Sugata Mitra: How Much Can Children Teach Themselves? Sugata Mitra has given kids in Indian slums self-supervised access to the Web, and the results have changed how he thinks of teaching.

How Much Can Children Teach Themselves?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz and on the show today, the way we learn. And on a cold morning here in Washington, not so long ago, we called up Sugata Mitra, he was in Calcutta where it's 110 degrees.

SUGATA MITRA: I'm afraid so.

RAZ: My God.

RAZ: Are you inside?

MITRA: I am inside and it is a comfortable 105 in here.

RAZ: Woo.

MITRA: That should be fine.

RAZ: Now the where of the story is important because in this very hot place Sugata Mitra happened upon a discovery that if proved true could quite possibly transform the way we think about learning. So first, Sugata.

MITRA: I am a professor of educational technology at the University of Newcastle in England.

RAZ: But most of his research over the past few decades has happened in India and that's where he set out to prove that learning - it doesn't have to be taught. Call it unstoppable learning, something that happens at every stage in life. And on the show today, we'll hear from TED speakers who are trying to figure out how it happens, how our minds and even our bodies assimilate lessons from the world around us. So in Sugata's case, his story starts about two decades ago.

MITRA: I am trained as a physicist and I worked most of my early life as a software developer.

RAZ: This was back in the early 1990s, computers weren't as common and Sugata was actually teaching courses in computer literacy.

MITRA: These courses are expensive. So they are attended by students who have a lot of money.

RAZ: Sugata would watch those students get to that moment, that gee whiz moment when they'd solve a problem or figure out a technique and he loved it.

MITRA: Except that, I don't know why I used to feel a little uncomfortable about the fact that the gee whiz was getting to the rich kids and not getting to the poor kids. So wouldn't it be nice if there was some way to get it into the hands of the poorer kids and see what they do.

RAZ: Nice thought. And for a couple of years that's all it was, a nice thought. Until 1999, when Sugata was working in New Delhi.

MITRA: And my boss actually wanted me to find out how kiosks, you know, computers in public spaces work because they were just about coming in all over the world and, you know, there were computers in airports and computers in railway stations and he said, you know, this looks like big business. And I said yeah, so shall I try it? And he said yeah, go ahead and try it. And then I thought diabolically, here is my chance. Why don't I try it in the slum next door. And why don't I make it three feet off the ground rather than four or five feet? And this I did rather quietly. And waited to see what would happen.


RAZ: This is actual audio from Sugata's research of what happens when you stick a computer in a hole, in a wall, in a slum with no running water, limited electricity, and crowded schools.

MITRA: Just to see what would happen.

RAZ: Here's Sugata's TED Talk.


MITRA: If I give a computer to children who never would have one. Didn't know any English, didn't know what the Internet was.


MITRA: The children came running in, it was three feet off the ground and they said what is this, and I said yeah it's, you know, I don't know.


MITRA: They said, why have you put it there? I said just like that. And they said can we touch it? I said if you wish to. And I went away.


RAZ: So you went there and you put this in the wall of this village and you just left it there, you just walked away?

MITRA: That was it but it wasn't exactly walk away in the IT sense because that computer was on a network. And I had a piece of software in those days called Remote Desktop. And I had that on in my computer in my office so I could see the screen of the other computer from where I was. That screen remained static for hours and hours and hours and then all of a sudden it started to move and change.


MITRA: And then Microsoft Paint appeared on it. And then Microsoft Word appeared on it. You know and then I saw words being written on that screen. And I couldn't believe it because there was no keyboard. So that's when I got up off my chair in my office and went rushing back to see what on earth they were doing. And discovered that they had actually figured out the character map, which I think even most users today 15 years later wouldn't know what that is. They'd figured that out and they were using the character map to type things like my name is "Unkoo" (ph) or something like that on the screen.


RAZ: It was incredible. In fact, it was almost a little too good to be true. So Sugata Mitra told a colleague ...


MITRA: My colleague said no, it's a simple solution. One of his students must've been passing by, showed them how to use the mouse. So I said, yeah that's possible. So I repeated the experiment, I went 300 miles out of Delhi, into a really remote village with the chances of a, you know, a passing software development engineer was very little. I repeated the experiment there. There was no place to stay so I stuck my computer in and I went away, came back after a couple of months, found kids playing games on it. And they saw me, they said we want a faster processor and a better mouse.


MITRA: So I said, how on earth do you know all this? And they said something very interesting to me. In a irritated voice they said you've given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it. That's the first time as a teacher that I heard the word "teach ourselves" said so casually.

RAZ: And Sugata began to see that he had a chance to change the way we think about learning. Maybe learning or the way we teach things to kids, maybe a lot of it can happen on its own, he thought, without any grownups around.

MITRA: I stumbled on a certain way of learning, which kids obviously knew how to do, and adults were not sure of how to use. And indeed, there were adults who said it's totally unstructured. It's bits and pieces of information. Somebody even called it, I think somebody from the United States called it minimally effective education. So I was - I was actually confused.

RAZ: So Sugata set out to study just how effective this kind of learning was. He took his computers and he tried to repeat his experiment in different parts of India.

MITRA: Which was really hard because, you know, adults in those days in rural India they said, are you sure you know what you're talking about? Our children are going to teach themselves how to use a computer? Come on, you know, tell me something else.

RAZ: But eventually he convinced 18 different villages.

MITRA: A village in Jammu and Kashmir, called Gantarawang; a place in Western India in the deserts of Rajasthan, called Kuri; a village called Polum (ph) on an unknown stretch of the most brilliant beach I have ever seen; a village in Karnataka, a couple of hundred kilometers from Bangalore called, hold your breath, Kalu Devanhalli which means the village of the black god or something like that.

RAZ: Over and over again in each village ...

MITRA: Gantarawang ...

RAZ: Children standing in the summer heat ...

MITRA: Kuri ...

RAZ: ... would try to figure out how to use a computer.

MITRA: Polum (ph) ...

RAZ: And remember the computer ...

MITRA: Kalu Devanhalli ...

RAZ: It wasn't even programmed in their native language.

MITRA: And then we measured the children's computer literacy skills. We plotted it on a graph and it was like an experiment in physics. It was straight up everywhere, exactly at the same rate.


MITRA: So I started publishing. I published everywhere. I wrote down and measured everything and I said, in nine months a group of children left alone with a computer in any language would reach the same standard as an office secretary in the West. I had seen it happen over and over and over again. But I was curious to know what else would they do if they could do this much? How far will it go? Where does it stop? I decided I would destroy my own argument by creating an absurd proposition.

And that's when I designed an experiment doomed to fail. Because I made a hypothesis which was absurd. The hypothesis was, can 12-year-old Tamil speaking children in a village in southern India teach themselves the biotechnology of DNA replication in English 10 years ahead of their time, clustering around a roadside computer?

RAZ: I don't know if med students at Harvard could teach themselves that.

MITRA: Precisely. So I did that, you know, I would discuss it. I just thought, well I know this is going to be very cruel but somebody's got to do it. Somebody's got to say look, there are some things you cannot do without a teacher. So I did the experiment.


MITRA: And I said I'll measure them, they'll get a zero, I'll spend a couple of months and leave it for couple of months. I'll go back, they'll get another zero. I'll go back to the lab and say we need teachers. The children came rushing and said what's all this? So I said it's very topical, very important. It's all in English. So they said how can we understand such big English words and diagrams in chemistry. So by now, I had developed a new pedagogical method so I applied that. I said I haven't the foggiest idea.


MITRA: And anyway, I'm going away.


MITRA: So I came back after two months and the children trooped in and said we've understood nothing. So I said well, what did I expect. So I said okay, but how long did it take you before you decided that you can't understand anything? So they said we haven't given up. We look at it every single day. So I said what? You don't understand these screens and you keep staring at it for two months, what for? So a little girl, she raised her hand and she says to me in broken Tamil and English, she said well, apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes disease, we haven't understood anything else.


MITRA: I've tried this in many, many schools. It's been tried all over the world and teachers stand back and say it just happens by itself? And I said yeah, it happens by itself. How did you know that? And I said you won't believe the children who told me and where they're from. So what's happening here? I think what we need to look at is we need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. If you allow the educational process to self-organize then learning emerges. It's not about making learning happen, it's about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then she stands back in awe and watches as learning happens. I think that's what all this is pointing at.

RAZ: Sugata Mitra, we'll hear more from him later in the show, including what he wants to do with this discovery. But coming up, another place where learning happens just by being there. I'm Guy Raz, you're listening to TED Radio Hour, from NPR.

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