“Learning and teaching are not symmetrical. They are not flip sides of the same coin…The working assumption is this: Solve teaching and you will get learning.”
-Sugata Mitra, Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning
What if the majority of our systems and methods in education are not needed? What if we were to truly modernize education, all that was needed was internet connections, computers, healthy adults, good food, safe buildings and outdoor spaces? What if our model moving forward is rural India, not Finland?
Sugata Mitra lays out his work and vision for self-organized learning in his new TED book, Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discovering the Power of Self-Organized Learning. This is a follow-up to his popular TED talk.
After placing computers literally in walls in rural India in ways that made them highly accessible to children and less so to adults, Sugata Mitra and his teams effectively raised the literacy levels of tens of thousands of children. (We’re talking from 0 to 30 and 40%, not 100% literacy rates) This didn’t happen because of “highly qualified” teachers, teacher accountability, school choice, or any of the other current saviors of the western education system.
It happened because children were given access to information rich environments and encouraged to keep going. It happened because the essential question here is not “do they know….?” but rather “do they think?”
The basic infrastructure of Mitra’s learning environment is very simple–highly accessible (for children) computer with broadband connection, placed in a high traffic area, is monitored remotely, and has a regular “attendant” who provides encouragement and open-ended questions much like a grandmother.
My interpretation of Sugata’s work is that he is seeking the least restrictive, yet most supportive environment for children’s learning that allows for the most robust forms of thinking and learning to emerge.
via Wikimedia Commons The observations of children learning in this way are enriched by the framework of emergent phenomenon. Rooted in evolutionary biology and physics and adopted by computer science and robotics, emergent phenomena “are the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns, and properties during the process of self-organization.” 
This is by and large a reversal of current teaching methods where structures and patterns are regularly forced upon learning–some for the better and others for the worse. If we were to adopt and experiment with learning as an emergent phenomenon, how do we sort out the methods we keep?
To do the sorting we would need a new framework and criteria. Perhaps this is offered here by Mitra:
If learning is an emergent phenomenon, then the teacher needs to provide stimulus–lots of it–in the form of “big” questions. These must include questions to which the teacher, or perhaps anyone, does not have the answer. These should be the sorts of questions that will occupy children’s minds perpetually. The teacher needs to help each child cultivate a vision of the future.
Thus a new primary curriculum needs to teach only three skills:
1. Reading Comprehension: This is perhaps the most crucial skill a child needs to acquire while growing up.
2. Information search and analysis…
3. A rational system of belief…[which] will be our children’s protection against doctrine.
Questions in my mind:
So if this was the new framework what practices would you keep? What new ones would need to be added in? Which ones absolutely must not be used?
What would this mean not only for primary schools, but undergrad, graduate, and doctoral programs?
Are you willing to explore learning from this perspective in highly developed western and global north countries? Or is best left for developing countries in the East and global South?
Are there not yet reached limits of this method? For example, would literacy rates plateau and never reach 100% even if this was widely implemented?