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A school in the cloud: Sugata Mitra accepts the TED Prize at TED2013

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

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It’s a question on so many minds: what will the future of education look like?

Ken Robinson: How schools kill creativityKen Robinson: How schools kill creativity It’s something Sir Ken Robinson has asked for decades. And tonight in Session 3 of TED2013, Robinson got the opportunity to announce the winner of the 2013 TED Prize, someone who has a bold answer.

“So many kids are disengaged from education and there’s a tendency to confuse testing with learning,” says Robinson in his introduction. “What drives learning is curiosity, questioning … What fires people up to learn is having their mind opened up by possibilities.”

And with that, he revealed the winner of the $1 million TED Prize: education innovator Sugata Mitra, who has given two TED Talks over the years and released a TED ebook called Beyond The Hole in The Wall.

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Mitra wants children around the globe, in addition to traditional schooling, to get a chance to participate in self-organized learning. Translation: to spend time in learning environments where they are given the space to explore on their own, make discoveries and share them with their peers. In his talk from the TED stage, Mitra offered a bold wish: to help design the future of learning by supporting children in tapping into their innate sense of wonder. To this end, Mitra asked the TED community to help him create the School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India where children can embark on intellectual adventures, connecting with information and mentors online. He also asked the community, wherever they may be, to create child-driven learning environments for the kids in their own lives.

In his talk, Mitra points out that schooling as it exists now was created 300 years ago in the British Empire.

Sugata Mitra: The child-driven educationSugata Mitra: The child-driven education “The Victorians created a global computer made up of people. It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine,” says Mitra, in the bold opening of his talk. “In order to keep that running, you need lots and lots of people. They must be identical to each other … So they created a system, called school, to make parts [for this human computer]. They must have good handwriting, they must be able to read, and they must be able to add, subtract and do division.”

But these skills aren’t as necessary with the advent of computers.“It’s quite fashionable to say education system is broken,” says Mitra. “It’s not, It’s wonderfully constructed — it’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.”

We can’t imagine the technology of the future, and thus we can’t know what jobs we’ll need the skills for. So Mitra suggests that education should be about developing the ability to learn anything on one’s own.

Mitra has a history of research to back up this wish. In 1999, he began what he calls his “hole in the wall” experiment. He carved a hole in a wall in a Delhi slum — about three feet high — and placed a computer in it. Kids had gathered around within a matter of hours and asked Mitra questions about what this thing was. He responded “I don’t know,” and walked away.

Soon the kids were surfing the internet — and teaching each other how to do it more effectively.

Mitra repeated the experiment 300 miles away, where computers even less familiar. He installed a mysterious computer on the side of a road. A few months later, he returned and found kids playing games on it. Remembers Mitra, “They said, ‘We want a faster processor and a better mouse.’”

Another thing these kids said that was music to his ears: “You’ve given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English.”

Mitra says, “It was the first time I heard the words ‘teach ourselves’ said so casually.”

Mitra kept testing, seeing if rural students could learn different pronunciation simply by talking into a speech-to-text engine until it understood them. They did it. And then he went even more absurd. He asked:  Can Tamil-speaking 12-year-olds learn the biotech of DNA replication by themselves on a streetside computer in English?

Sugata Mitra: Kids can teach themselvesSugata Mitra: Kids can teach themselvesSlowly but surely, over months, the kids began to learn the material — showing understanding of concepts far advanced for their age. In three months, with a test, they went from 0% comprehension to 30%. But Mitra wanted to see if he could go further. He brought in a 22-year-old woman with no knowledge of the subject to tutor the kids, using “the method of the grandmother.” Instead of traditional instructing, she simply gave encouragement. The kids’ test comprehension scores jumped.

“We live in a world where, when we want to know something, we can learn it in two minutes,” says Mitra. “Could it be, the devastating question, that we’re heading towards a future where knowing is obsolete?”

Mitra isn’t ready to say that, but he is willing to challenge traditional modes of education based on teaching, testing and regurgitation. As Mitra explains, punishments and exams are seen as threats by kids. He says that these are tools no longer needed outside of the age of empire. Mitra urges us all to shift the incentive for education from threat to pleasure.

Mitra shared another one of his experiments — the “granny cloud,” a community of retired teachers who Skyped into learning centers and encouraged children with questions and assignments. He calls this type of environment a SOLE — a self-organized learning environment. It’s based on a curriculum of questions that set curiosity free, varying forms of peer assessment and certification without examination.

“If we let the educational process be a self-organizing organism, learning emerges,” says Mitra. “It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting education happen.”

Mitra’s $1 million TED Prize is not a gift– it’s seed money to fund a global  initiative toward this vision. The money will help Mitra break ground on the School in the Cloud in India this very year. This school will serve as both an education and research center to further explore approaches to self-directed learning. It will be managed by cloud technology, but with an adult supervisor always on hand. The plans for the school will be open-sourced.

But Mitra is asking for your help, too.

He has released a toolkit for parents, educators and teachers who want to create SOLEs. The online resource will help them support kids (8-12 years old) as they tap into their innate sense of wonder. The key: asking big questions. For example, “If a meteroite was coming toward the earth, how would you figure out if it was going to hit?” Mitra has been amazed with how kids come up with new approaches to questions like this.

Closing his talk, Mitra shared an anecdote. “A little girl was following me around. I said, ‘I want to give a computer to everyone,’” recalls Mitra. “She reached out her hand and she said to me, ‘Get on with it.’”

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Comments (42)

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  • Mark Guy commented on Mar 3 2013

    My wife would like to know how to join the Granny Cloud, Is there a link?
    I got lost trying to find one via Newcastle Uni.

  • Saoirse Saini Tope commented on Mar 3 2013

    Dr.Mitra, I totally like your idea of SOLE. I wish all schools including mine would think like you.I think this is totally creative and the concept of exams is illogical because we don’t learn or understand anything we just memorise facts. we just take in all the facts in our school books like they’re a sacred truth. no other point of view is possible.
    i wish you luck and hope that your idea really catches up with India’s schooling system.
    -Saoirse Saini Tope
    class-7C
    Sardar Patel Vidyalaya

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  • Mark Guay commented on Feb 28 2013

    Finally! Now that TED has given such clout to a seriously needed shift, the future of education is here. What Sugata is saying here is going to upset a lot of people because it is true. Student-centered and self-driven learning will drive such an incredible progress in all walks of life. Think of what Daniel Pink has taught us that our economy has shifted from industrial to a more conceptual and digitally connected. Sugata’s School in the Cloud is brilliant. I can’t wait to be a part of it.

  • Nancy Slagle commented on Feb 28 2013

    Good teachers have always encouraged curiosity and wonder-driven learning, then stepped back as much as possible. The trick will be nudging that curiosity in the right directions, and feeding it to endure such that learners can still absorb coherent bodies of knowledge and build skills. True innovation and creativity often involve taking more routinely-built knowledge and applying it in an unconventional way.
    In his example of the children who learned English in order to play games, we skipped past a pocket of unobserved learning. How did the game teach them English? Did they practice it among themselves? How much English did they learn? It feels a little like a movie workout montage that whips a character into shape in 30 seconds so that we can see the entertaining results. How did that happen? Learning English usually takes a lot of grunt-work.
    I wonder whether we are discussing self-teaching here, or self-motivating (which is tough to cultivate in a test-driven environment). If a child learns with a computer or a group of people, is that still self-teaching?

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  • commented on Feb 27 2013

    Reblogged this on eclectic haze and commented:
    this is something to think about… and talk about to those who teach “old school”

  • Marta Pinto commented on Feb 27 2013

    Congratulations!! I am very happy with this prize to Sugata Mitra. His work is revolutionary because it comes back to the basics: children learn by themselvs if they have the resources available; curiosity and collaboration between children drive learning.

    My heart is full of excitment for this prize! So proud I translated one of Sugata Mitra TED talks to my native language (Portuguese)!

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  • Charles Tsai commented on Feb 26 2013

    I recently visited a public high school in Massachusetts where students have created their own self-organized learning environment. You can tell their thinking is very much aligned with what Sugata Mitra describes. The revolution has begun.

  • kareem hassan commented on Feb 26 2013

    this is really the real way and the right way of understanding the world,and discovering the humans’skills ,this will not only help the kids,but also creates a mean of explaining more ways of why we try to learn?,why we go to schools?,why we try to discover ourselves?,all these questions need more answers ,and Sugata Mitra is trying hard to answer them,the world leaders especially in the so-called “the third world”,in which India is considered one of them,must support the way of thinking to make the learning is not only learning but a real education,a real life ,this life isn’t only to do homework or just solving problems,this life take advantage of the fact that we all live on one planet,we share ideas,thoughts and creativity ,intelligence is distinct

    giving the chance for Mitra,is giving the chance to imagine wisely in improving the creative capacities,discover the minds that are fallen into illiteracy of life ,this is a chance to create new minds with new life in different generation,many wait the help to learn effectively in a world in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer,what the kids wait is the help from Mitra and his examples to become more creative

    creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity may take many years but we start now,i am sure this will have a great success for the way we are educating our children,on this road we must always rethink of all tools we are using to cultivate minds to avoid mistakes,ignorance and stigmatization of these minds

    if we are one hand we will surely have a great success.

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