Sugata Mitra: What I think we can we learn from him

There is a lot of hype right now about ‘Saint’ Hole-In-The-Wall Sugata Mitra, and I have decided to jump on the bandwagon myself. Whether he is brilliant or not, I think theres a lot more to his ideas than I originally thought.

One critique I heard about his work is that western students do not have the motivation for autonomous learning that is evident in Mitra’s Indian students. Yes, in my experience, when left to independent study on computers, many of my students will just watch music videos on YouTube. Some do need the prompt from a teacher to get back to work, but not all students do; some quietly get on with their assigned work. What is the difference? In my experiences, it was the students motivation. Students who are intrinsically motivated by the task and are curious about the topic are the ones who are more likely to stay focused. 

What about the Indian children? Are they intrinsically motivated by calculus? Or why women don’t grow moustaches? Maybe. But I think that their motivation is more likely achievement or social motivation. From my observations, I believe those children are generally and culturally less apathetic to learning and education than many of our western teenagers. Is that because of the difference in accessibility of education between the two cultures? Thats another topic. 

What if the given task or question was to describe the latest Lorde music video? I predict we won’t have many students using the computer other than to carry out the assigned task. Is that because it is fun? Or something they’re interested in? Because it involves music? Is it relevant to them? Does it involve their pop culture? Are they curious?

How can we make the intended learning intrinsically motivating to our students? One scenario when I managed this was when I gave my students choice. Not just multiple choice, but complete choice and freedom of the context in which the intended learning can occur.  Ok there where a few boundaries to begin with (work out A, B, and C of your chosen example, and then use them to create your own example). I lifted these boundaries during the task when I realised students were achieving a great flow of important learning and should allow them to continue towards whichever direction or topic they felt they needed (or wanted) to learn. I found very high levels of engagement in these students when previously they were apathetic to everything I had offered them in class. These students didn’t achieve the initial desired outcome of creating their own example after grasping the theory. What happened instead was the students became intrinsically motivated to come to a deeper understanding of this theory that I spent weeks trying to teach whilst struggling to engage them. Each student looked closely at a different topic, and then were able to teach each other what they had learnt in another class. Finally I had found a way to encourage them to cognitively engage with the theory I was trying to teach, and it was by allowing them the freedom and choice to find it themselves.

The Granny Cloud

So what is the granny cloud doing? She (or he) is offering the students positive reinforcement, showing passion and interest in what the students are doing, and, I feel most importantly, allowing the students to be the knowledge bearer. The granny allows the students to feel in control of the knowledge and gives the students the sense of being teacher. A shift in power dynamic.

Even if we don’t like the way that it is conducted for our own teaching, I think there is something within this worth thinking about. What happens when we ask our students to explain to us something we don’t know about such as a current trend or piece of technology. In my experience I usually witness a subtle change in their body language; a smirk or a smile, a relaxed  “well….” exhaled with a sigh, or maybe even a giggle. Theres something endearing about knowing something your teacher doesn’t. This perhaps pleasurable or comforting sensation creates a different tone to the usual communication had between teacher and student. Its more friendly, open, and relaxed. It moves away from the sense of working in the classroom towards a sense of play time. It’s rapport building, it’s developing a safe classroom climate. So, can this sensation be taken and used as a tool to enhance learning?

Finally, the point of no longer needing teachers to teach knowledge as it can be found on our laptops or smart phones. To a certain extent; YES. We need to be teaching critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. If kids don’t know something, they will be able to find out pretty quick through the internet. Thats not to say knowledge is irrelevant however; we need knowledge to problem solve, to think critically and to be creative. Yes, our education system is outdated and we don’t need it anymore. We need a new one. I salute Sugata Mitra for daring to make a claim so bold that it ruffled many feathers. He managed to get us all talking and thinking.