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Can kids teach themselves? Sugata Mitra

Through work I attended a conference several years ago that reminded me of so many small things we all know when we’re at school but we forget about when we become adults and go to work.

What made the conference special was one amazing demonstration given by Sugata Mitra from Newcastle University. He is already well known for his ‘hole in the wall‘ experiments.

He presented on these experiments and I sat dumbfounded. He’s a really great presenter and understands how to make things clear, concise and entertaining. The crux of his work is that, as wikipedia notes,

He has convincingly demonstrated that groups of children, irrespective of who 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

The experiments involve putting a computer in a public space where kids can congregate. Making it a little secure like a cash machine and setting up a hidden video camera to watch what happens. The computer is connected to the web and runs a browser that ‘s really easy for kids to use.

What happened was that once kids found the computer and realised they could use it. They quickly started exploring. They told friends and quickly there were large groups around. They didin’t fight over it as all could see the screen. One kid navigated while the group decided where to go.

This wasn’t even what’s so amazing. We all know kids like to explore. What was amazing was how much these kids learnt. In one study Sugata Mitra searched for the most remote, least connected part of India, where they don’t speak English at all and they have no possible chance of internet connections at home. Not only did the kids figure out how to use the internet really quickly. They even learnt to speak English. All from the web. Sure they spoke with an American accent because they’d learnt from watching American videos but they learnt all the same. Without being able to read or speak English the children taught themselves to both speak and read it. How fascinating.

The learning doesn’t end there, Mitra’s presentation went on to talk about how these kids, many were only 8 or 9 years old, began to learn about DNA and genetics and were able to understand extremely advanced concepts. All through having the freedom to explore their own interests.

So I log it here simply as a fascinating insight and a reminder that often we judge the limitations of kids given the limitations of our teaching methods and resources. I always remembered from school that the methods used were what limited our knowledge. That’s nothing against the teachers or school it’s just that our knowledge of effective education and our tools for acheiving these ideals are now advancing far faster than they ever have before.

It also reminded me about concepts such as Vicarious learning (learning through others), how much you can learn in a social environment, the power of giving someone freedom to learn at their pace and through following their own interests, and also the concept that the learning achieved is so dependent on the tools and resources available.

I was always aware of these concepts but I’d kind of forgotten their importance. While I’m learning to be a tennis coach I like to let kids get a feel for the ball and racquet and let their mind and body figure out how to work with each other.

I often felt that the typical approach I was used to, where a long line of kids wait in line to hit one ball at a time was inefficient. You don’t get enough time with the ball for you to figure out what to do with it. Thinking of this experiment I’m reminded how important it is to see what other people as well doing something yourself. If someone hits the ball really well you get to see why, if they hit it badly you also see it. You may not realise why but a good teacher will point this out. Often though you can figure it out for yourself. You naturally copy the good kid and avoid what the bad kid is doing. Social pressure often encourages most kids to be ‘good enough’ and so they all pay at least a little attention and they all learn from each other.

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