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#Learning: ‘India needs an education revolution because curricula are meaningless’ – Sugata Mitra

This week saw a pioneering English teacher from the United States win the inaugural Global Teacher Prize, a ‘Nobel Prize’ for education which its’ founders hope will spur a revolution in a long-undervalued profession and an industry lagging behind when it comes to innovation.

The short-list for the $1 million prize included teachers from across the world, including one from India – Kiran Bir Sethi – an education reformer whose design-led teaching program ‘Design for Change’ has been widely lauded for its innovative approach to teaching.

But whilst tens of thousands of students across the world have taken up Design for Change, the uptake has been far less-so in India where teaching practices – as in other parts of the region – remain often embarrassingly outdated. 

It’s a status quo that irks one of the world’s pre-eminent education innovators – Professor Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University.

A renowned polymath, Professor Mitra is perhaps best-known for his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment in introducing technology to the teaching process and which allows for children to explore and learn with minimal supervision.

In an interview with the UKAsian’s Marjorie Cessac, Professor Mitra calls for a complete overhaul of India’s education system – one which he describes as largely ‘meaningless’.

Marjorie Cessac: Why is it urgent for India to achieve an educational revolution?

Sugata Mitra: School education in India, as in many other countries, is in need of urgent change.  The curricula are old and often meaningless.  Much of what is learned in school is never used in life.  More importantly, much of what is taught in schools can now be learned in minutes.  In an earlier age, without the Internet, such learning had to happen ahead of time, in the hope that one day if needed, this learning will come in handy. The assessment systems in India and most other countries continue to test whether students have retained what they were taught.  However, how relevant is it to retain 12 years of learning in the hope that it might be used to solve problems one day?  On the other hand, much of what is needed is not taught in schools.

MC: How much of a role does technology play in school education in India ?

SM: In India, and most other countries, technology is used in schools for all the wrong reasons.  Lessons made with presentation tools and the ability to show movies in the classroom are considered good use of technology.  The emphasis is on using technology as a teaching aid for teachers.  The fact that technology can be used to replace traditional teaching and learning remains mostly ignored.  How to use technology effectively to solve problems?  How quickly can a learner solve a problem using the Internet?  How to distinguish between reliable information and doctrine.  None of these are taught in schools mostly because there is no one to teach them and we don’t know how to assess these skills.

MC: What is the part of the government budget in Education and is the technology a priority for the government? 

SM: The Government of India has emphasised education as a priority and also the use of technology in education.  However, this usually translates to setting up more traditional institutions or providing computers to schools with not much instruction about what to do with them.

MC: What is the ratio of computers in the schools situated in rural areas?

SM: Rural schools have a dismal record for the use of computers in schools.  The use of the Internet in schools is almost non-existent.

MC: You have conducted two important experiments in India: "Hole in the Wall" and "School in the clouds".  What are your main conclusions ?

SM: The "Hole in the Wall" experiments showed that groups of children can learn to use computers and the Internet by themselves. This is well known now.  We know that 2 year olds can use tablets.  Subsequent experiments showed that groups of children, using the Internet, can learn almost everything by themselves.  This led to Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs).  We then set up a ‘granny cloud’ of people who work with children over Skype.  SOLEs are in use all over the world.  I have lost track of how many teachers use them. However, they are very rare in India.  Schools in the Cloud are experiments to put SOLEs and the Granny Cloud together to form teacherless environments.  We are studying them.  My objective is to work out an alternative schooling system. Whether it proliferates or not is the job of others.

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