GUY RAZ, HOST:
Now here's the thing about learning. The thing that connects the dots, it doesn't matter whether it's a fetus or an infant or a child or an adult, there has to be some type of human-to-human connection for it all to work. Which is what Sugata Mitra found out when he started to dig deeper into how we learn. So remember how he stuck that computer in a wall, in a slum, in
SUGATA MITRA: In fact, after the first day, I had to shut the computer down after sunset because the mothers were complaining that the kids wouldn't come home.
RAZ: What those mothers didn't understand, what Sugata initially didn't understand himself, was that the kids were teaching themselves. Those kids with no access to technology, they were typing, they were playing games, they were teaching themselves biology and English, all with a machine they had never used before. And it got Sugata thinking about the way all children learn. Here's how he explained it in his TED Talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUGATA MITRA TED TALK)
MITRA: If you look at present-day schooling the way it is, it's quite easy to figure out where it came from. It came from about 300 years ago. Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet without computers, without telephones, with data hand written on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It's still with us today. It's called the bureaucratic administrative machine. In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people, the school. The schools would produce the people, who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must have good handwriting because the data is handwritten, they must be able to read, and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction in their head.
They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada, and he would be instantly functional. So what are we doing with that design that produces these identical people? It's quite fashionable to say that the education system's broken. It's not broken, it's wonderfully constructed. It's just that we don't need it anymore. It's outdated. What's the kind of jobs that we have today? Well, the clerks are the computers. They're there in thousands in every office. And you have people who guide those computers to do their clerical jobs. Those people don't need to be able to write beautifully by hand, they don't need to be able to multiply numbers in their heads, they do need to be able to read. In fact, they need to be able to read discerningly. Well, that's today. What will it be tomorrow? Could it be that we don't need to go to school at all? Could it be that at the point in time when you need to know something, you can find out in two minutes? Could it be a devastating question that we are heading towards, or maybe in, a future where knowing is obsolete?
RAZ: A future where knowing is obsolete? I mean, could it ever be obsolete?
MITRA: Well, yeah. Actually, I love that question. Is knowing obsolete? We are in an age where knowing is not a big deal. And therefore, the current assessment system of examinations is ridiculous because it relies on the old Victorian concept of knowledge being resident inside the human brain, in a form such that it is reproducible at a moment's notice. But our children are not growing up in that age. They are growing up in an age where everything that humanity has ever known is inside their pockets. And we're telling them, no, don't keep staring at your mobile phone all the time and, you know, don't huddle up with your computer all the time. Read a book. I don't know if we are doing the right thing.
RAZ: I don't want my kid in front of the Internet all the time. I mean, we live at that time. We want them in front of books. Is that wrong?
MITRA: I don't know. But I would say I agree with the first part of what you said, that you don't want him huddled over his computer all the time. But I would say instead, maybe you and he, and maybe a couple of other fathers and mothers and a couple of other children, maybe you could all get together with a really big screen and drift free into cyberspace all together. You can take something that's really, really important, so what's so great about the Higgs boson and why is everybody spending billions of dollars on the Higgs boson and people don't have enough to eat? You try spending an evening researching that with a couple of 13-year-olds or 10-year-olds or whatever, I can tell you, you won't regret it.
RAZ: That sounds like a fun night actually. I might do that. I'm serious.
MITRA: Yeah, well try it. I have a name for it. It's called the Self-organized Learning Environment.
RAZ: Self-organized Learning Environment. Sugata calls them SOLES, and he wants to build schools that are more like SOLES all over the world. But what would they look like, and who would be there to supervise? Well, Sugata stumbled on a possible answer during his research in India. It was in a village called Kalli Kuppam, and the children there were using his computers. They had learned a pretty impressive amount on their own about DNA replication, but at a certain point, they hit a wall. They just couldn't improve.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUGATA MITRA TED TALK)
MITRA: How do I get them to pass? I have to get them 20 more marks. I couldn't find a teacher. What I did find was a friend that they had, a 22-year-old girl who was an accountant, and she played with them all the time. So I asked this girl, can you help them? So she says, absolutely not. I didn't have science in school, I have no idea what they're doing under that tree all day long. I can't help you. I said, I'll tell you what, use the method of the grandmother. So she says, what's that? Stand behind them, whenever they do anything you just say, well, wow, I mean, how did you do that? What's the next page? Gosh, when I was your age, I could've never done that. I mean, you know, what grannies do. So she did that for two more months. The scores jumped to 50 percent. Kalli Kuppam had caught up with my control school in New Delhi, a rich private school with a trained biotechnology teacher. When I saw that graph, I knew there is a way to level the playing field. Encouragement seems to be the key. If you look at Kuppam, if you look at all of the experiments that I did, it was simply saying, wow. Saluting learning.
There is evidence from neuroscience, the reptilian part of our brain which sits in the center of our brain, when it's threatened, it shuts down everything else. It shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the parts which learn. It shuts all of that down. Punishment and examinations are seen as threats. We take our children, we make them shut their brains down, and then we say, perform. Why did they create a system like that? Because it was needed. There was an age, in the Age of Empires, when you needed those people who can survive under threat. When you're standing in a trench, all alone, if you could have survived, you're okay, you've passed. If you didn't, you failed. But the Age of Empires is gone. We need to shift that balance back from threat to pleasure. We don't want to be spare parts for a great human computer, do we? So we need to design a future for learning. My wish is to help design a future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their wonder and their ability to work together. Help me build this school. It'll be called the School in the Cloud. It'll be a school where children go on these intellectual adventures, driven by the big questions which their mediators put in. The way I want to do this is to build a facility where I can study this. It's a facility which is practically unmanned. The lights are turned on and off by the cloud, et cetera, et cetera, everything is done from the cloud. And just one last thing, I'll take you to the top of the Himalayas. At 12,000 feet, where the air is thin, I once built two computers. The children flocked there. There was this little girl who was following me around. And I said to her, you know, I want to give a computer to everybody, every child, I don't know, what should I do? And I was trying to take a picture of her, you know, quietly, she suddenly raised her hand like this, and said to me, get on with it.
(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
MITRA: Thank you very much.
RAZ: Sugata Mitra, and that wish to build SOLES all over the world, well it's on its way to becoming a reality. Sugata was awarded the 2013 TED prize, a million dollars toward his goal of revolutionizing the future of learning. You can find out more about that at TED.com/prize.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "LEARNT MY LESSON WELL")
KAISER CHIEFS: (Singing) But I learnt my lesson well. But I'm just waiting for the man to come and go away.
RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week. If you missed any of it or if you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit TED.NPR.org. You can also find many more TED Talks at TED.com. You can download the show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.