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Given Internet access, can kids really learn anything by themselves?

November 12, 2015 at 6:30 PM EST
It started with a hole in the wall. Sugata Mitra, working for a software company in Delhi, cut a gap between his firm and the slum next door, putting out an Internet-connected computer for kids in the community to use. That simple experiment has turned into a radical idea that children can teach themselves in self-organized learning environments. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.
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GWEN IFILL: But, first, how a simple experiment in India has turned into a radical idea, whether students should teach themselves by giving them a computer and stepping back.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports, part of our Making Sense series, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

STUDENT: Why do dogs chase cats?

PAUL SOLMAN: I have absolutely no idea.

A public elementary school in Harlem, New York, is adopting a radical idea that threatens the education industry as we know it, SOLEs, Self-Organized Learning Environments.

STUDENT: How do you make a computer?

STUDENT: How come father seahorses have babies, but the females don’t?

PAUL SOLMAN: The students come up with the questions, and then choose one to answer. The man behind the idea, Sugata Mitra, visiting from England.

SUGATA MITRA, Newcastle University: OK, so now here’s what’s going to happen. Listen carefully. You’re going to work with these six computers; the question is, why do dogs chase cats? And, of course, you can talk as much as you like, you can walk around, you can move, you can look at other people’s work. You can do whatever you like.

PAUL SOLMAN: A crowd of onlookers in a nearby room, waiting to know if, given six computers and just 20 minutes, these kids can really self-organize and learn the answer on their own.

SUGATA MITRA: Do you have any idea? I have never actually thought about it. Of course, everyone knows that dogs chase cats.

PAUL SOLMAN: No. My guess is cats are a symbol of something they could eat, but don’t eat? I don’t know. That’s my best shot.

Mitra’s first experiment in self-organized learning took place years ago and far away, at the turn of the 21st century here in Delhi, where he worked for a huge Indian software firm.

Worried about information poverty and the digital divide between those who can afford computers and those who can’t, Mitra simply cut a hole in the boundary wall between his firm and the fetid slum next door and put in a computer, connected to the Internet, and watched.

SUGATA MITRA: I put it there and we opened it, and by the same evening, Vivek, who was doing the main observation, came back and said that the kids are browsing. And by the second day, a whole bunch of kids were browsing and doing various functions.

PAUL SOLMAN: So Mitra built more holes in more walls, 1,000 more, in fact, which led to more experiments, and more questions.

SUGATA MITRA: The hole in the wall experiment showed that children can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own. What else could they learn?

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, back in Harlem, the kids are hard at it, the clock ticking.

STUDENT: Well, cats are small and even though they have nails, dogs are like the males.

STUDENT: We should only try to get the most correct answer.

STUDENT: He might injure the cat by biting it too hard.

STUDENT: It says, others preserve cats as prey.

STUDENT: A dog-cat fight can be devastating.

STUDENTS: P-E-R-C-E-I-V-E.

STUDENT: Thank you.

STUDENT: Write it in your own words. And we need to hurry up. There’s only seven minutes. Let’s concentrate.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN.

The hole in the wall experiments made Mitra famous, a star on the stage, a threat to the education industry as the world knows it.

SUGATA MITRA: Could it be that we don’t need to go to school at all? Could it be that at the point in time when you need to know something, you can find out in two minutes? Could it be that we’re headed towards or may be in a future where knowing is obsolete?

PAUL SOLMAN: Knowing obsolete? We don’t need schools?

MIKE TRUCANO, Education and Technology Policy Specialist, World Bank: I think it’s irresponsible to say we can do without teachers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mike Trucano has worked on global education technology for the World Bank for 20 years.

MIKE TRUCANO: The answer isn’t technology. The answer is providing children with a rich learning environment, with a highly capable, competent, committed teacher there alongside them to help guide their learning.

Thinking that technology alone and kids left to their own devices can educate themselves in the way that we hope and become the types of people they want to be, I think, is ludicrous.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, Mitra has adapted. Two years ago, he began building schools in the cloud. There are now seven, five in India, two in the U.K., where a teacher gets groups of children to self-organize into learning environments and investigate almost anything, SOLEs or, you might say, holes in the classroom.

But this school’s principal, Natasha Spann, was still a devout skeptic when she first heard of Mitra’s lab for self-learning.

NATASHA SPANN, Principal, P.S. 197: So, when I first heard that, I said, get out of here.

(LAUGHTER)

NATASHA SPANN: And I said, no, really, get out of here.

(LAUGHTER)

NATASHA SPANN: We were already what was considered a focus school, according to New York state, which was a failing school. So, for me to pitch the idea to my superintendent that I’m going to completely get rid of all of the desks and chairs in a classroom and have kids work together by themselves, absent of the teacher, on different levels, that was like, I don’t think so. That’s not happening here.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, in this classroom, time was running out, the students finishing up their findings, prepping their conclusions.

STUDENT: Two minutes.

PAUL SOLMAN: It was time for the final presentations.

SUGATA MITRA: Why do dogs chase cats? Who would you like to make the first presentation?

STUDENT: A dog can grab and easily wound or kill the cat by crushing her in his jaws.

STUDENT: He might injure a cat by biting too hard even in play.

STUDENT: Like many things dogs do, chasing cats is instinctual.

SUGATA MITRA: They are the first group who are trying to explain why.

STUDENT: Some want to play with the cat. Others perceive cats as prey and will harm a cat if they catch her.

SUGATA MITRA: Do you see now that every group actually was adding to everybody else and building up a whole — whole picture?

PAUL SOLMAN: Following the SOLE demonstration, we had our own question.

But it’s got to be scary to a lot of teachers, no?

SUIMANI MILLS, Fourth Grade Teacher, P.S. 197: When I first did SOLE, so scary.

PAUL SOLMAN: Suimani Mills teaches at PS-197.

SUIMANI MILLS: They utilized the skills that we gave them without our assistance.

PAUL SOLMAN: Leana Borges also teaches here.

LEANA BORGES, Fourth Grade Teacher, P.S. 197: Those critical thinking skills are what students need teachers for. That’s what — that’s the coaching that we do. And then they apply those principles within the SOLE lab.

SUIMANI MILLS: This is the part where you test yourself as a teacher, and you have to walk away from your garden and let them flower and grow.

PAUL SOLMAN: As to the school’s skeptical principal:

NATASHA SPANN: Once I got to see them actually in a session with the question and the learning that came out of it, I said, we have to have this at my school.

ZINA BURTON-MYRICK, United Federation of Teachers: I was seriously surprised that there wasn’t an adult saying, you go to this group or you go to this group.

PAUL SOLMAN: But did union rep Zina Burton-Myrick, here to watch from the United Federation of Teachers, see a threat to her profession?

ZINA BURTON-MYRICK: I would have thought that it would have posed a threat. But after seeing it and looking at how useful a program like this would be, I think that it’s something that I would love to see in other schools in the Harlem community.

PAUL SOLMAN: So does Sugata Mitra disagree?

Doesn’t this threaten to destroy one of the largest industries on Earth?

SUGATA MITRA: Yes. If you’re talking about the education industry, yes, they are under threat. They are under threat not of destruction, but of imminent change. They’d better do it if they have to survive.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, is it the beginning of a revolution?

MIKE TRUCANO: I think the jury’s still out. We see amazing things happen from technology use, but we also need to be a bit sober in what’s actually possible and separating the hope from the hype. Just because something is new and different doesn’t necessarily make it better.

PAUL SOLMAN: But for this group of students, more than a third classified as special needs, fully half living in shelters, all of them poor, self-learning is new, different and perhaps better as well.

STUDENT: Sometimes, when you’re stuck, a group — your group can help you out.

PAUL SOLMAN: From PS-197 in Harlem, New York, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting for the PBS NewsHour.

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