When less is more: Theories on Thursday

I had my world rattled and my passion ignited at the AEE international convention this past November 2010.  Dr. Sugata Mitra, an unassuming man from India, rattled it.

He spoke of his "Hole-in-the-wall" research where computer terminals where set-up in the slums of New Delphi, India, given to children who spoke no English, had no computer instruction, barely formal teaching, no rewards, punishments, carrots or sticks and then watched the magic unfold.  What he discovered could be summed up in this quote:

"Where you have interest, you have education." - Sir Arthur C. Clarke

I would never demand you watch a video, but this is a must.  This 17 minute, TED talk by Dr. Sugata Mitra sums up his Hole-in-the-wall Project - a project he replicated, again and again, to prove his assumptions about human learning and demonstrate the willfulness and tenacity of kids, an often times under-valued resource.  He is exceptionally brilliant, completely unassuming and has a tremendous sense of humor.  I believe, every teacher and parent should see this as a testament to the capabilities of our children and students - capabilities that should never be underestimated. 

Without exaggeration, Dr. Mitra's findings brings me to joyful tears.  This TED talk, but the way, is almost an exact replica of the keynote address Dr. Mitra gave at the AEE conference. 

Now, that you have watched the TED talk, what do you think?  Is the quote above correct?  What role does, or should,  a teacher (or parent) play in learning?  Use the comments window below to record your thoughts.  As always, no password or user name required.

If you check back tomorrow, I will summarize some of the keys points of Dr. Mitra's research and we can strategize how to include those in our everyday teaching and learning.  If you want to look for more information before then, check out Dr. M's think tank website.


PS - I know I am not alone in my admiration of Ted talks.  I just watched this one by Jacqueline Novagratz and I am com-plete-ly moved.  She talks of living a life of "immersion."  How's that for some Thursday passion?

PSS - Join Upcycled Education for our first giveaway.....You deserve some love.


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  2. Wow! Inspiring. So much to think about! Do we underestimate children?

  3. Karen - I agree, inspiring. I don't think "we" underestimate children, but I think I may have sometimes or at least I don't trust natural curiosity when perhaps I should more often.

    Just food for thought. Jen

  4. Wow - After a long day at work coupled with an exhausting night trying to catch my computer's hacker, I was completely riveted by Dr. Mitra's TED talk. A gem that cracked me up was the little girl's response to Dr. Mitra's inquiry, "Apart from the fact that the improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we have understood nothing." It truly is remarkable that students who are given free reign and the means, they will explore to become experts on whatever they are passionate about. This is a strategy that educators MUST incorporate in our classrooms - especially in our science classrooms! I am ashamed at how difficult it has been for me to do just what Dr. Mitra did - pose a question and give my students some time, technology or various tools to answer it. Dr. Mitra speaks of inquiry at its best -- and I believe he is absolutely right, when children are interested and engaged, they soak up anything! I feel it is a teacher's responsibility to hook a student first and foremost, and then to guide and mentor. If you let students dig for knowledge themselves, rather than handing it to them, it not only more likely to "stick" but it is also more likely to stimulate them! The collaborative learning that PGCPS keeps harping on could be achieved so much more swiftly if we had access to his SOLS! What a fantastic resource - if only we had 180 billion expendable dollars.

  5. Anamika - Thank you for your thoughtful comment on Dr. Mitra's TED talk. Life is about balance, so perhaps you can integrate a touch of his ideas....

    Like taking baby steps.


  6. That video was the most amazing thing I have seen/heard. I just re-wrote and am rewriting my lesson plan to work similarly to the 4student group computer idea. I can’t wait to see how it works!!!

    I think I am going to translate one of my standard questions into a language they don’t know. Put it on the wall and tell them to figure it out.

    My only concern is that some of my kids have lost the interest or drive to learn. I am worried they would not have enough of the interest to solve the problem. My theory is that if I do put the question into a different language; it will intrigue them enough to search out the answer!!!!

    Thanks again JL! You really do have the best stuff!

  7. Emily - What great ideas how to incorporate Dr. Mitra's findings in your own classroom. If you think about it, post back and let us know how it goes.

    Your concern about students lacking a drive to learn is saddening, but realistic for many. However, it is never too late to peek their interest and edugage them.

    Best of luck,

  8. OK so I tried it today, and WOW!
    So using this Hole in the Wall Idea, I walked into my Twilight class ready to test the waters. Our new topic is Newton’s Law of Forces. So I came up with a few basic questions; ones that you could easily answer with the help of Google. Then I banged on everyone’s facebook doors until I found a friend who could translate the questions into another language.
    So I ended up with 5 questions on Sir Isaac Newton, in Welsh. I gave the basic instruction to answer and be ready to discuss by next class, gave it to them and just let them go. It was my first attempt to put learning “into the hole in the wall” so I was not sure what to expect. First they just sat there totally stumped. They asked me questions, and for that entire class I happened to forget everything I knew. The stat there a little confused so I again pointed out the computer and dictionaries and said figure it out. AND THEY DID! It was amazing how they started trying to figure out what the words were; they tried unscramble and different codes etc. I stood behind them, call on my inner grandmother and just encouraged them gently. They quickly got on the right track and just went to town.
    It was amazing to see how excited these teenagers (who have already seen this material and failed the class once) got about figuring this stuff out! I can wait for our reflection on the information next class!
    Thanks for the amazing ideas!

  9. Emily, this sounds so neat! By the way, you can use Google Translate to translate any of your future questions into any language of your choice!

    What age level are your students? I teach first grade and I'm weary about using google with them for fear of them stumbling on some inappropriate content. However, I have tried to use Dr. M's strategy when it comes to actually using the computer with them. In my class we have a wide range of technological knowledge so the grouping worked nicely. Sometimes teachers(me too) think, "I have to teach my students how to use this program/website before giving them an assignment that requires it..." However I think Dr. M's studies show that the students can figure it out if we only LET them. I've set them free on with the Activ Inspire software and they've discovered many tools to use when making a presentation. We have had some class talks about what it feels like when a program is new...we shared feelings of frustration but also how good it feels once you get it down pat. I think we can apply this to all lessons- computers available or not: We should give our students a problem to solve FIRST then add the tools or clues needed for the them to solve instead of teaching those tools without any context or authentic reason prior to presenting a task or problem.

  10. This reminds me a little bit of when my 3rd graders innocently Googled 'potty' words and how I shut down the computers in my room for the rest of the year!
    Seriously, this approach has so many applications. I can try this with my 8th grade and Shakespeare. I use Shakespeare to bridge the gap between life during Elizabeathan England and history in writing. I think if I gave them some general topics (women in Shakespeare's writing, minorities in Shakespeare's writing, etc.) they could come up with some intersting theories as opposed to me lecturing for any amount of time. I am excited to try this!

    Elise T.

  11. Its amazing to see that children can learn on their own just with a computer and no instruction. Its inspiring to see that children can accomplish what they want in a matter of months with no knowledge of the topic or in this case not even understanding the langauge that its in. I wonder what would come of this style in a public school classroom
    Gyler T

  12. Wow this was a great video. That quote is correct. He made another quote that was even more correct. He said "children will learn to do what the want to learn to do." This is absolutely true. That brings a lot of other things into play like motivation and emergent learning. When something new was introduced, they mastered the basics and then were motivated enough to tackle more complex tasks. Some of them even surpassed me. I still can't download music without help and I've been using computers for years.

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