The future of learning

Moje Ramos-Aquino, Fpm

Moje Ramos-Aquino, Fpm

The most impressive speaker at the recently concluded Association for Talent Development International Conference & Exposition in Orlando, Florida, was Sugata Mitra. He talked about the future of learning based on his continuing research and experimentation among school children in India and Europe. “Since 1999, he has convincingly demonstrated that groups of children, irrespective of whom or where they are, can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own using public computers in open spaces such as roads and playgrounds.”

One startling discovery he made is that learning will take place without a teacher. With technology, classroom teachers will be unnecessary and even obsolete. Teachers even impede learning because they spoon-feed students, promote rote learning, and teach to test. “You don’t actually need to know anything, you can find out at the point when you need to know it. It’s the teacher’s job to point young minds toward the right kind of question. A teacher doesn’t need to give any answers because answers are everywhere.”

Students will learn from each other using resources and mentoring, not necessarily in the same room but even from far away. He calls this Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE). Children need to be taught to think and study for themselves. “It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken—it’s not broken, it’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated. We need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. It’s not about making learning happen; it’s about letting it happen. ”

Mitra predicts that in the future, there will be cars that will operate on their own, and there won’t be any need for a driver. A lot of things will “dematerialize.” “And it is not just things that will dematerialize, but also concepts.” Many of the things or ideas we have now will soon be obsolete, if they are not obsolete now.

He experimented with children in a remote province in India, where no one speaks English and people have no idea of what a computer is. “Can Tamil speaking 12-year-olds learn the biotechnology of DNA replication in English by themselves from a streetside computer?” So he and his team set up a computer in a hole in the wall along a street, three feet from the ground, so children can just stand in front of it and tinker with it. No instructions on how to use the machine nor was there an English dictionary to help them understand. They fed the computer with data about DNA.

After two months, he and his team came back with no expectations. He asked the children what they learned and they answered, “Nothing.” But one girl raised her hand and said in broken Tamil and English, “Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes diseases, we haven’t learned anything else.” They continued the experiment for a longer time and they found out that, indeed, the children are teaching each other how to use the computer and what certain English words mean. They even involved younger children and set up benches for them to stand on to reach the computer. “In nine months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language will reach the same standard as an office secretary in the West.”

Mitra has discovered many things and ideas from his experiments. Two are obsolescence and dematerialization. “The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling]system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists. Who knows what we’ll need to learn thirty years from now? We do know that we will need to be good at searching for information, collating it, and figuring out whether it is right or wrong.”

Other things he learned are the concepts of a hole in the wall and a school in the cloud. “My wish is to help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together. Help me build the School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online. I also invite you, wherever you are, to create your own miniature child-driven learning environments and share your discoveries.”

Mitra says that the best teacher is the granny in the cloud. They could be in a different location far away and their main jobs are to ask the BIG questions and to reinforce learning with “wow,” “good job,” “amazing,” as a grandmother is wont to say to her grandchildren.

And, finally, Mitra asserts learning could emerge as spontaneous order at the edge of chaos. “Learning and teaching are not symmetrical. They are not the flip sides of the same coin, in spite of the fact that almost all papers and conversations on education assume they are. Learning is an emergent phenomenon in a self-organizing educational system.”

I wish to bring Sugata Mitra here to discuss his theory with our education and business decision makers. Listen to him at TED Talk on YouTube.

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