I am often amazed at how well students do when we leave them alone. I see this when I read my son's notebook and watch him find patterns in numbers, add dialogue to comics, write his own stories or draw a colorful vase of flowers.

And yet . . . my son didn't learn this in a social vacuum. He watched me paint, sketch, write and solve problems. He immersed himself in learning environments. He had two parents who were interested in what he was doing, who guided him in questioning and who listend to his voice. From the moment he could walk, learning was relational.

Even then, there were things he couldn't self-teach. There were things he missed at home that he learned in school through a very guided process of small group direct instruction. Phonology, phonemic awareness and the structure of reading required support that he couldn't simply learn on his own.

He is one boy in one home and yet his experience as a learner has proven to me that the solution (even for one child) requires nuance. It isn't as simple as saying "leave the kid alone and he'll learn just fine." Nor is it as simple as saying, "every kid will need school the way that my son did."

Hole in the Wall
I have not read enough about Sugata Mitra to give an adequate critique of his theories. However, I am seeing his hole in the wall experiment used to justify the death of the public school system and the replacement of teachers with computer programs.

Sounds great. That is, if you're a cyborg. But we're not. We are human. We are social. We are flesh and blood and not a set of firing neurons or a network of interconnected data.

We need teachers. Real teachers. We need guides, mentors, people who can help students relationally. Yes, students can find information in Google. However, we need experts who know content and can help students learn to think well in a world of information overload.

And we need spaces. Real spaces. Physical spaces with walls (yes, they matter) or better yet half-walls and gates, because that's how community works. The limitations can actually promote creativity. We need trusted spaces and safe places.

The Solution
People are quick to point out that the institution of school is broken. And they're right. Sometimes. But so are many families. People point out that schools are an old social institution that came about during the industrial era. True. And yet, so is the nuclear family. Frankly, I'm a fan of families and I would rather raise my kids than send them off to a hole in a wall to try and learn how to function on their own.

I am not opposed to kiosks or programs or holes in the wall that help kids learn. However, I don't see why the promotion of that idea has to mean the destruction of a public institution. Why can't they co-exist? Why can't different models work for different people? Why can't we create interdependent systems that borrow ideas from one another?

40 comments:

  1. Kids can learn lots of things on their own, the tools are here for that to happen. What kids won't learn are things they aren't really interested in, or things they don't even know exist yet. The value of teachers is that we introduce students to things they wouldn't consider learning on their own.

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    1. I agree and I would add to this that teachers help kids think. The best ones show them how to be critical thinkers by modelling it, requiring it and allowing it. We can't underestimate the value of a human over an algorithm with regards to empathy, humility, critical thinking and nuance.

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  2. You know I often call b.s. on many of the talking points like this and the reason is that behind them, I see a lot of underhandedness. When I hear someone tell me I am obsolete (oh, wait ... school is obsolete but you aren't insulting teachers thank you for all you do) or that I don't have a monopoly on knowledge (but again, it is not insulting to say that to a teacher thank you for all you do) and then say how the latest Gatesflipbyodmagicwand will save the souls of students, I want to ask them two questions: 1) when the book they are obviously promoting will come out, and 2) what they are charging for a speaking fee. It is very hard to take them seriously, and they are unwittingly leading many good educators down the same path that hard right-wingers want us to travel, wherein we corporatize all education and the poorest get nothing at all.

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    1. I get that way, too. I start thinking "What are you making from this?" Because, ultimately, those who want to "disrupt" the system often have no desire of improving it. Teaching is hard. Schools are a mixed bag. And yet, I believe in public education - so much so that I want to help make it better.

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    2. I think that disrupting the system is healthy and necessary, but you need a grayscale, balanced view to do it right and most of the disruptors don't have that. I firmly believe in public education as well and I still think we as teachers have a mission to carry out. But I think that it is not constructive to try and prevent me f r om carrying out that mission.

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    3. It's that sense of nuance, humility and paradox that they're often missing.

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    4. I think that there's also hubris involved too, to be honest ... and it all depends on who is doing it. It's almost like looking at primary vs. secondary sources when you're studying history or journalism or something. Very often that primary source or idea is genuinely good but what we see and respond to are the secondary perversions that are twisted to someone's personal end or to make them a profit. Hence the number of PD workshops where people tell me I need to be a guide the side and I sit there wondering "Well, why are you telling me that from a PowerPoint written in comic sans, oh sage on the PD stage?"

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    5. The Comic Sans Power Point made me laugh.

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  3. I have a blog under development about Hole in the Wall and Audrey Watters' cogent response. But now I don't have to write it. Because you just did, hitting all the numbers.

    Tom is right. Technocratic educators are fond of dropping verbal bombs, watching them go viral, then selling the video and speaking tour. You know, "disrupting" their way, merrily, to the bank.

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    1. Nancy, thanks for the kind words. I actually felt that way after reading Audrey's blog and still wrote this anyway. You're right. There is big money to be made in pushing snake oil.

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  4. Nicely said!

    Check out Gert Biesta's must read, related piece, "Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher" http://www.phandpr.org/index.php/pandp/article/view/111/175

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  5. I love your passion and the focus of humans as social creatures. Isn't that what all the new research (http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning-agenda-research-and-design) says about today's learners? It's social and participatory, with digital media as the platform. Our kids have a chance now, more than ever, to tap into these social propensities and maximize them as ultimate learning experiences and opportunities. And they do need guides, mentors, coaches. We must think about how athletes go from good and talented to extreme skill and greatness. There is always a team of coaches behind that athlete. We must think of our students as athletes with raw potential. It's our job to coach, guide, inspire and help reshape what they are doing. Thanks for this post.

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    1. That's what I was trying to advocate: the idea that kids need teachers. It doesn't have to be formal. It doesn't have to be institutional. But they need teachers.

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  6. This is a great post. When I saw this on the EdRethink Facebook page I had wondered if you were responding (in part) to the TED link I posted from him last week. When I get excited about an idea I tend to lose an inclusive and nuanced presentation of that perspective. It occurred to me in a flash that perhaps my excitement about Mitra has come off as "anti-teacher?" Hopefully not, as I am getting ready to return to the ranks soon... Either way, inclusiveness and a masterful embrace of nuance is one of your superpowers, and reading this reminded me to be mindful of the same.

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    1. It wasn't a response to you, per se. It was a popular link going around and it had my head spinning, thinking, "Are they really saying that teachers aren't at least part of the answer?"

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  7. I also wrote about this in my blog (http://gailwarnings.com/2012/10/30/learning-without-us/)... and since I wrote that post I have thought more about it. I believe that there are important roles for mentors, guides, leaders, teachers, apprentices, learners, coaches and even lecturers... I did not take Mitra's work to mean that learners don't need teachers... I interpreted it to mean we need to encourage learning and teaching, helping and being helped, guiding and being guided in formal learning as it appears to happen in informal learning... just my thoughts today - I look forward to learning more.

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    1. That's possible. This was more of a response to how people have interpreted his ideas and why some of the ideas are downright scary for our society.

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  8. I think you are over simplifying Mitra's theories. Have you explored his work? His approach is definitely social, with kids working in groups, teaching and learning from each other... No Cyborgs! The role of the teacher is encourager, rather than deliverer of knowledge.
    In less advantaged settings in India public schools often have 60-70 kids in classes, no access to the internet, no opportunities for collaboration or inquiry. The 'granny cloud' idea, allows such kids access to computers and the internet, an opportunity to engage collaboratively in finding things out for themselves... with support via Skype from adults in other places. As a member of the 'granny cloud' (although I'm neither retired nor a granny!) interacting with kids in India via Skype, I've learned as much from them as they have from me... about India, about learning and about myself.

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    1. I'm not oversimplifying his theories. In fact, I'm not critiquing his theories at all. This post is about a response to the interpretation of his theories that I'm seeing:

      In the post, I write, "I have not read enough about Sugata Mitra to give an adequate critique of his theories. However, I am seeing his hole in the wall experiment used to justify the death of the public school system and the replacement of teachers with computer programs."

      Mitra's work is complex - much more complex than his TED Talk. However, I have seen it used to justify kids learning to read without an adult (bad idea), schools having no teachers, totally getting rid of schools, etc. The critique isn't about Mitra, but about the way his work is being interpreted and acted upon.

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    2. Yes, I actually had three attempts at posting my comment (impossible from iPad!) and ended up publishing a shorter version in frustration. I was going to included my take aways for my own school setting. Your last question sums it up - 'Why can't we create interdependent systems that borrow ideas from one another?'

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  9. There are many ways an educator can teach and a student can learn. I agree! It would be great if we could get ideas and make models work for different peoples needs.

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  10. I think how you teach them and what you teach has to do with how you, the decider of what and how they learn, perceive and weigh knowledge. Would you opt to send your child to a complete three months programme to, say, Brazil where he/she would learn about ecosystems, plant classification and nature in depth and all real or to a similar one where he/she takes really indepth guitar and music classes? Most parents would think the former to be a real education (and would send their child there) and the latter to be a hobby. I think knowledge and learning of it has the value of what we see in it, give it and how we can bring to life. The present knowledge base, and basis for the present schooling system, has its roots in producing enough heads for the industrial revolution at the time. Today the means the system uses to propagate learning and the love of it is the same in method and can't really achieve any other purpose. What was the need of the hour then, pre-industrial revolution and post it, is response to the world real-time. And when you analyse that, you'd come to the conclusion that we have no choice but to stay in response to the world, despite a really sad standardising schooling system. Children will always learn and continue to learn. Even if you make them learn what they don't like, they will always live most vibrantly in natural learning response to what they immediately see outside their windows. Somehow, the prestige of school certification has gotten in the way. Can I get a school education without going to school and being certified enough which can be shown along side those who have? Sadly that suffocates so many of us and we end up doing the same to our next generation. We should stop the fuss about school and so school in a manner that has none and that is based on none.

    And as to real people teaching, I think home-schooling is better than present institutional schooling.

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    1. Ah yes, but to those in poverty, that Industrial Revolution-based institution is a lifeline, sometimes literally. The free/reduced lunch may be the only true meal they eat during the day, and their parents may barely be able to clothe them let alone send them to Brazil or guitar camp. I teach quite a number of these students and to be honest, the fact that many of them graduate and have that certification (a.k.a. a diploma) means that they have more of a chance at making it on their own. Many of the people who rail against the public school system and its flaws often neglect this very important fact ... or they pay lip service to it.

      And by the way ... last I checked, I'm a real person. And I teach.

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  11. I'm not railing against the public system. There must be some sort of a system but surely not one that's evaluative in order so save its own soul, or justify its existence. We are too mindful of one the world over. We're more obsessed with a system than with its efficiency or purpose. At the same time, we will always have some sort of a system that's naturally responsive and therefore efficient when we, as a race and culturally, understand the value of learning and take it seriously and act.

    In India where I'm from, what you said about the Industrial Revolution-based institution being a lifeline holds true. On the other side of the spectrum, the well-enough-to-do recognise it as a rite of passage so that you can eventually get out of college and get a job. That's no more efficiency than the poor folk seek to get out of it. That also plays into their choice of subjects in college, even the more prestigious ones. I know people who have taken professional courses, which may as well be weekend crash courses for their course content, because there are job guarantees immediately after and want to continue with a English Literature Masters degree after being enlightened.

    We should worry about what exactly we do with them in school or the alternative method of learning/education/schooling that we send our children to than just the fact that we send them to school. That should define 'school'. Whether they are poor or rich won't really make a difference then.

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    1. And, as Arthur C Clarke implied, if teachers can be replaced by computers, in teaching efficiently and opening minds, then they should. It reflects on the respective teachers, the teaching culture and restraints of the system - something like the latest post on your blog. It's actually a point to take from for teaching and teachers.

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    2. I'm all for a rethink on how teachers approach their profession. What I'm against is scrapping them altogether.

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  12. I really enjoy Sugata Mitra's ideas. They point to the idea that students do need independent time to explore and discover - something that an overload on standards often prevents.

    I also find him to be contradictory. You leave students alone, but you come back and test them. People often don't realize what they have learned until an expert, oftentimes a teacher, puts it in context.

    Also, he suggests multiple times that teachers are obsolete, but what he is really saying is that their traditional role is obsolete. Being a guide and facilitator is much different than being a traditional teacher. In that original role we were the purveyors of knowledge and wisdom. My dream now is that my students will gain their own knowledge and have the wisdom to use it well.

    This is not the destruction of the system of education, but its very much needed redesign.

    Just my two cents, for what it's worth.

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  13. By the way, I don't remember EVER saying that teachers are obsolete!

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    1. For what it's worth, this post wasn't a critique on your talk so much as on the interpretation of it. That's why I wrote:

      "I have not read enough about Sugata Mitra to give an adequate critique of his theories. However, I am seeing his hole in the wall experiment used to justify the death of the public school system and the replacement of teachers with computer programs."

      My critique is not with the TED Talk, but with the way that people are taking the results of the Hole in the Wall to mean that all kids need is a device and complete autonomy. I've seen it tied to the idea that kids can teach themselves to read, free of adult guidance. I've seen people post about how kids could just teach themselves to code and never need to learn from an adult.

      I am a fan of informal learning environments and I think many of your ideas fit well within a constructivist pedagogy. However, I don't pretend to have read any of your research. I have a hunch that if we met over a pint, we would probably have a large area of agreement, along with civil dialogue.

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  14. It would actually help to read what I have written. Very briefly:

    1. If all children on the planet had access to good teachers, schools and parents, we should do nothing. However, we have tried to level the playing field for about 1000 years and failed. Is that right of wrong?
    2. 'My son learned very well with teachers and schools, therefore, all children must learn this way'. Right or wrong?
    3. Comments about education should be made without reference to published data, but based on vague anecdotes and conjectures. Imagine if you did the same with medicine!
    4. Nobody should ever thank google. Well, the Internet has changed our lives more than any parent or teacher has, so maybe we should thank it.

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    1. A few responses:

      1. I'm not opposed to your theories. I am concerned with the fact that they are being applied to a destruction of public education altogether.
      2. My point was never that all children learn the way my son did, but that some children are similar to my son. I point out in another post that the two models can and should co-exist. I've often spoken out against compulsory education. We're in a dangerous place when "this doesn't work for all kids" becomes "this doesn't work for any kids."
      3. This blog is a narrative. The post is a blend of narrative and philosophical. I'm not writing a formal journal article. I'm challenging the "teachers are obsolete" argument. That's not the nature of this post, nor should it be. I wouldn't mind someone writing about the human side of medicine in a philosophical or narrative way for that matter.
      I also think that the comparison assumes that education is primarily a science and that what is old is obsolete. However, teaching is a social and civic institution and the vintage is not always bad. People often write about families or art or even science through a narrative lens.
      4. The eCard was meant to be a joke. It was written with a wink. Really, it was. And a smile to go with it.

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    2. I ended the post with:

      "However, I don't see why the promotion of that idea has to mean the destruction of a public institution. Why can't they co-exist? Why can't different models work for different people? Why can't we create interdependent systems that borrow ideas from one another?"

      I thought I made it pretty clear in that last paragraph that this wasn't a critique on your theories so much as a defense of why teachers (in their various forms) are still necessary.

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    3. From my read so many good things in your post, but I have to say it felt like Mitra was set up a straw man. I agree that "Mitra as meme" has been used in the education wars now going on in the States. I have a strong feeling that many who have used his work to support their ideas have not done the careful reading either.

      The problem is exacerbated when both sides take what they think is being said and use it to make valid points. It tends to obfuscate rather the clarify.

      Meanwhile keep fighting the good fight. I bet if one looks more carefully at all the players one can see there are many more points of agreement than disagreement.



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    4. and my 2 bits worth... :-)
      http://suneetakulkarni.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/first-take-school-in-the-cloud-self-organized-learning-environments-and-so-on/

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  15. As I am a big picture thinker, I will comment on the whole of this conversation. This is all engaging dialogue! It really shows the true beauty of how writing (blogging) our ideas can spark discussion and critical thinking, yet also shows how important reading with an open mind, a critical thought process, and an understanding of the author's purpose with regards to genre.

    As a reader, it was very clear to me that the author was opining based on his experiences and questions about broad misinterpretation. When I finished the reading the post, I was left with the thought that once again, we can determine that all students need different approaches and that teachers need to be prepared and open to trying them all! Always.

    As an advocate for Arts Based Education as well as Technology Integration, I do hope that someday soon there is a sweep of opinions and understanding across the globe that technology can be our vessel and our means sometimes, but that inherently, we cannot forget about the human need for connection through collaboration (also extremely possible with technology!) but not forgetting the arts. For both, students will need leaders, facilitators, teachers- call them what you will- but even the most able and brightest people have and need mentors and teachers. Here's hoping that the educational world can get a grasp on misinterpretations as so many rich pedagogical ideas are born each day. And, as John mentions above, they all should co-exist. After all, we need to do that as humans, yes?

    Jaclyn Karabinas

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  16. I'm curious to know if you have any experience with or knowledge of the Sudbury Model of education. My two children go to the Sudbury Valley School and have since the get-go. My son taught himself to read before he was three. My daughter, on the other hand, didn't read fluently until she was 9. However, neither one of them had any formal teaching re: "Phonology, phonemic awareness and the structure of reading."

    And they are by no means outliers.

    Children at Sudbury Valley learn to read organically. A parent at another school put it this way:

    "Through Sudbury, my daughter Isobel has taught herself to read. Her process went beyond learning "sight words," she never received a teacher's praise or external accolades; she was never graded or given a diagnostic to figure out the number of words per minute she was capable of. There was no bell curve to tell her that she was mediocre, or behind, or ahead...she simply was. She didn't want to "learn" to read, she simply wanted TO read. The incredible thing about Sudbury is that Isobel isn't working to learn words for weekly spelling tests, so there is no drudgery in the process. Through her own volition she has begun the process of self-mastery. Her proficiency is a product of her motivation and her desire."

    We too are amazed at how well students do when we leave them alone.

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    1. I doubt that they were truly "left alone," however. Phonics and phonemic awareness don't have to be taught through direct instruction. Nor do they have to be a system of drudgery with spelling tests. I've seen teachers help kids learn phonics, phonemic awareness and sight words through student-selected literature. And yet . . . this still requires a teacher (my main point). Even when they "do it on their own," there is guidance. My guess is that at a Sudbury school, teachers will still do read alouds, listen to a child read aloud, etc. So, yes, on some level, leaving children alone works. On another level, adults are still needed to guide them, to listen to them, to mentor them along the way.

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  17. John, you say: "We need teachers. Real teachers." We agree, and we argue the case for this in the post below while bringing out the politics which were previously in the background but which Mitra really threw in our faces in his February talk when he referred to the British Empire (hope you don't mind the plug):

    http://www.digitalcounterrevolution.co.uk/2013/sugata-mitra-edtech-empire-ted-prize-talk/

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.

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