Sugata Mitra

Scientist and technology teacher

"A group of children with independent access to the Internet can learn things for themselves"

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I started working in a very large and beautiful office in New Delhi teaching people how to program. Right in front of my office there was an enormous slum with hundreds of children who had nothing to do. They played football and things like that, but basically, they didn't do anything. So I thought, "How strange. Maybe some of these kids could learn to be fantastic programmers. So, why not teach them?” The answer to this was very simple: “How can you build a school in a slum? There's no room. It's very dirty. Good teachers don't want to go there." But, what would happen if I gave the kids a computer? People's response to this was, “It's a stupid idea because they've never seen a computer before." So, I tried it. The first problem was: if you want to put a computer in a slum, where should it go? There was a wall along the perimeter of my office, and the slum was on the other side. So I made a hole there. I took a computer monitor and placed it against the window so it faced the slum. Then, I got a touch pad and placed it on the other side of the wall. The computer had Windows and an Internet connection. Nothing else. No applications. Nothing. They looked at it but didn't do anything. After six or seven hours, a friend of mine came and said to me, “How have you taught them to use a computer?" And I replied, “I haven't taught them anything. Why? What are they doing?” She said, “They're browsing the internet. And they're teaching each other to browse." How had these children learned to do this? I then set up twenty-two computers across India. I put them in deserts, small villages, near the sea, near rivers, at the top of mountains, in the Himalayas, everywhere. And the same thing happened all over. Groups of children came to have a look and in less than a couple of days they had started to download games and play. Everybody asked me, “Who's taught them to do this?” I still have no reply, but I think I have a rough idea what's going on. I call it "self-organized learning," as there's no teacher involved.

To teachers, I say, “What can you do in this situation, when you might not be able to answer a question, when questions might arise that you hadn't even thought about? The only thing you can tell a child is, "Find out for yourself." Right? What else can you do? It's like there's a group of kids and a forest you know nothing about. But the kids want to go there. What are you going to say to them? I would advise teachers to say, "You go, and I'll accompany you." That's very important. Don't tell them. “You go, and I'll stay here and drink my coffee." That's how I would provide leadership when tackling questions I don't know the answers to.

"Universal learning depends on a connection between people, and billions of people are connected to each other via the Internet"

Another important question in education is: How much do you need to know? I imagine most of you have learned how to solve an equation. A second grade equation. However, have you ever done a second grade equation outside the classroom? I bet you haven't done a single one. Why do we teach trigonometry? It's because if you got lost in a boat, you would be able to find your position using a compass and the stars. Is that necessary nowadays? Now we all have cell phones you can ask, “Where am I?” So, do we really need to know about trigonometry? We need to take a close look at the list of things we think we need to know about. I'm sure that almost everyone here uses WhatsApp, or something similar. Does anyone know how it works? What happens when you write a message; where does it go? How does it travel? What speed does it move at? How does it reach another cell phone? We don't know. Yet, almost all of us know how a steam engine works. What's the use of that? Are you likely to ever come across a steam engine? You use WhatsApp all the time, but you don't know how it works. Why not include WhatsApp in the curriculum? The answer to this is that no teacher can teach it. By the time there's a teacher qualified to teach it, WhatsApp will have disappeared and something else will have taken its place. You can't teach it. But you can learn about it. So, what should we do? "You go, and I'll accompany you."

We should let students use the Internet in exams. People think that if you let students use the Internet in an exam, they will be able to answer everything. However, what's the sense in asking questions a student can answer if they have the Internet if you then take the Internet away and tell them to give you the answer? What's the point of that? It's like asking someone to tell you the time without looking at their watch. What's the use? If students were to be allowed the Internet in exams, the questions you ask them would have to be completely different. You'd have to ask questions that have more than one answer and that require students to think. They would have to write down what they think rather than just give an answer. How would you assess a response like that though? We still don't know.

I'm not saying that teachers aren't necessary. There's a real need for teachers, but their role is changing. In the past, their role was to know things and to teach you about them so you would also know about them. This role is no longer valid. Perhaps it's not even possible, because there are some situations where teachers don't and can't know the answers. Teachers can help you find the answers by giving you options and by opening doors. Teachers can show you where the forest is. They can tell you what the big questions are, but they can't tell you the answers.

Sugata Mitra has a PhD in physics and lectures in educational technology at the University of Newcastle in the UK. Dr. Mitra is a researcher in the field of minimally invasive education, which deals with children's ability to learn about things themselves using the Internet and new technologies. Her project is now up and running in more than 50 countries.