By Jim Shimabukuro
Sugata Mitra, winner of the 2013 TED Prize, reminds us that, as educators, we may be so consumed by teaching that we ignore learning, that there’s a fundamental difference between teaching-centered and learning-centered. Mitra is his own best model for his vision of education, or SOLE, for self-organized learning environment. SOLE is a more formal school-based version of Mitra’s earlier hole-in-the-wall (HIW) street learning environment. Both, however, are grounded in his theory of minimally invasive education (MIE).
Mitra is, by training, a physicist, but by temperament, a self-organized learner. The heart of his gift is curiosity, and his scientific training provides the rest. He didn’t begin by studying teaching. Instead, he studied learning. He placed a web-connected computer in a kiosk in a Delhi slum, left it on, invited children to play with it, stepped away, and watched. The question, simply stated, was: Can students learn without teachers?
He was amazed to learn that, yes, they can. They learn individually and in small groups, and they teach one another what they have learned. Out of his observations, he drew implications, and the most important is that both teachers and computers are technologies, or media for learning. That is, children can learn from either or both. With this awareness, he realized that in cases where schools and teachers are scarce or unavailable, computers could suffice. The question that remained, however, was: What does this mean, if anything, for traditional models of learning that rely on schools and teachers?
In an interview with Joshua Brustein, Mitra says, “I came to England in 2006, and the schools said, why aren’t you doing it [HIW] here? So I did, and I realized that what I’ve got has nothing to do with poor children. It probably is just a new way in which children learn in this new environment. It needs two things. First, broadband…. The second thing is, it needs the teacher to stand back” (“One on One: Sugata Mitra, 2013 TED Prize Winner,” NY Times, 27 Feb. 2013).
In this new environment, the key interactive variables are peer evaluation and peer recognition – not teacher guidance or feedback. “There are some interesting things about children working in groups,” says Mitra, “if those groups are self-made. Once you let children do that, the system has a self-correcting ability” (Brustein).
For teachers, this means that their “job has changed,” says Mitra. “We need teachers to do different things. The teacher has to ask the question, and tell the children what they have learned. She comes in at the two ends, a cap at the end and a starter at the beginning” (Brustein).
Mitra makes an interesting distinction when he says, “At first I thought that the children were learning in spite of the teacher not interfering. But I changed my opinion, and realized this was happening because the teacher was not interfering” (italics added). In other words, minimally invasive education is not a negative experience but a positive one, it’s not a disadvantage but an advantage, it’s not less but more, it’s not a glass half empty but a glass half full. In short, when teachers “stand back” and get out of the way, they’re not hindering learning. Instead, they’re facilitating it.
If Mitra’s views seem familiar, it’s because they are. This is the constructivist theory behind the MOOCs originally created by Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Dave Cormier, and Bryan Alexander. They, too, understood that the medium is the message, that the web is a learning technology for the 21st century just as teachers and classrooms were the learning technology for the 19th and 20th centuries. This new environment, they correctly observed, invites minimally invasive approaches. Downes and his colleagues set up their MOOCs and provided minimal handholding, inviting the students to allow their natural web learning instincts to kick in. The key interactive strategy was networking among peers – not teacher-led activities. The emphasis was on learning and the learner, not teaching and the teacher.
Interestingly, Mitra’s ideas and MOOCs are both disruptive, taking root outside the traditional confines of campuses, classrooms, and teachers and gradually impacting existing educational institutions. The fact that their unifying element is web technology should be a signal that the medium is the message, that the medium must shape 21st century education.