Unconventional Education

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Date: Tue, May 15, 2012 at 3:35 AM
Subject: delanceyplace.com 5/15/12 - unconventional education


In today's excerpt - an unconventional approach to education:

"In 1999 the Indian physicist Sugata Mitra got interested in education. He knew there were places in the world without schools and places in the world where good teachers didn't want to teach. What could be done for kids living in those spots was his question. Self-directed learning was one pos­sible solution, but were kids living in slums capable of all that much self-direction?

"At the time, Mitra was head of research and development for NIIT Technologies, a top computer software and development company in New Delhi, India. His posh twenty-first-century office abutted an urban slum but was kept separate by a tall brick wall. So Mitra designed a simple exper­iment. He cut a hole in the wall and installed a computer and a track pad, with the screen and the pad facing into the slum. He did it in such a way that theft was not a problem, then connected the computer to the Internet, added a web browser, and walked away.


"The kids who lived in the slums could not speak English, did not know how to use a computer, and had no knowledge of the Internet, but they were curious. Within minutes, they'd figured out how to point and click. By the end of the first day, they were surfing the web and-even more importantly-teaching one another how to surf the web. These results raised more questions than they answered. Were they real? Did these kids really teach themselves how to use this computer, or did someone, perhaps out of sight of Mitra's hidden video camera, explain the technology to them?


"So Mitra moved the experiment to the slums of Shivpuri, where, as he says, 'I'd been assured no one had ever taught anybody anything.' He got similar results. Then he moved it to a rural village and found the same thing. Since then, this experiment has been replicated all over India, and all over the world, and always with the same outcome: kids, working in small, unsupervised groups, and without any formal training, could learn to use computers very quickly and with a great degree of proficiency.


"This led Mitra to an ever-expanding series of experiments about what else kids could learn on their own. One of the more ambitious of these was conducted in the small village of Kalikkuppam in southern India. This time Mitra decided to see if a bunch of impoverished Tamil-speaking, twelve-year-olds could learn to use the Internet, which they'd never seen before; to teach themselves biotechnology, a subject they'd never heard of; in English, a language none of them spoke. 'All I did was tell them that there was some very difficult information on this computer, they probably wouldn't under­stand any of it, and I'll be back to test them on it in a few months.'


"Two months later, he returned and asked the students if they'd under­stood the material. A young girl raised her hand. 'Other than the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease,' she said, 'we've understood nothing.' In fact, this was not quite the case. When Mitra tested them, scores averaged around 30 percent. From 0 percent to 30 percent in two months with no formal instruction was a fairly remark­able result, but still not good enough to pass a standard exam. So Mitra brought in help. He recruited a slightly older girl from the village to serve as a tutor. She didn't know any biotechnology, but was told to use the 'grand­mother method': just stand behind the kids and provide encouragement. 'Wow, that's cool, that's fantastic, show me something else!' Two months later, Mitra came back. This time, when tested, average scores had jumped to 50 percent, which was the same average as high-school kids studying bio-tech at the best schools in New Delhi.


"Next Mitra started refining the method. He began installing computer terminals in schools. Rather than giving students a broad subject to learn-for example, biotechnology-he started asking directed questions such as 'Was World War II good or bad?' The students could use every available resource to answer the question, but schools were asked to restrict the num­ber of Internet portals to one per every four students because, as Matt Rid­ley wrote in the Wall Street Journal, 'one child in front of a computer learns little; four discussing and debating learn a lot.' When they were tested on the subject matter afterward (without use of the computer), the mean score was 76 percent. That's pretty impressive on its own, but the question arose as to the real depth of learning. So Mitra came back two months later, retested the students, and got the exact same results. This wasn't just deep learning, this was an unprecedented retention of information....


"Taken together, this work reverses a bevy of educational practices. Instead of top-down instruction, [these 'self-organized learning environments'] are bottom up. Instead of making students learn on their own, this work is collaborative. Instead of a formal in-school setting for instruction, the Hole-in-the-Wall method relies on a playground-like environment. Most importantly, minimally invasive edu­cation doesn't require teachers. Currently there's a projected global short­age of 18 million teachers over the next decade."

Author: Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler
Title: Abundance
Publisher: Free Press
Date: Copyright 2012 by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler
Pages: 174-176

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