Education TED Prize

Musings of a male granny: This retired schoolteacher spends his free time Skyping with Indian schoolkids

Kids at TK school gather around as David TK leads them in a clas..

Kids at a school in India gather around a computer as David Swancott leads a School in the Cloud session.

David Swancott is a retired biology teacher who lives an hour southeast of Bordeaux, France. He spends his free time bicycling, traveling and, for the past two years, being a “Skype Granny.” Swancott is a part of the “Granny Cloud,” a project created by 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra to make teachers available online to mentor children participating in his School in the Cloud. As children explore the big questions that matter to them, they get nudges in the right direction from a Skype Granny. But don’t let the name fool you. While many Granny Cloud participants are female and retired, just as many are male or in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

Now that the school year is underway, the TED Prize Blog checked in with one of our male grannies to ask about his experience mentoring kids through the Granny Cloud.

You’re retired, living in the countryside. What inspired you to become a Skype Granny for School in the Cloud?

I found out about it on television—on the BBC’s The One Show, which follows the evening news. They did a segment about the Granny Cloud, and it stirred my interest. I thought, “That’s something I might like to be involved with.” I missed being in contact with children. So I got in touch with the contact provided on the show’s website, downloaded an application form and, after an interview and orientation, I became a Skype Granny. Once a teacher, always a teacher.

Every Tuesday morning, you Skype with young students at two different schools in India. Can you talk us through a typical session?

Last week, one group came on and immediately wanted to know about butterflies. So as time was tight, I quickly hunted out a National Geographic video on the monarch butterfly and we watched that. Afterwards, we talked through what they’d seen. I asked questions and together we explored the life cycle of a butterfly.

Sessions last between 30 and 45 minutes. We usually start by spending some time talking about the things that have happened during the week, then I show them some photos or a video or written material, usually on a topic they decided on the week before. We spend time talking about the material. I try to get them to input as much as possible — picking out new vocabulary, checking spelling and so on.

You’re the grandfather of two young boys and taught high school in England for more than 40 years, which means you must be very patient. What are some challenges you’ve come across being a Skype Granny?

Well, you have to think on your feet a bit sometimes and be willing to move with the children if they go off on a tangent. Quite often, there are problems with sound or vision or even both, and we have to resort to communication by text. There’s also no guarantee that the Internet will work at all, as the facilities in some areas are so poor. On one occasion, the line to the school was attacked by monkeys and it took a while for it to be repaired, as the school is in a very remote area.

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Another School in the Cloud session, with kids gathered around a computer.

What’s the best thing about being a Skype Granny?

The children’s enthusiasm, their willingness to learn and their appreciation of my involvement as a granny. Recently, I’ve been experiencing some heart problems and when I re-started the sessions after my illness, the children at one of the schools had made these lovely “Get Well Soon” cards for me, which they were able to show to me during one of our sessions. What a tonic that was! And, unlike some of the children in England, when they see you, they smile. They are happy to be there. And they have a contagious enthusiasm, which I think is what keeps me going and makes me want to do more for them.

What do you think makes a good teacher?

Teaching is about creating and providing a supportive environment in which a child can learn. A good teacher acts as a facilitator for that child’s learning. The UK government started fiddling around with education, and that’s one of the things that drove me away from teaching – we moved to a very prescribed curriculum with little or no time to drift sideways and explore other facets of a subject or respond to students’ questions or thoughts. The school’s examination results became the most important thing, but it’s much more than that! Overall, I think a good teacher must be able to work within the constraints of the existing system, have an enthusiasm for their subject, and be able to engage students and get them involved with their own learning.

What do you think is the future of learning?

The use of technology in schools is changing the way we learn, what we learn, and what the shape of the curriculum should be in the future. I was a teacher during an era when computers first appeared in schools — to be used by teachers, certainly not for students. Now in many schools, the students all have their own computers or tablets. I never envisaged being able to communicate with a school in India on a regular basis, and now look what I am doing! Technology opens up many opportunities for different approaches to learning. Within this, children need to be allowed to take more charge of their learning, with the teacher acting in a more supporting role. Letting go, allowing this to happen, is a big challenge for teachers, as there is security when you are setting out the agenda. But really, this approach doesn’t take anything away from the role of the teacher. We will continue to be instrumental in setting up these learning situations.

Learn more about becoming a Skype Granny »

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