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Leverage Learning Not Teaching–A Reflection on Sugata Mitra’s Emergent Pedagogy

“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.

Sugata Mitra–The Child Driven Education

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.” [1]

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?


About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


15 thoughts on “Leverage Learning Not Teaching–A Reflection on Sugata Mitra’s Emergent Pedagogy

  1. Perhaps we need to facilitate learners in becoming more apt to form logical arguments, problem solve, resolve conflict (understanding and resolving differences of opinion), and create innovative ways of communicating with others. A teachers role is to move learners from being dependent, to independent, to interdependent individuals who are not afraid to take chances, share their successes and failures with others, and are concerned for the well-being of not only themselves, but for others as well (the daring, sharing, and caring individual).

    Posted by Benjamin | February 13, 2012, 9:46 am
    • Hi Benjamin,

      I agree that part of the adult/child relationship should be nurturing skills in logic, problem solving, and conflict resolution.

      I must admit, I have trouble conceiving of “innovative ways of communicating with others,” as we so much trouble with our current technologies already! Do you have anything in mind? Direct auto-translate that ensures that the message we receive is exactly what the sender intended?

      I also agree again that adult mentors need to help others move to the more version of selfhood you describe.

      Are you in a classroom or mentoring others? How are you realizing these aims?

      Posted by Adam Burk | February 13, 2012, 9:20 pm
  2. Adam, YES, YES, YES. This aligns very much with what I’m thinking and writing about right now: that the function of learning is disentangling from the thing we call “schools.” So therefore, what is the purpose of school? Does it have a defensible moral purpose? If yes, what is/are those purposes?

    If learning is moving out into the world, available anywhere and anytime, self-organizing into networks and communities of meaning, then what purpose does school serve?

    In this lens, schools are really an organizational artifact, and we have abundant evidence of the ways they are not optimally designed for human learning.

    So what is the appropriate relationship between learning and schools? For whom, when, and why? And aren’t these the conversations we should really be having?

    Another Sugata Mitra observation I love, “Where there is interest, there is learning.”

    Thanks for this. Monika also sent us this great video this morning, to your point:

    Learning and teaching are not the same; human beings are amazingly capable of learning, often without the aid of teachers at all. So must we disable kids in school, to justify our adult interventions into their learning lives?



    Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 13, 2012, 10:14 am
    • I see and respect the desire to disentangle school and learning. I love the notion of learning spaces that are open and organic. However, these need to occur alongside very real, systemic, contextual solutions to local injustice. Here in Arizona, for example, creating quality alternatives to school will only affect those who have access to such spaces. Our urban centers are broken. Our immigrant populations are marginalized.

      I would love to move into an alternative to schooling, but I also know that humanizing school for children makes a difference (especially when, broken as it may be, the school is a refuge to a kid). I need to meet the students where they are at and hopefully do things a little more subversively. Sometimes it feels morally objectionable. Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite. But I still think it’s worth it.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | February 13, 2012, 11:35 am
    • Kirsten,

      I think schools can still play a self-sorting role, where people elect to go to master a particular subject they are interested in, much like Holt’s examples in “Learning All the Time.” The school becomes more like a guild at that point. This follows the Mitra quote you offer too, “where there is interest, there is learning.”

      I am seeing such self-organizing happening in the permaculture world, with skill shares and hubs forming around the general concept of resiliency.

      And then there’s the point that John raises below. What about situations where schools are safe havens in communities? Well, I think they should redefine themselves as such–community centers or community regeneration hubs. Let it be clear that their mission is to provide safe, nurturing (physically, emotionally, and mentally) environments, where anyone can come to engage in learning however that is defined for them. Create robust food systems as part of these hubs so that the communities basic needs can truly be accounted for, make sure there is ample professional support on site for the social work that needs to happen and teachers absorb anyway.

      I think if we’re clear about the primary function such schools are playing and stop trying to justify them through outdated views of teaching and learning (and I am not saying this is what you are doing John), then we can actually breathe a little bit more and create space for innovation that doesn’t have to try to squeeze in after school or between tests.

      The ways in which we continue to wear blinders and pretend that things are not connected, denying the holistic context within which it means to be human is a frustrating state of the current collective consciousness.


      Posted by Adam Burk | February 13, 2012, 9:32 pm
      • I’m loving this thread. I’ve been involved with Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools in a competition to “design a School of the Future.” This is primarily from an architectural POV, but we thought a lot about what kids (ok, and adults too) think would be the perfect school. The conversations centered on being sustainable and green (including lots of plants and an aquaponics system), being easy to move through and to relax in, being safe and open to the community, and being generally awesome.

        Personally, I think a lot about the magical “Perfect School”. For one thing, the needs of urban dwellers must be considered (as John brought up). For them, access is the main issue. Here in NOLA, public charter schools are the norm, unless you have access to a private school. There are plenty of parochial schools; a few Montessories and a Waldorf, but one of those Montessori schools is a K-8 charter school.

        Point is, as I’m looking for next year’s teaching job, I’ll mostly be looking at charters. I need to fit in. Thus, in my recent thinking about the perfect school, it’s been from the perspective of working to create change from within the system of a charter-heavy urban environment.

        The “three skills” in the original post (and many of the priorities suggested in the comments) can be merged into mainstream education by using backwards design and unit plans. Beyond that, it’s hard to have a great effect on school culture when you’re just one teacher in a highly regimented information transmission machine.

        The only other option is to charter a new school…

        Posted by Jason Lacoste | February 14, 2012, 3:15 am
        • Jason, always good to hear your thoughts. Question: while the three competencies Mitra lays out can be integrated in backwards planned units, how can self-organized learning? Unit plans are by definition linear, and self-organized learning is not. Can they co-exist?

          Posted by Adam Burk | February 21, 2012, 4:14 pm
      • Hi Adam,

        I decided to try answering your question regarding self-organized learning with a new post. My take is certainly not comprehensive, but rather an attempt to think ahead to some strategies I’d like to try. I look forward to your thoughts.


        Posted by Jason Lacoste | February 28, 2012, 1:43 pm
  3. I share your struggle, John! Yes, school can be a refuge, even though…

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | February 13, 2012, 3:25 pm
  4. I love Sugata Mitra’s work and the idea of self-organized learning altogether. I also agree with the three principles suggested here: communication skills, information skills, logic skills (at least that’s how I read them; oversimplification?).

    I think character education is something that can’t be taught the same way. That’s something they’ll get from their social interactions, role models, and personality. I mean, teaching something akin to Rosenberg’s NVC is good, but ultimately they’ll do as we do, not as we say. I think we should expect our kids to be at least as unreasonable as we adults are. ‘_’

    Nice post and lots of interesting comments. Thanks Adam!

    Posted by Jason Lacoste | February 14, 2012, 1:40 am
    • Jason–you’re right character education isn’t taught by leaving kids to interact with information rich environments on their own. Mentoring is needed and healthy mentors at that. But character education can be a part of any other kind of learning whether it the sciences, arts, etc.

      Posted by Adam Burk | February 21, 2012, 4:17 pm
  5. It would be a start to acknowledge the worth of learning spaces like those the framework suggests and to build some in all their trans-local diversity. Then we could make more informed decisions as neighborhoods and communities about how we want education and/or schooling to be for our kids – we could, in effect, make real choices about how to learn, rather than choices between products that all do the same thing. We are stuck in aisle 1 of the education super store; it would be better to have an idea of what’s in all the aisles; it would be best to be outside making meta-choices not related so directly to revenue and profit.

    Right now t I am deep into experiencing the disconnect between what we have and what we could have. More later.

    Thanks for the forward-looking prompt, Adam!

    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 15, 2012, 11:37 am
  6. To everyone in this thread—-I am so grateful for all your thought-provoking posts. They offer such hope to education!

    Posted by Francesca Blueher | February 21, 2012, 5:04 pm
  7. Adam, a couple of concerns regarding Mitra’s approach that I’d welcome your response to if you are still around and moderating comments.

    1) As the third primary skill you list “a rational system of belief.” Now in my book that isn’t a skill. I imagine that in practice the third skill would actually be the ability to question and find flaws in arguments. This would involve a training in scepticism. The minimally invasive teacher as Socrates the intellectual midwife. Let’s recall that Socrates was put to death. Scepticism can be a pernicious force if it leads to a kind of nihilism – to a loss of belief in the values that underpin a particular way of life. Mitra and the other people in the discussion here don’t seem to see the risk. As long as the people in our relatively affluent community are surfing the web, learning, getting qualifications, finding work, feeding themselves, and having fun, then everything is alright. I am not sure it is.

    2) Mitra seems to be promoting a kind of universalism which suits perfectly the current (bad) form of globalisation. It would seem to be antithetical to all things local (because none of those stand up to the court of Reason). Lots of local traditions can be experienced as enriching – helping people acquire a stronger sense of who they are and where they belong. To keep these alive (especially in a world where billions of dollars are spent trying to persuade us to turn our backs on the past) teachers need to come into the classroom enthusiastic about them, doing everything they can to encourage the students to make these traditions their own. No one can be forced to do this, but it strikes me that this goes quite some way beyond Mitra’s “non-invasive teaching.”

    Posted by Torn Halves | August 8, 2012, 5:29 pm

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