NB – Having reviewed the evidence, I am now thoroughly convinced I was wrong about all this. Instead, try reading Is it just me or is Sugata Mitra an irresponsible charlatan? 

Over the summer I watched Sugata Mitra’s jaw-dropping Ted Talk on Child Driven Education and was bowled over.

This, I said to myself, could change everything. Mitra outlines the results of a series of remarkable experiments which began with embedding computers into the walls of Indian slums at child height  and then watching to see what children did with them. Unsurprisingly these computers were magnets to the street kids and they learnt to use them despite never having seen one before. He says, “children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.” and sure enough, his findings confirm that children are capable of learning to use the internet “irrespective of who and where they were.” and that “groups of children were able to navigate the internet to achieve educational objectives on their own.” The results are so startling that one of the referees for his research described his findings as “too good to be true.”

In Why Do I Need A Teacher If I’ve got Google? Ian Gilbert’s “brutally frank” answer to his own question is that it all depends on how good a teacher you are. The role of a teacher, he says, is to “preside over the democratisation of learning.” Mitra’s experiments appear to confirm this.

One use he has found for adults in all this self organised learning is what he has termed the Grandmother Cloud. In his research into whether Tamil speaking children in the remote village of  Kalikuppam could teach themselves molecular biology in English he also asked asked the question, Could a friendly mediator with no knowledge of the subject improve the performance of these village children?  Here’s the answer:

The mediator’s role was important to this study. ‘Prerana’ [the ‘grandmother’ in the experiment] had no knowledge of biotechnology so she was initially reluctant to act as a mediator, believing that she could not be an effective ‘teacher’ for the subject. We then explained that all she had to do was simply commend the children for their efforts and encourage them to go further in their investigations, not actually instruct them. We suggested a ‘grandparent’ model of encouragement, using phrases such as ‘I wish I could do that!’, ‘how on earth did you figure that out?’, ‘I could never have understood that’ or ‘please explain this in simple words to me, I am very scared of science’. What happened as a consequence of this was that the children taught her.

The students managed to learn a surprising amount on their own but the mediated students’ results were almost double that of their unsupervised counterparts and as good as, if not better, than students taught in an elite New Delhi private school. Remember, these were Tamil speaking children who were having to learn in English. In other words, whilst children can learn anything they want to learn, children are cooed over and encouraged will want to learn more.

This seems counter intuitive to everything we think is important about teachers. Good subject knowledge is a key indicator of performance in Ofsted’s guidance, and Michael Gove is determined that only graduates with ‘good degrees’ are allowed to train as teachers. But here the evidence suggests that if we stop imposing our knowledge on children and allow them to work stuff out for themselves they will do at least as well, if not better.

Just to hammer the point home, Mitra repeated his experiments in British schools. We all know that when students work by themselves with their own computer nothing very miraculous seems to  happen. Indeed quite often the challenge is stop them goofing off with internet games and YouTube. But, when children are given one computer between four and ground rules encouraging them to reach consensus and to listen out for progress on neighbouring tables, the magic occurs.

Mitra thinks it’s the fact that the children have to collaborate which makes this model so successful but in his own words he “doesn’t really know” how or why it works. But it does work. When groups of 10 year olds from Gateshead were tested on GCSE Chemistry questions they achieved a success rate of 76%. When Mitra came back to retest them two months later, without computers and using a traditional paper test, the results were… 76%.

This is compelling stuff. Whilst I was processing all this I read Kenny Pieper’s blog post about his attempts to make use of Mitra’s research and was immediately inspired to stop prevaricating and get on with it. I wrote about my first attempts here.

Students engaged in self directed learning

    Heath Robinson solution to iPad storage & charging.        Cost: £9.97

Calling all grandmothers

That was back in September and since then I have successfully bid for and last week acquired 9 shiny new iPads. The iPad is ideal for this kind of collaborative learning and I’m feverishly redesigning lessons so that students can teach themselves and I can get out of the way and admire their learning.

And while I’m very happy to be a granny, I really want to see if I can push this further and get the wider community involved. I want to recruit a band of ‘grannies’ to encourage and admire from afar. I’ve already experimented with getting experts into the classroom using Skype and I’m sure it could be just as powerful to get amateurs in this way too. My thinking is that maybe my happy few will have a more motivating impact than boring old sir.

At first glance this may not apprear to be particularly self interested: is that the chill wind of redundancy I hear blowing? Happily though, I’ve figured out a role for myself in all this. As an ‘expert’ teacher, I’m required to provide interesting questions and to assess the learning. SOLO taxonomy is the perfect tool to direct students to deepening their knowledge. Also, I need to let the grannies into secrets like Dweck’s finding that we must praise effort not ability and the fact that intelligence is not fixed.

Mitra requested that volunteers (of any age or gender) with access to broadband give him one hour a week. Here’s some grannies in action:

If you’re interested in helping out, or if you know someone who might be, please spread the word and get in touch.

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