Today I watched a few Ted Talks and I was really struck by Sugata Mitre’s talk, Build a School in the Cloud. He is an amusing speaker and has great insight into education. He also has a uniquely Indian perspective. In giving a brief history of education, he described how our present day school system was developed by the last British Empire. The Victorians created a “global computer” called the Bureaucratic Administrative Machine (!) to keep their empire running. School produced parts for the machine and each part needed to be identical. Each part needed to be able to read, write, and compute (add, subtract, multiply, and divide). Mitre explained that the world no longer needs identical individuals who will be part of a global human computer. We need to ask ourselves what present day schooling is going to prepare people for. What do today’s students need to know how to do?
Mitre did an incredible experiment. His university shared a wall with a slum. He cut a hole in the wall and set up a computer for the children to use without giving them any instructions or guidance. Incredibly, they figured out how to use it by experimenting and collaborating. He began to set up computers in very poor areas around India and would leave them with complex scientific problems for children to figure out. He had the computers set to communicate in English, not the children’s native language. Again and again, the children mastered difficult scientific concepts through collaboration and working with the shared computer.
From these experiments, Mitre developed his idea of “building a school in the cloud,” a place where children can explore and learn from one another. His idea includes the use of technology to level the playing field between rich and poor. He coined the term SOLE, which stands for Self Organized Learning Environment. This environment is made up of broadband +collaboration + encouragement. In this learning environment, the teacher sits back and lets the students learn. The teacher asks “big” questions for the students to figure out and offers encouragement. Sample questions for 9 year olds might be: What happens to the air we breathe?, or, How did the world start and how will it end?
Mitre envisions helping children all over the world to tap into their wonder and their ability to work together; schools where children go on “intellectual adventures” that are driven by the Big Questions. I am intrigued by his ideas and was fascinated by his experiments with giving very economically deprived children access to computers equipped with complex scientific information and a question to answer. The children’s curiosity and perseverance were astounding. Seeing this talk made me feel that we don’t give young children enough of a challenge and we don’t trust them to persevere. I highly recommend listening to some talks by Sugata Mitre.