Today, I inundated myself with research, a good number of TED videos, and many other affiliated talks regarding education in order to create a brand new form of education system for my book.
My favorite new speaker on behalf of education is Sugata Mitra, a professor at Newcastle University in England who’s done some groundbreaking projects on and research into what he calls self-organized learning environments (SOLE). I first saw him featured in this short documentary about the future of education. It’s ten seconds short of thirteen minutes, and it’s truly hopeful and amazing for your happy feelings, if you’ve got thirteen minutes minus ten seconds to spare.
His closing remarks got me to make with the tears in a big way:
“If a child knows how to read, if a child knows how to search for information, how do we teach them how to believe? In our adult heads, each one of us has a little mechanism. It comes from different places. You and I have different mechanisms of how to believe. Sometimes we say, ‘This is obvious,’ sometimes we say, ‘Because so and so told me,’ sometimes we say, ‘This is rubbish.’ What’s that machine inside? How early in a child’s life can we put it there? If we can do it really, really early, then we would have armed that child against doctrine.
“And I don’t mean only religious doctrine. I mean doctrine in all its forms. I think our job as educators, the biggest job in today’s information-saturated world, is to give the child an armor against doctrine, just as in another generation we used to teach that child how to fight with a sword and to ride a horse.”
You can see it happening on Tumblr. Someone will post something like, “THIS MAN HAS BEGUN A CULT AND THEY ARE EATING ALL THE BEES IN THE WORLD. SIGN THIS PETITION!!” with a link to a petition against this angry bee-devouring man.
Except they doesn’t exist.
The Great Devourers of the Honey-Providing Municipality was an urban legend. Or they were someone’s cartoon villain that went viral without a link to the cartoon. Or they were some other fictional entity – a rumor, a lie, a misunderstanding of some kind.
Overnight, that post has multiplied. People have reblogged and shared that post over and over. New comments have been added in the notes: “THIS IS SO IMPORTANT,” the notes scream, “WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE WITHOUT THE BEES” (and from what I’ve come to understand about bees, this is a true thing – we’re all boned without our buzzy friends). Someone else writes: “Why doesn’t this have more notes? We need to save the bees!”
Even before it’s peaked at about 20,219 notes (divided roughly between sharing and bookmarking), many people will be adding comments like, “…Guys, this is an anime character,” or, “Didn’t anyone stop to look this up first?” But the post will continue gaining notice and people
It’s become a joke on Tumblr now, that people will blindly share an article without doing a bit of research first to make sure it’s real. The thing is – people are noticing faster and faster when things are overstated, factually incomplete, or misinterpreted. It’s developed an automatic question among many Tumblr users now: “Is this true?” And then they go off and they check and if it’s wrong, then they provide links to the correct information.
It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of people online in groups educating each other. And that’s Mitra’s belief: that we’re very good at this type of learning. Children in particular working together in groups can learn anything.
I love this method of thinking, and I’ve been entranced with his proposed methods of practical education all day. Back in 1999, he brought a computer to a slum neighborhood in India and left the computer in a hole in a wall three feet off the ground. Some kids approached him and said, “What’s that?” They’d never seen a computer before, didn’t know the English that the system operated on.
He said, “It’s a computer.”
They said, “How do we use it?”
He said, “I don’t know. And now I’m leaving.” And he left.
A few months later, he returned and found that not only had the kids taught themselves how to use the computer perfectly, they’d also started teaching themselves English.
He did various experiments like this – giving kids technology and walking away – and found that a child on his or her own will play a game for hours. But children in groups won’t let one kid have all the fun – they’ll even out the time.
Mitra said in the beginning when he’d thought of this approach, people questioned whether or not it was a good idea. “They’ll break the computer,” they said. “Or they’ll sell it.”
Mitra wasn’t as convinced. And sure enough, he has footage from cameras he set up all over the world in various locations where he’d left these computers-in-the-wall, and in all the footage, the computers and the kids were fine. In one, a little boy sat on his older sister’s shoulders and instructed her on how to use the mouse. In another, a little girl explains to boys on either side of her how neurons communicate (having learned this from the computer in English on her own).
One of my favorite stories he told was this: he took a computer way out into a rural village and set up the computer. Again, some kids asked what it was, and he explained, and when they asked how to use it, he said, “I have no idea,” and left with what I’m assuming was a cheerful smile and a wave. (He projects a very friendly, positive aura. Dude’s just extremely likable.)
When he returned some months later, they said to him, “We want a faster processor and a better mouse.”
This was all back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but his research has continued since then. His ideas resonate with Sir Ken Robinson’s: children who are interested will learn. But Mitra goes one step further. He believes that rather than teachers doing the job on their own, children can teach each other. During one of his talks, he quoted another educator who said, “If computers can replace teachers, they should be replaced.”
He made an excellent point about the testing system. That in the real world, we’re often working with computers and in groups, yet our examinations are individual and only from memory.
The current education system is completely separate from the world we live in. The system is hundreds of years old, designed for a much different society of people, and it’s severely damaging to children in its worst cases. It crushes our natural hunger for knowledge and, as Mitra brought up at one point, the testing system instills fear in us. When fear takes hold, our brain shuts down because of primitive self-defense purposes, and that’s not exactly a welcome environment for learning.
The magic of these talks is that if we can change education, if we can give children admiration and encouragement and support rather than fear and reprimands and societal submission, they’ll flourish. All people deserve the chance to learn and, in particular, find the passions and talents that make life blissful.