Building a School in the Cloud – Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra, famous for his Hole in the Wall Experiment, gave a TED talk in which he talks about self-organizing schools in the cloud, and how we need to just pose the big and interesting questions to children, make the internet available to them, and get out of the way.

He starts off by pointing out what he thinks is wrong with our education system today:

[I]f you look at present-day schooling the way it is, it’s quite easy to figure out where it came from. It came from about 300 years ago, and it came from the last and the biggest of the empires on this planet. [“The British Empire”] Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet, without computers, without telephones, with data handwritten on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It’s still with us today. It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine. In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people: the school. The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional. The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists. The empire is gone, so what are we doing with that design that produces these identical people, and what are we going to do next if we ever are going to do anything else with it?

And, he goes on to give an explanation of why students don’t learn very well in our existing schools with their exams and tests and punishments:

The reptilian part of our brain, which sits in the center of our brain, when it’s threatened, it shuts down everything else, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the parts which learn, it shuts all of that down. Punishment and examinations are seen as threats. We take our children, we make them shut their brains down, and then we say, “Perform.” Why did they create a system like that? Because it was needed. There was an age in the Age of Empires when you needed those people who can survive under threat. When you’re standing in a trench all alone, if you could have survived, you’re okay, you’ve passed. If you didn’t, you failed. But the Age of Empires is gone. What happens to creativity in our age? We need to shift that balance back from threat to pleasure.

So, what should we do, according to Mitra? Based on his Hole-in-the-Wall experiences, he is obviously in favor of self-organizing schools where the teacher just poses the questions and gets out of the way:

I think what we need to look at is we need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then she stands back in awe and watches as learning happens

So, what’s the job of the teacher? Asking the questions.

I think we need a curriculum of big questions. You already heard about that. You know what that means. There was a time when Stone Age men and women used to sit and look up at the sky and say, “What are those twinkling lights?” They built the first curriculum, but we’ve lost sight of those wondrous questions. We’ve brought it down to the tangent of an angle. But that’s not sexy enough. The way you would put it to a nine-year-old is to say, “If a meteorite was coming to hit the Earth, how would you figure out if it was going to or not?” And if he says, “Well, what? how?” you say, “There’s a magic word. It’s called the tangent of an angle,” and leave him alone. He’ll figure it out.

I’ve tried incredible, incredible questions — “When did the world begin? How will it end?” — to nine-year-olds. This one is about what happens to the air we breathe. This is done by children without the help of any teacher. The teacher only raises the question, and then stands back and admires the answe

Here’s his final vision – school in the cloud:

So what’s my wish? My wish is that we design the future of learning. We don’t want to be spare parts for a great human computer, do we? So we need to design a future for learning. And I’ve got to — hang on, I’ve got to get this wording exactly right, because, you know, it’s very important. My wish is to help design a future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their wonder and their ability to work together. Help me build this school. It will be called the School in the Cloud. It will be a school where children go on these intellectual adventures driven by the big questions which their mediators put in. The way I want to do this is to build a facility where I can study this. It’s a facility which is practically unmanned. There’s only one granny who manages health and safety. The rest of it’s from the cloud. The lights are turned on and off by the cloud, etc., etc., everything’s done from the cloud.

See the full transcript or the video for more details.

It is interesting to note the contrast between what Sugata Mitra says, and the contrarian view from Fredrick DeBoer, who argues that online-only self-service education will never work, and that students, even good students, need to be “dragged” to learn.

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