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Mix Kids, Computers and Self-Motivation, Get Learning that Sticks

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Might the teaching profession be going the way of the dinosaur? Probably not in our lifetime, and certainly not while teachers unions remain so powerful, but someone is engaging in experiments with wonderfully promising results that echo homeschooling success.


Further experiment showed that having a person - known as "the granny figure" - stand behind the children and encourage them raised standards even higher.

Jonathan Fildes, technology reporter for BBC news, shares the good news in his article “Using Computers to Teach Children with No Teachers” dated July 16. In it, he relates the story of Professor Sugata Mitra, who “first introduced children in a Delhi slum to computers in 1999.”

While addressing TED Global, Professor Mitra shared how “he has watched the children teach themselves – and others – how to use the machines and gather information.

” Follow up experiments suggest children around the world can learn complex tasks quickly with little supervision.

“I think we have stumbled across a self-organising system with learning as an emergent behaviour,” he stated. (The good professor may not be aware that homeschooling families stumbled upon this decades ago, but that’s okay. See if this doesn’t sound like homeschooling to you!)

Professor Mitra’s work began when he was working for a software company and decided to embed a computer in the wall of his office in Delhi that was facing a slum.

“The children barely went to school, they didn’t know any English, they had never seen a computer before and they didn’t know what the internet was.”

To his surprise, the children quickly figured out how to use the computers and access the internet.

“I repeated the experiment across India and noticed that children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.”

Hole-in-the-wall computer station, HiWel The experiment has been repeated in many more places with very similar results

He saw children teaching each other how to use the computer and picking up new skills.

One group in Rajasthan, he said, learnt how to record and play music on the computer within four hours of it arriving in their village.

“At the end of it we concluded that groups of children can lean to use computers on their own irrespective of who or where they are,” he said.

His experiments then become more ambitious and more global.

In Cambodia, for example, he left a simple maths game for children to play with.

“No child would play with it inside the classroom. If you leave it on the pavement and all the adults go away then they will show off to one another about what they can do,” said Prof Mitra, who now works at Newcastle University in the UK.

He has continued his work in India.

If you liked the above, you’re going to love this:

“I wanted to test the limits of this system,” he said. “I set myself an impossible target: can Tamil speaking 12-year-olds in south India teach themselves biotechnology in English on their own?”

The researcher gathered 26 children and gave them computers preloaded with information in English.

“I told them: ‘there is some very difficult stuff on this computer, I won’t be surprised if you don’t understand anything’.”

Two months later, he returned.

Initially the children said they had not learnt anything, despite the fact that they used the computers everyday.

“Then a 12-year-old girl raised her hand and said ‘apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA contributes to genetic disease – we’ve understood nothing else’.”

Further experiment showed that having a person – known as “the granny figure” – stand behind the children and encourage them raised standards even higher.

Fildes concludes the article:

Professor Mitra has now formalised the lessons from his experiments and has come up with a new concept for schools called SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environments).

These spaces consist of a computer with a bench big enough to let four children sit around the screen.

“It doesn’t work if you give them each a computer individually,” he said.

For his experiments he has also created a “granny cloud” – 200 volunteer grandmothers who can be called upon to video chat with the kids and provide encouragement.

He has tested the spaces in the UK and Italy, with similar results, and now believes it should be tested more widely.

“We could change everything,” he said.

Homeschoolers have been working to “change everything” for decades. I hope Professor Mitra can make some inroads in bringing true learning to the masses. However, if you’re aware that powerful forces are working hard to make sure change doesn’t sully “the education system,” and that real learning isn’t part of the agenda, you’ll realize that the quickest, most successful way to put his findings to work is to offer the same to your own children, and encourage other families to do the same.

And in an interesting touch of irony, this article was proceeded by one in Newsweek about how the U.S. faces “The Creativity Crisis.”

Go figure.

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