Knowledge comes by eyes always open and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I first saw physicist, Sugata Mitra speak about his Hole in the Wall experiments in India I was astonished. Not only was he as  self-deprecatingly warm and funny as Sir Ken Robinson on a major charm offensive, the content of what he was saying blew any of SKR’s woolly rhetoric out of the water. Basically, his claim was, is, that children can teach themselves anything. All they need is access to the internet and teachers to stay the heck away and they’ll outlearn anyone in a classroom.

Here he is in full on TED mode:

I got so excited, I wrote this. My naivety is embarrassing but then, I’d been taken in by one of the best. The first clue I had that all might not be rosy in the Self Organising garden was from Daisy Christodoulou. In response to my question about how she squared ED Hirsch Jr’s views on why students “can’t just look it up” with Mitra’s claims, she said this:

Of course this experiment is very inspiring, and if the choice is between no education and the ‘Hole in the Wall’, then the latter is clearly better than nothing. But the sample sizes here are tiny, the control groups not really controls (being an ‘elite urban private school’ doesn’t mean that the school offers a great education) and the time scale short. The findings from the schools in north-east England are not explained in statistical detail in the paper I read – perhaps they can be found somewhere else? Also, the attempt at a theoretical framework is really quite flimsy – “A study with connected cellular automata by Mitra and Kumar (2006) shows that presented with a ‘vision of the future’, a self-organising system will retain this image as a fractal and reproduce it periodically. The human brain is a connected system of neurons and will, presumably, behave similarly. In other words, the introduction (intervention) of an image to a neural network will cause it to retain and reproduce this image periodically. It is tempting, albeit speculatively, to link this effect with human learning.”

Mitra is right on one thing – this conclusion is entirely speculative and as far as I know has no other evidence to back it up. As they are presented, Mitra’s conclusions contradict many other similar experiments and most modern neuroscience. As that is the case, I would like to see a lot more trials like this, with greater sample sizes and more reliable controls, before I could be convinced. And I would like to see this evidence buttressed by a reliable and testable theory of how the brain learns.

All very reasonable. So I went looking for anything that might buttress Mitra’s assertions and, much to my chagrin, found nothing. Nada. Not a sausage.

This was something of a disappointment because I really wanted Mitra’s claims to be true. But, as Carl Sagan famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And Mitra’s ‘evidence’ was very ordinary indeed. In fact, most of the evidence I did happen upon rather seemed to dispute my preferences. In 2013, Donald Clark suggested 7 reasons for doubt. Later that year he visited the site of a failed Hole in the Wall and spoke to a headteacher who said, “I wouldn’t take it if you offered it to me for free.” This year Clark offered a further 10 reasons why SOLE is “not even wrong”.

Added to that, my own attempts to replicate his ideas with my own students turned out to be a disaster. Sure some of them loved crowding around an iPad instead of doing any work, but they really weren’t learning anything of value. What they did discover on the internet they didn’t understand.

Obviously my fumbling attempts mean nothing. We can argue that away by pointing out what a feeble-minded lackwit I am, but what of Mitra’s own research? Has he been able to substantiate any of his more outlandish claims? Tom Bennett wrote in the TES about why Mitra’s claim that pupils can teach themselves seven (SEVEN YEARS!) years ahead of their ages just don’t add up.

First, Mitra’s research is based on just 23 students and as such is statistically meaningless. As Tom says in characteristically forthright fashion,

You’ll forgive me for not being particularly impressed by hand-picked students taking part in a test where they’re made to feel special, given a thin slice of a syllabus to work on, and then tested for that exact piece of syllabus…and then scaling up that work into a magic GCSE grade. Give me a page of quantum physics to memorise, then ask me about it. Can I have a PhD?

Bennett also points out that Mitra’s research has never been published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal. Make of that what you will.

Meanwhile, Mitra has gone from strength to strength. He was awarded a $1 million TED grant to build classrooms in the cloud and is even now spreading his potentially pestilential wares at education conferences near and far. Here are a few of the things he’s been saying:

It’s fashionable to say the education system is broken. It’s not broken at all. The Victorian system, which is the model of education used practically everywhere in the world, does exactly what it was designed to do. Which is to have an elite class who will run the show, assisted by an army of clerks for whom a curriculum was designed and who were mass-produced to do their jobs.

So, it’s not broken, but what it is producing are people who are not needed. You know, an average boy from an average school in a poorer area would go out for a job interview, and the employer says, ‘What can you do well?’ And he’ll say, ‘I have good handwriting, my grammar’s excellent, I can spell properly and I can do arithmetic in my mind.’

Well, if I was the boss I would think: I don’t care about your handwriting, everything’s done on computers. Grammar is not particularly important, we deal with the Chinese and the Americans who don’t bother about grammar at all, as long as it makes sense. Spelling is corrected by the computer and you don’t need to know anything about arithmetic. In fact the less arithmetic you do in your head the better.

The Guardian, 2nd August 2015

The Chinese and the Americans “don’t bother about grammar at all”. Children don’t need to know how to spell, and the less mental arithmetic they can do the better. Really?  He goes on to say that GCSEs are unimportant because all they reveal is that, “You’re able to work hard, to fit into the system properly.” These are good things, no? No: “…increasingly inside the modern world, particularly the IT industry, these are not considered as very good traits at all. What you want are people who don’t care about how they dress, don’t care about how they talk, would like to think of things from different angles. These are the guys who do well.” Are they really?

What’s more frightening, that a professor of education technology is a true believer in the lowest common denominator for all, or that he’s just saying it for effect? Charitably, I’m going to assume that Mitra actually believes this stuff and wasn’t just high on shrooms. That being the case, I don’t even know where to start! If he’s genuine, he even more dangerous.

My real beef with Mitra is that he swans around saying things like this:

… knowing is obsolete. People often think I’m saying that knowledge is obsolete, which I’m not. I’m saying putting knowledge in your head – that’s obsolete, because you can know anything when you need to know it via the internet.

This takes us all the way back to Hirsh who, in this article, makes the following point:

There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively. To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge actually hinders children from learning to learn. Yes, the Internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information—to absorb it, to add to our knowledge—we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research.

Now, maybe you don’t like Hirsch because the Tories think he’s a stand-up guy or some such. Or maybe you’re prepared to discount his views because you’re not a fan of core knowledge? Well, what about professor Kieran Egan, a self-confessed sympathiser with progressive ideals? In, Getting it Wrong from the Beginning he argues that a lack of emphasis on knowledge has deprived children of

…developing those resources that come along with a wide and immediate access to some of the world’s greatest poetry and prose.That [children] know where to go to find such poetry and prose perpetuates the absurdity that this is the same as knowing something. Knowledge does not exist in books or in computer files. They contain only codes that require a living mind to bring them back to life as knowledge. Knowledge only exists as a function of living tissue. (p. 68)

How can we take seriously a man who says, “Knowing is an obsolete idea from a time when it was not possible to access or acquire knowledge at a moment of need. The idea of knowing assumes that the brain must be “primed” in advance for circumstances that may require knowledge. Just in case.” How did he know to say that? Did he have to look it up before he spoke or had he ‘primed’ his brain, just in case a journalist was interested in interviewing him?

Mitra’s utilitarian conception is a very narrow, impoverished view of what education can or should be. Do we really only want to equip children the minimum they need to tap in a search request into Google? I’m with AE Housman: “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use”, or, as Tom Bennett has argued,

We learn because learning itself is beautiful and valuable. We learn because we value the types of human being who have learned; people who are aware of their history, of how the world works, of how numbers interact, and how words can sparkle. As an extrinsic aim, we can also value such people as being able to make informed decisions in a democratic forum; true citizenship is only enabled by informed autonomous agent.

And then Mitra says things which are just plain daft: “So, we can safely deduce that if x per cent of what is taught (just in case it is useful or beautiful) is actually used by a learner, then 100 times x per cent is either left unused in the learner’s brain or is mercifully forgotten.” Does he think there’s a limit to stuff we can store in our brains? If he does, he’s wrong. For all practical purposes our ability to store information is limitless. We have room to spare to store every item of information we will ever encounter and will never come close to filling up our minds. Let’s say we do learn some things we never use, so what? Our ability to retrieve may well decay, but not our ability to store.

Until reading his latest TES article I might have felt content to dismiss him as  either a hypocrite or a philistine, but I’m increasingly convinced that he is, in fact, a dangerous crank spreading irresponsible untruths.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe Mitra isn’t a charlatan and I’ve just not understood the power and beauty of his guesses about how best to teach children. But this is the real kicker: if I’m wrong, we’ll turn out children who can spell, and do mental arithmetic. We’ll share some of the most culturally rich ideas and produce children who don’t just know how to look things up, but that know what to look up and have the wit and background to make sense of what they look up.  If Mitra’s wrong we’ll produce a generation of kids who can’t spell, who’ve learned that mental arithmetic is worthless and will be reduced to the very narrowest curriculum; that which they find directly relevant during the formative years. They’ll leave knowing nothing except that someone somewhere does know stuff and that it’s there’s for the asking. Except it isn’t. The stuff in our heads is what we think with. And the less we know the less we can think about. All these pathetic victims will have to look forward to in employment is some mythical IT company where no one gives a shit about how ignorant you are.

Good look with that!