound and far-reaching #learning #school

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