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Meet an education innovator who says knowledge is becoming obsolete

Editor’s Note: In 1999, Sugata Mitra, a software engineer in New Delhi, India, was worried about information poverty. So he cut a hole in a wall, inserted a computer into it, and watched as kids from the slum next door began to use the computer. They began browsing the Internet… and they began learning. So Mitra put more holes in more walls throughout India and watched.

The “Hole in the Wall” experiment demonstrated that in the absence of a teacher, children could teach themselves and their peers. The finding led to more experiments, which led to more questions and eventually to self-organized learning environments or SOLEs in which students are given a computer, encouraged to work together and left to answer a question by themselves.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman visited one of these self-organized learning environments at a school in Harlem, New York for the PBS NewsHour’s latest Making Sen$e segment. There he spoke with Mitra about the “Hole in the Wall” experiment, self-organized learning environments and whether his view of education will upend education industry as we know it.

For the full Making Sen$e report, watch the video below. The following text has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

Paul Solman: How did you go from the hole-in-the-wall experiment to self-organized learning environments?

Sugata Mitra: The hole in the wall showed that children can teach themselves to use the computer and to use the Internet for whatever they want — usually to entertain themselves. It was a great result for its time in the early 2000s.

The pinnacle of all these experiments was an experiment done in the village Kuppam, where we were able to show that children can learn undergraduate level biotechnology in English by themselves. And they were Tamil speaking, 12-year-old children. At that point, I was forced to say that it looks as though unsupervised groups of children using the Internet can learn anything by themselves.

Paul Solman: So you’re convinced from more than a decade of scientific research and data?

Sugata Mitra: Yes, I’m convinced from more than a decade of experiments, of designing experiments, of carrying them out, of analyzing data. I’ve often been criticized of having not having a big enough sample sizes. I’ve been criticized for using the methods of physics and social science, because physics is the subject that I know, and I didn’t study social science.  But in each one of those publications, I have said that these results seem to indicate the following and further work is needed to confirm the findings.  I know I cannot confirm each of these findings. I mean, how many more experiments can I do?  So it would be nice if some social scientist actually repeated some of these experiments and either proved or disproved them or set the matter to rest.

Paul Solman: Is this a disruptive technology that threatens the educational industry as currently practiced?

Sugata Mitra: It’s not about destroying anything, it’s about an inevitable change. Education was all about knowing things, and they put a lot of value on it. We think that by the time a young man or a young woman is 18, they should have a certain amount of knowledge.

I think what we are seeing now is that knowledge is no longer as relevant as it used to be. In fact, to put it bluntly, the word “knowing” is going obsolete. It sounds pretty horrible, but it’s happened before actually. Do I need to spend the first 18 years of my life putting stuff inside my own head just in case I need it, or should I just keep acquiring the stuff as we go along and the brain will decide what it wants to keep and what it will not?

Paul Solman: But don’t you need a context for the knowledge that you receive when you go on the Internet to answer the questions you or someone else has posed?

Sugata Mitra: If I look at my schooling, the traditional schooling, the just-in-case schooling, it was without context and much of it is indeed forgotten. I don’t think I remember anymore how to solve a quadratic equation – not too well – certainly not an equation with the power of three in it.

Paul Solman: The power of two is A2 + B2 + 2AB.

Sugata Mitra: Yes, that’s right. AX2 + BX + C = 0. I used to solve them with the speed of summer lightning until the examination, and the instant after that, my brain decided I didn’t need that stuff anymore. It lost the context.

Paul Solman: But it’s going to be a real problem for teachers, teacher unions and teachers’ wages.

Sugata Mitra: Yes, I guess so. When the internal combustion engine replaced the horses, it was a real problem for the coachmen. So it will be a problem.

Paul Solman: But you do have mediators, intermediaries. It’s not just that kids learn entirely on their own in these schools where the SOLEs are.

Sugata Mitra: Yes, you need friends. In almost anything we do, what my work shows is you need your friends. And the children, of course, have their own friends, which is why they work in groups, and I encourage that. If they had a grownup friend, it sometimes helps, not so much because the grownup knows more than them, but — I describe it as the grandmother method — because they want to show off to the grownup by saying, we know more than you. And the grownup reacts by saying, “Oh my God, I’m so proud of you.”

So that’s the grandmother method, and I have a group of volunteers, about 600 of them. They’re called the Granny Cloud. They Skype in, talk to the children and say, “My goodness, what are you doing today?”

Paul Solman: But there are billions of young people in the world. Six hundred people can’t serve all of them.

Sugata Mitra: No, it has to scale up. It’s in its fledgling days. It’s self-organizing. It’s growing in size. Not every self-organized learning environment requires one all the time. Children are capable of answering their own questions. If there’s an adult there who encourages that process, they’ll go very far. But the Granny Cloud is a free resource, and one day I think it will be as big as it needs to be.

So what happens tomorrow? Well, first of all, a change has to happen, not so much with the teachers, but with our assessment systems. As long as the examination and testing systems remain the way they are, we need our teachers, and we need them to do what they’re doing.

Why am I saying that? Because the assessment system assumes that the Internet does not exist. So you’re going to be on your own, with just paper and pencil. I’m going to ask you a question, and you’re going to answer. Through a series of experiments all around the world, I’ve been testing this question: What happens if I allow children to use the Internet during such an exam?  And what I find is that questions given to 16-year-olds can be solved by nine-year-olds if they have access to the Internet. So clearly the exam system is testing for memory and not much else.

If that is the case, then the teacher has to enable that process of memorization. So she has to say, “I’m going to tell you this, and repeat after me. I’m going to write this down on the whiteboard, you copy it down into your notebooks.” All of this to serve the assessment. If you want change, the exam system has to change. The exam system will change if we allow the Internet to enter the exam room. If we do allow the Internet to enter the exam room, the teacher has to then say to her pupils, “Learn how to search quickly, and learn how to detect the right facts when you need them, because that’s what you’re going to be tested on.”

Paul Solman: So to rephrase it then, are you saying that the role of the teacher will change from teaching facts to teaching how to learn?

Sugata Mitra: Exactly. The role of the teacher in the immediate future will change from this emphasis on providing facts to an emphasis on how to find the facts for yourself accurately.

My favorite quote from Einstein is roughly, “I don’t need to know everything, but when I need to know it, I need to know where to find it.” In his day, it would have meant a trip to the library, several days of research work. But today that’s not the case. So, yes, you do need to be educated, but educated in what? You need to know how to know very fast and you need to be able to do it accurately.