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SSAT #NC10 – Sugata Mitra


Sugata Mitra is currently Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University.  He has spent many years in a huge number of research posts.  With regards to education he is most famous for his Hole In The Wall Experiment whereby he put an Internet enabled PC in the wall of an Indian slum in 1999 and left it there for anyone to use.

You can see the talk here, or watch his similar TED talk here.


Sugata was charming and engaging.  The driving message that he had was that given some time and an Internet connection, children are quite proficient at teaching themselves.

He first discovered this in his now famous Hole In The Wall experiment.  I won’t go over the details of that here as you can watch the videos above or read about it in detail on Wikipedia or it’s own dedicated website.  Sugata explained that he did not go looking for this effect, however his experiments demonstrated that, even in the absence of any direct input from a teacher, an environment that stimulates curiosity can cause learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge. Sugata calls this minimally invasive education.

Part of the original thoughts behind this experiment and Sugata’s subsequent work was that there are areas of the World where for a variety of reasons young people cannot access good schools or good teachers.  These reasons are more obvious in places like rural India, but Sugata argued that this was the case also in some of our inner city areas of the UK.  Sugata went on to describe the work he has been doing in and around Gateshead.  He has taken his ideas of minimally invasive education and developed a model for use in the UK school system.

In Gateshead he has been working in a number of schools.  In each he has been working with teachers to give groups of 4 pupils extended periods to investigate questions as a group with the aid of one laptop per group.  Sugata was convinced that pupils worked better in this model in groups, with 4 being the optimum.  He also said that they quickly found that 1 laptop per group was more efficient and becoming of group interactions than one each.  Groups are allowed, almost encouraged to steal findings from other teams and pass them off as their own!

Groups of young pupils (Year 7 – 11years old) have been given a number of GCSE questions to solve, many (5) years before they would normally encounter them.  They have been tested on them immediately after working on them, and 6 months later in rows of individual desks.  Results show that this knowledge is retained exceptionally well.

Interestingly, this at first seemed to fly in the face of the Government White Paper, and indeed much of Dylan Wiliam’s evidence that the most important factor in a child’s education is the teacher in front of them.  I was fortunate to have coffee with Sugata after his speech and put this to him.  He was quite clear that he was not advocating the removal of the teacher, although I did love his quote from Arthur C Clarke: “A teacher who can be replaced by a machine, should be“.  Sugata explained to me that in his opinion the key to successful minimally invasive education is to pose the right question in the first place.  I’d be interested to learn more about exactly what kind of questioning / modeling was most effective in setting up successful learning.

Sugata also talked of his ‘grandmother effect’.  First investigated during one of his hole in the wall experiments, Sugata used older volunteers to do little more than encourage and regularly praise the young learners.  In the Kalikuppam experiment Sugata found that  scores improved from 30% to 50% with the aid of a ‘grandmother’, also dubbed a ‘mediator’.  This idea was developed later with the use of real grandmothers and retired teachers in NW England Skyping in to the classrooms of India to encourage the learners there.  This seems to fly in the face of some of Dylan Wiliam’s assertions that praise only feedback has little or no effect on learning.  Perhaps this is down to the contrasting learning environments?  Dylan’s research will have been based mainly in traditional classrooms with traditional teaching models whereas Sugata’s classrooms were many miles away from them in geography and teaching styles.

So would you use the ideas behind minimally invasive education within your own classroom?  Would your timetable allow you the chance to do so?  Have you worked like this before?  It’s certainly a fascinating and beguiling idea that students can do so much on their own.  Is this the ultimate example of the (worn out) adage of the ‘guide on the side’ taking over from the ‘sage on the stage’?

My Notes

Sugata Mitra – the future of learning.

“When I need to know something I can find it out in 5 minutes”

We have problems of relevance and aspiration.

Weak negative correlation of council house % vs results – ‘rough’ teacher recruitment?

Hole in the wall pc in a slum.

Children taught themselves English to use machine! Groups of children can learn to use computers themselves irrespective of who or where they are.

Hyderabad, left pupils with speech to text software and left them to be understood! They downloaded Oxford English dictionary, listened and spoke back in BBC English accent. One now works in call centre!

Children invented pedagogy. Arthur C Clarke “a teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be”

9 months in, English language had improved and deep learning increased. Pupils had found Google!

Groups of children can navigate the Internet to achieve educational objectives on their own. Hypothesis.

Kalikuppam experiment – teach improper DNA replication to themselves? 30% in test. Up to 50% with grandmother technique of standing behind and praising! In line with best schools in deli.

Gateshead experiment. 30 kids, groups of 4, one laptop per group. Allowed to steal from groups and claim as their own! 6 gcse qs solved in 20mins – y7. Sat in rows 6 months later, in rows, scores the same!

Grandmothers – 40 retired teachers skyped into Hyderabad.

Group children, investigate questions, teacher frames questions right, use group rules, pupils investigate as far as they can.

Self organising system where learning takes place on its own.

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  1. Alternative view of Sugata Mitra: He is a Trojan Horse out of which will leap some very hostile corporate mercenaries. (Have you followed the story about K12 inc in the US and the virtual public schools? Not many auspicious signs there.) However, I haven’t been lucky enough to meet this apparently unphilosophical pedagogue, so I would welcome your response to the criticisms that I begin to introduce here: http://tornhalves.blogspot.it/2012/08/prof-sugata-mitra-and-enemies-within.html

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and offering a healthy alternative viewpoint.
      I’m not quite convinced Sugata is the Trojan Horse you suggest, nor that he is encouraging a teacher-less world. There is still a lot of skill required from the teacher to provide the correct seed question to direct the learning in the right direction, to encourage and manage the classroom as the learners investigate for themselves (particularly for the less confident learners) and to skilfully weave everything together towards the end of a minimally invasive session, framing the learning and trying their best to make sure that every learner has gained the important pieces of learning from the session.
      All I’ll say is that when used well and for the right desired learning outcomes MIE can be an incredibly powerful tool.
      The death of the teacher is a long way off yet. And the rise of the online learner is going pretty slowly really if we look at the progress that has really been made in that area over the last 20 years.

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