Becoming like children – what learning professionals can learn from Sugata Mitra’s experiments

I just watched this really inspirational video where Professor Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University shares the findings of his ‘hole in the wall’ experiments. Put simply, he places networked computers into public spaces in poor communities in India (and other countries) and children use them to teach themselves all sorts of things. This has led to the professor’s concept of Self Organised Learning Environments – SOLEs as a new model of primary education.

A shorter video than the one I watched is here, from TED talks (17 minutes):

Professor Mitra’s research findings have big implications for primary education, but I have been wondering – do they have any implications for adult learning?

I want to outline here just some thoughts I have had reflecting on this.

Become like children

Firstly, without thinking of the actual experiments with computers themselves, we adults have a great deal to learn from children. Something I have noticed when trying to help adults learn to use social media and other internet tools, is that to learn how to use them, you have to play with them. This is very counter-intuitive for many adults – it doesn’t feel like working and it doesn’t feel like learning (I wonder when we ‘learnt’ that playing isn’t work or learning? – that’s a whole phd there!). Just clicking on something to see what it will do does not come naturally to lots of people. This is probably because computers used to panic when you did things like that – we can all remember the days of odd system alerts like ‘syntax error’ and then the blue screen of death. Children don’t have this fear – we have all seen tiny kids grab a smartphone and use it better than we can. My nephew does it with my iPhone every time I see him – he’ll come to me with a voice recording he’s made and then distorted where I didn’t even know it did that!

You often hear people talking about the importance in early education of learning through play. Well I think that we need to reintroduce that concept to lifelong learning.

“I don’t know”

I think the phrase ‘I don’t know’ is a really important one for teachers and trainers to say. Again, this doesn’t come naturally to most of us. As the teacher, we’re supposed to be the ‘expert’, yet how many times can you remember not learning very much from someone who’s a so-called expert? The best teachers are those who bring the learning out, coaxing learners into working it out for themselves.

Recently I was showing some colleagues how to use this website At one point someone said ‘what does that bit do?’ I just said ‘I don’t know, let’s find out’ and we figured it out together. Afterwards a friend came up to me and said ‘that’s what I like about your training Bryony, you don’t intimidate us because you make it clear that you don’t know everything’.

Socrates is widely regarded as one of the best teachers who ever lived. He is quoted as saying: ‘all I know is that I know nothing’ (Republic, 354b).

We should all be grandmothers to each other

SupergranIn Professor Mitra’s research he found that introducing the ‘grandmother’ figure – a friendly but not knowledgeable mentor – for the children improved their learning. As teachers and trainers of adults we should perhaps see ourselves as more taking that role.

We don’t need someone who is ‘superior’ and who knows loads more than us. What we all need is some gentle encouragement. Often, all we need is a nudge in a certain direction and we are introduced to a whole new world we knew nothing about. I remember when I joined Facebook back in 2007. I said to my friend Helena, who was telling me to join, ‘I’m already on MySpace, I don’t need to join’, but she encouraged me to try it out and now I would say that Facebook has largely improved my quality of life. I’ve been able to keep in touch with friends I haven’t seen for years, family who live abroad and even with friends who live in the same town that I just don’t see much. I met up with a friend at the weekend that I haven’t seen for years, but because of our connection on Facebook we were both fully up to date with each other’s lives!

I consider my training a success if someone says ‘I’m going to give it a try’ – that’s all it needs, just a willingness to try something out. One of my current mantras is ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’

“There’s no such word as can’t”

Picture of Girl Guides from the early 20th CenturyThis is something I’ve learnt being involved in the Girl Guides. My leaders used to say ‘there’s no such word as can’t’ to me when I was a Guide whenever I protested that I couldn’t do something and I find myself saying it all the time to my Guides. The funny thing is that I think it’s alright for me to say it to children and teenagers but I would feel really uncomfortable saying it to an adult. Why is that? Why do we lose our ‘can do’ attitude the older we get? Cynicism is so dangerous to creating a positive learning environment. It’s corrosive. It’s no wonder that Barack Obama won his election on the phrase ‘Yes we can!’

I’m sure there’s lots more I could say, and I am still digesting what I watched on the video. I would really recommend watching it – it would be an hour well spent. It’s especially good to challenge the cynical voice in your head about what’s possible.

A great quote from a book I just read which I will leave you with is:

“I thought of fear as a subtle suggestion in our subconscious designed to keep us safe, or more important, keep us from getting humiliated… But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life”

– Don Miller, A million miles in a thousand years


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s