Thursday 3 April 2008

Are we getting learning wrong?

I spent yesterday in the beautiful surroundings of the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I was at a conference on "Distance learning and development". There was a day of discussions and break out sessions followed by an evening reception with a keynote speaker Professor Sugata Mitra.

The day was taken up with earnest, sometimes entertaining, but all slightly hollow discussions about what universities could do to help in the international development process. There were some interesting accounts of work that was being done but overall there was a rather dull and corporate air about it. Most of the discussion seemed to start with the universities and assumed that the learners would somehow be shoehorned into what they had to offer. The market was not defined or brought into focus much at all. Symptomatic of this was a view I heard expressed by several different people, so much that it seemed to be a common understanding, that partnerships are terribly difficult and usually break down. It was suggested that this might be due to a lack of skill in facilitating cross cultural discussions, which I thought was a bit feeble. I wondered if the cause of some of the apparent breakdowns was that the institutions hadn't worked out what the point of the partnership was. Nobody seemed to be starting with what students do and what they want. Lunch was nice though, and I got some networking done.

The evening session, though, turned all of this on its head. I had never before heard of the Hole In The Wall project, or of Professor Mitra, but I'll never forget either of them. The original idea was simple - put a computer in a hole in the wall in a public place and see what happens. His first few experiments were in India. What happens, he found, is that children take control of it, and do all sorts of learning that you would think they would be incapable of. The key to the success of hole in the wall computers is twofold - firstly the children are completely in charge - there is no agenda, no curriculum, and secondly, learning is done in groups and is collaborative.

When Prof Mitra originally put a computer in a wall on a town street, the spontaneous reactions of the people who found it were to use it in a public way; children came and tried it out, played with it, found things out, in twos, threes, fours, groups of any kind. On finding out that it worked, Prof Mitra started to raise the barriers. He put one into a classroom and gave the children a tricky problem to solve - and found that they solved it eventually through a collective process of discovery. He got to the point of trying to set a problem that they could not solve in order to test the boundaries of this form of learning. He downloaded some difficult material on biotechnology, all in English, a foreign language to the children he gave it to. He locked the computer in a room in the school they were in, and he gave the key to the children. When he returned a few months later, he asked them what they had been able to learn. They said they'd learned nothing, it had been very difficult, they couldn't understand it. They talked some more,and Prof Mitra asked again if they'd learned anything, and a girl said, "Well, if you replicate defective DNA you get genetic diseases, but apart from that, nothing." he investigated further with this girl who showed him the things she knew - she showed him material on Alzheimer's disease, and, when he asked what it was, she said, "It's complicated, but it's why old people forget". So, even when he made things as difficult as he could for these very young children, they found ways to make learning happen. The girl in this story was particularly interesting - she had started out with a couple of boys, but the boys had said to her "We'll do this.You're only a girl,you won't understand". So she had said to them, "I'll come back when you're gone then". And she did return, determined to prove them wrong.

Prof Mitra is now at Newcastle, and has been working in the neighbourhood there. He was invited to a primary school in Gateshead (as he cheerily put it, "the remotest of the remote places I have been to"). The children he worked with there, aged around 10, had been beneficiaries of the one laptop per child scheme, but they were not using them. Mitra set up a challenge. He devised six GCSE level questions on science, the environment and such issues, and he told the children there was only one rule - they had to work in groups and there was one laptop per group. They settled into groups of four, and, completely undirected apart from that, all but one of the groups solved the problems. The first did it in 20 minutes and the rest all within an hour. The group that didn't consisted of one girl and three boys. As soon as the exercise began, the boys all went to the toilet and did not come back. The girl tried on her own but was unable to make progress.

These examples are strong proof that learning works well when self directed and even better when done in groups. A noticeable finding from some of the hole in the wall studies was that only a small group would be actively involved in working the machine or making suggestions from close by, but that a larger group standing by but contributing relatively little also gained knowledge and expertise.

So, as Prof Mitra said, maybe one laptop per child is a bad idea. How much are we in the west preventing learning happening by individualising it as much as we do?

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