Having been a professor for more than ten years now, the TED talk “Hole in the Wall” by Sugata Mitra, is a bit surprising. I’m not sure why it is surprising though. Throughout my life, I learned a variety of things, especially technology related, just by using them. I haven’t read a manual in too many years to remember. I have always just played with it until I understood how to use it. The fact that it surprised me that children can learn complex topics totally on their own is somewhat strange.
As an educator I feel like I can offer my students something that only a teacher can provide. This talk, and the underlying research, sheds light on a new avenue of teaching… instead of being the traditional teacher who provides knowledge, we can provide encouragement. We give the students a focal goal, “we are going to answer _____” and then provide encouragement to keep the students working. With this background in place, the students can then learn the material, by trial and error on their own by simply playing with the system. Sugata Mitra’s research that was presented in the video shows this working even when the children do have an understanding of the same language.
The system works, clearly, but I worry that there is a significant issue: unmotivated students. In all of Sugata Mitra’s research, he never describes how many of the total children in the area participated in his system. I’d be willing to bet that the children in the area who interacted with the system are like me, willing to play until I learn how it works. What about those children who are not interested? Teaching chemistry gives me an interesting perspective on this since I have many students who are very interested in learning… just not interested in learning chemistry. How well would the self-learning system work for these students?
My overall view is that the answer to education in the future is a bit complicated. There needs to be a way to promote self-learning and the self-defined sense of wonder in students, just like what Sugata Mitra found, while at the same time pushing non-motivated students along. All students are motivated to learn about things that interest them, but there are things outside those borders that they need to learn as well. My students who want to be nurses don’t see why they need to learn chemistry but they do. It seems to me, that what we really need is a way of making all the topics interesting enough for students to want to learn. Saying “today we are going to learn about the atom” might not be that exciting. If instead the students cut a piece of paper in half over and over again until it is too small to cut, we can then say “you are made up of particle a thousands of times smaller than that.” That connection could prove exciting and an entry point for students who don’t understand the importance of learning about atoms.