Education and self-learning. Sugata Mitra

The researcher in education Sugata Mitra tackles one of the greatest problems of education — the best teachers and the best schools are not where they are most needed. In a series of experiments of the real life going from New Delhi, passing through south Africa, up Italy, he gave children access self-monitored to the web and saw results that could revolutionize how we think about teaching.


Source: TED Ideas Worth Spreading


A self-organizing system is one where a structure appears without explicit intervention from the outside. Self-organizing systems also always show emergence, which means that the system starts to do things it was never designed.


Education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.


Educación y autoaprendizaje. Sugata Mitra


Well, there an obvious statement up there. I started with that sentence about 12 years ago, and I started in the context of developing countries, but You come from all corners of the planet. So if you think of the map of your country, I think you’ll realize that for every country in the world, you could draw little circles to say: “These are places where good teachers won’t go.” In addition, these are the places where they generate problems. So we have a problem ironically. Good teachers don’t want to go just to the places where it’s most needed.

I started in 1999 to try to address this problem with an experiment, a very simple experiment in New Delhi. Basically I embedded a computer in a wall in a poor neighborhood of New Delhi. The children barely went to school. They knew nothing of English. Never before had they seen a computer and did not know what the internet was. Hooked it up to the internet of high speed -is one meter from the ground-turned it on and left it there. After this, we noticed a couple of interesting things, which you are going to see. I repeated this all over India and then through a large part of the world and noticed that children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.

This is the first experiment that we did: a child of 8 years to the right teaching his student, 6 years old, was teaching him to sail. This child in the middle of central India — this is in a Rajasthan village, where the children recorded their own music and then played it back to each other, and, in the process, they’ve enjoyed themselves thoroughly. They did all of this in 4 hours after seeing the computer for the first time. In another south Indian village, these children had assembled a video camera and were trying to take a photo of a bumble bee. They downloaded it from or one of these websites, 14 days after putting the computer in their village. So at the end of it we concluded that groups of children can learn to use computers and the internet on their own, regardless of who they are or where they are located.

At that moment, I became a little more ambitious and decided to see what else could children do with a computer. We started with an experiment in Hyderabad, India, where I gave a group of children… speak English with an accent, telugu very strong… I gave them a computer with a voice interface to text, which, you know, now it comes free with Windows and I asked them to speak to it. So, when you were talking to the computer I wrote anything, and then they said, “Well, do not understand anything of what we say”. I said, “Yes, I’m just going to leave for 2 months. Make yourself understood by the computer”. The children said: “How do we do that?” And I said, “actually, I don’t know”. (Laughter) And I went. (Laughter) Two months later, and this is now documented in the paper Information Technology for International Development, which changed the accent, and is very similar to the neutral british accent in which I had trained the speech synthesizer to a text. In other words, they were all speaking like James Tooley. (Laughter) So they were able to do that on their own. After that, I started to experiment with various other things that they might learn to do on their own.

I received an interesting phone call from Colombo of the late Arthur C. Clarke, who said, “I want to see what is happening.” And he could not travel, so I went up there. He said two interesting things: “A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be”. (Laughter) The second thing he said was that “If children have interest, then education happens.” And I was doing that in the field, so that every time I looked at him I thought of him.

(Video) Arthur C. Clarke: And they can definitely help people, because children quickly learn to navigate the web and find things which interest them. And if one has interest, then you have education.

Sugata Mitra: I took the experiment to south Africa. This is a 15 year old boy.

(Video) Boy: …I like games, animals, and listening to music.

SM: AND I asked him: “do you Send emails?” And he said: “Yes, and jump across the ocean”. This is in Cambodia, rural Cambodia, a fairly silly arithmetic game, which no child would play inside the classroom or at home. They, you know, throw it back. They would say: “This is very boring”. If you leave it on the floor, and if all the adults go, they alardearán with each other about what they can do. This is what these children are doing. They are trying to multiply, I think. And for all of India, at the end of about 2 years, children were beginning to google their homework. In consequence, the teachers reported tremendous improvements in their English… (Laughter) a quick improvement and all kinds of things. They said, “They have become great thinkers,” and things like that. (Laughter) And, in fact, what they were. I mean, if there’s something on Google, why do you want one in the head? So at the end of the next 4 years, I decided that groups of children can navigate the internet to achieve educational objectives on their own.

At that time he entered a large amount of money to the University of Newcastle to improve education in India. I called Newcastle and I said to them: “I’ll do It from Delhi.” They said, “No way you’re going to handle a million pounds-worth of University money sitting in Delhi”. So in 2006 I bought myself a heavy overcoat, and I moved to Newcastle. I wanted to test the limits of the system. The first experiment I did out of Newcastle was actually done in India. And I set myself a goal impossible: how can children 12 years of age who speak tamil in a small village in the south of India to be self-taught in biotechnology, in English and on your own? And I thought: I’ll take a test and they will draw a zero. I’ll give you the materials. I will come back and I’ll measure them. Draw another zero. I will come back to them and say: “Yes, we need teachers for certain things.”

I called to 26 children. Came everyone and told them that there was something very difficult on this computer. I would not be surprised that they could not understand anything. Everything is in English and I am going to. (Laughter) So I left them with that. I came back after two months on the 26th went very, very quiet. I said, “Well, did you get to watch some of the material?” Responded: “Yes, we did.” “Do you understand anything?” “No, nothing”. Then I said, “Well, how long did you practice before you decided you understood nothing?” I said: “we look at It every day.” And I said, “how For two months they were looking at something that is not understood?” Then a 12 year old girl raises her hand and says, literally, “Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease we’ve understood nothing else”.




Took Me 3 years to publish that. Just published in the British Journal of Educational Technology. One of the referees who reviewed the article said: “it Is too good to be true”, which was not very nice. Well, one of the girls is self-taught as to become the teacher. And there she is. Remember, they don’t study English. I edited out the last part in which I asked: “Where is the neuron?” and she said, “what The neuron? does the neuron?” And then she looked and did this. Whatever the expression, it was not very nice.

So their scores had gone from 0% to 30%, which is an educational impossibility under the circumstances. But 30% is not enough to pass. I discovered that they had a friend, a local accountant, a young girl, and they played football with it. I asked the girl: “do you teach Them enough biotechnology to pass?” And he said, “How am I going to do? I don’t know the subject.” I said, “No, use the method of the grandmother”. She said: “What is that?” I said, “Well, what you have to do is stand in front of them and admire them all the time. Just tell them: “That’s great. That is fantastic. What is that? Can you do it again? Can you show me a little more?” She did that for two months. The scores went up to 50%, which is what the posh schools of New Delhi with a trained biotechnology teacher were getting.

So I went back to Newcastle with these results and decided that there was something happening here that definitely was getting very serious. So, after having experienced all sorts of remote places, I Got to the more remote location I could think of. (Laughter) some 8,000 kms. New Delhi is the little town of Gateshead. In Gateshead, I took 32 children and began to refine the method. I put them in groups of 4. I told them: “Forming their own groups of 4. Each group of 4 you can use 1 computer and 4 computers”. Remember, the Hole in the Wall. “You can change the group. Can be passed to another group, if you don’t like your group, etc., Can go to another group, peer over their shoulders, see what they’re doing, come back to your own group and claim it as your own work.” And I explained to them that, you know, a lot of scientific research is done using that method.



The children enthusiastically got after me and said: “What do you want us to do?” I gave them 6 questions of a child. The first group, the best, solved everything in 20 minutes. The worst, in 45. They used everything that they knew… forums, Google, Wikipedia, Ask Jeeves, etc, The teachers said, “what Is this deep learning?” I said, “Well, let’s try it. I’ll be back in two months. Give them a paper test — no computers, no talking, etc.” The average score when I’d done it with the computers and the groups was 76%. When I did the experiment, when I took the test, after 2 months, the score was 76%. There was photographic recall inside the children, I suspect because they’re discussing with each other. A child alone in front of a computer will not do that. I have other results, which are almost unbelievable, of scores which go up with time. Because the teachers say that after the class the children continue to google more things.

Here in Britain, I put out a call for british grandmothers, after my kuppam experiment. Well, you know, they’re very vigorous people, british grandmothers. 200 of them volunteered immediately. (Laughter) The deal was they would give me one hour of broadband sitting in their homes one day a week. And so they did. And during the last two years they have given more than 600 hours of instruction through Skype, using what my students call the “granny cloud”. The granny cloud sits over there. I can beam them to whichever school they want.

(Video) Teacher: you can’t catch me. You name it. You can’t catch me.

Children: you can’t catch me.

Teacher: I’m the gingerbread man.

Children: I’m the gingerbread man.

Teacher: Well done, very well…

SM: back at Gateshead, a 10 year old girl gets into the heart of hinduism in 15 minutes. Things that even I do not know. Two children watch a TEDTalk. Before they wanted to be footballers. After watching 8 TEDTalks, he wants to be Leonardo da Vinci.



It is something quite simple.

This is what I’m building now. SOLES, acronym in English Environments for Self-Organized Learning. The furniture is designed so that the children can sit in front of big, powerful screens, big broadband connections, but in groups. If they want, they can call the granny cloud. This is the SOLE in Newcastle. The mediator is of India.

How far can we go? One last thing and I’ll stop. I went to Turin in may. Away all the teachers my group of students of 10 years. I speak only English, they speak only Italian, so we had no way to communicate. I started writing questions in English on the blackboard. The children looked at him and said: “What?” I said, “Well, do it.” They typed it into Google, translated it into Italian, went back into Italian Google. 15 minutes later… Next question: Where is Calcutta? This took them only 10 minutes. Then I tried with a very difficult. Who was “Pythagoras” and what did you do? There was silence for a moment and said: “I wrote the wrong way. Is Pythagoras”. And then, in 20 minutes, they began to appear on the screen right triangles. This scene gave me chills. These children have 10 years. [In another 30 minutes they would arrive at the Theory of Relativity. And then what?]



SM: do you Know what has happened? I think that we have stumbled upon a self-organizing system. A self-organizing system is one where a structure appears without explicit intervention from the outside. Self-organizing systems also always show emergence, which means that the system starts to do things it was never designed. That is the reason why You react in this way because it seems like something impossible. I think I can risk a guess. Education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon. It’ll take a few years to prove it empirically but I’ll try. Meanwhile, there is a method available. One billion children, we need 100 million mediators — there are many more on the planet, 10 million SOLEs 180 billion dollars and 10 years. We could change everything.

Thank you.



Translated by Sebastian Betti

Reviewed by Carlo Dezerega

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