Saturday, 19 April 2014

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#ELTchat summary on Sugata Mitra and 25 Questions He Needs To Answer

On Saturday 5th of April at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, Sugata Mitra delivered a plenary session that proved to be acclaimed and vilified at the same time. I was in the room at the time, and witnessed a large proportion of the room rise to their feet at the climax of his talk. After the hubbub had died down, discussion immediately began and dissenting voices began to appear. The debate hasn’t stopped yet and it continues on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and on Wednesday 9th of April, on #ELTchat.

In this look at what has become one of the most contentious issues in our field for a long time, I will first summarise what was discussed in the #ELTchat, before looking at some of the other issues have been brought up by bloggers in the aftermath his talk.

According to Wikipedia “His work demonstrated that groups of children, irrespectively of who or where they are, can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own with public computers in open spaces such as roads and playgrounds, even without knowing English.” Many people have their doubts about his claims, including me, I feel I should point out before you read on!

If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend you watch Mitra’s plenary here, and watch his follow up interview here before you go on. You could also read Graham Stanley’s excellent summary of his talk and Lizzie Pinard’s too, written during the talk.

A sense of the size of the backlash can be detected in this tweet by @LeaSobocan:
No, I'm just feeling a bit Sugata Mitra'd out. Actually I think some of his ideas are not too bad. Don't kill me ;)  #ELTchat

There was a sense that a lot of what was being said by Mitra was not that revolutionary:

@marisa_c @wiktor_k it really struck a chord with me! I enjoy TBL in the classroom so this seemed like extension of that #eltchat

@theteacherjames @LeaSobocan yeah me too, i think the idea of asking questions, setting projects soto speak is not really that new #ELTchat

#ELTchat  Montessori has been doing this for years #sole

Some people questioned whether it was feasible to expect students to learn without a teacher present:

@natibrandi But not without a teacher, otherwise they just off and play videogames. #ELTchat

Do you think the children would be able to put their learning into practice? (eg molecular biology) #ELTchat

@LouiseRobertson ...or, unfortunately, watch all the cat videos there are. A computer does not a learning make, imho. #ELTChat

But some suggested that he was onto something:

What struck me was the implication that T's presence can actually hinder learning. I can't say I disagree totally #eltchat

My view is that SM suggests learning environment where the teacher only facilitates learning and becomes a supportive coach #eltchat

The role of the teacher now as presented by Mitra...

At school, teachers are much more than vehicles of knowledge. Socialization is a key element. That can't be learnt online. #eltchat

@natibrandi @NinaEnglishBrno but how are we redefining? A good teacher has always assumed many roles in the classroom #ELTchat

@Shaunwilden @EdLaur The role of the teacher needs to be updated, sure, but not to "granny" #eltchat

And it seems to me that Grannies are just mediocre teachers. I can encourage, but I can do other things too. #eltchat

Task-based, individualized, self-organized, connected, goal-oriented ed. I see my role in here: guide, facilitator, mentor, friend. #eltchat

And in the future…

Another thought is that what SM visualises is so far into the future that lots of other jobs will be obsolete- even doctors #eltchat

@HanaTicha @Marisa_C scary what we're doing to ourselves. Sometimes think making ourselves obsolete thru tech. advances. #eltchat

@Ven_VVE  its not about obsolescence its adapting & making use of whatever enhances learning, good teachers have always done that #ELTchat

There's a difference between saying we don't need Ts and we live in places where we need to cope in the absence of Ts #eltchat

My own feeling is that he is expressing a prediction - when or how this will happen not clear or certain - could be 1000 yrs #ELTchat

There were questions regarding the lack of research and evidence for his claims

His scientific method seems to lack a control group (children who didn't learn well on their own with a computer). #eltchat

Any research on how parents/guardians see this? Would they send children to school in cloud? #eltchat

@natibrandi @theteacherjames @Shaunwilden @LeaSobocan it's very anecdotal research though, isn't it? #eltchat

And the kind of learning that took place:

@muranava @Shaunwilden @ChristineMulla So how deep was the learning then I wonder. #eltchat

@theteacherjames #eltchat SM's eg of kids learning molecular biology seemed just like memorisation, didn't seem like learning

@theteacherjames or are they just reciting Wikipedia? #eltchat

And who will then produce the experts, the doctors, the scientists - will they qualify themselves? #eltchat or pass some tests?

And a word of warning…

Do you all remember the "Lord of the flies" book? The kids didn't do so well on their own as I recall. #eltchat

Perhaps what was most surprising about this chat was how it didn’t reflect the polarised opinions that his talk created in the online ELT community. While there were disagreements, thankfully it stayed very polite and collaborative, which is to #ELTchat’s credit I think! But as someone who is, as I mentioned, very sceptical about what Mitra is claiming and fearful of the result of its possible implementation, I was surprised at the lack of support his ideas had during the chat. I expected stronger advocates to be present, arguing his case, but it felt like nearly everyone had doubts about what he was claiming.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that that is just a reflection of the people who were present on the day and I’m sure there are people who would have argued more vociferously in his favour at a different time. But I think part of this is a result of the discussion that sprung up after the original plenary, and the numerous blog posts may just have placed some doubts in the minds of those who were originally persuaded by Mitra’s ideas. As many people have commented, he’s a brilliant and charismatic speaker, and it’s easy to be wowed the first time you hear him. I know I was. We mustn’t, however, let this get in the way of a deeper, critical analysis of his thesis and the bloggers listed at the bottom of this page managed to do exactly that.

Okay, signing off, thanks for a thought-provoking #eltchat I feel we only scratched the surface on this one.

And just like Lea Sobocan, at the end of the #ELTchat I felt there were more questions to answer, so I’ve been reading through as many articles and blog posts as I can in order to compile this list of questions either posed or inspired by bloggers and commenters which I think Mitra needs to address.

Let’s start with the questions posed by Jeremy Harmer on his blog (I have summarised them here for brevity, I recommend you go to Jeremy’s post to read them in more detail)
1. Not every student has the same level of motivation and autonomy - how do we deal with students who are not engaged in the learning process without the presence of a teacher?

2. Teacher intervention has long been considered a key part of the learning process - how are the ‘Granny’ substitutes precisely going to play a role in this?

3. Learning has long been considered a fundamental part of the continual development of societies and the socialisation of young people - how do grannies in the clouds and SOLEs (Self Organised Learning Environments) fit into this?

And if we head into the comments on this post...

4. Maha Bali points out that all the information that the children are accessing on the web came from somewhere. Some of the sources are reliable, others less so. How does a child without access to a teacher learn the skills such as critical thinking and digital literacy which are required in order to use the Internet an effective resource of learning?

5. As Jeremy says in a reply to Bruno Leys’ comment, the Grannies job is to praise the learners, but what kind of praise will they be dishing out? After a while, doesn’t all this praising become hollow and meaningless? As he states, “as experienced teachers know, this is a highly nuanced area depending on the kinds of kids we are working with”.

6. An argument made in defence of Mitra’s work is that it can help people in the poorest areas. However, as Jeremy says in reply to Shelly Terrell’s impassioned comment, approximately 60% of the world still do not have access to the Internet. So are the SOLE’s as helpful in the developing world as he suggests?

7. The students are given open ended questions to answer. Where do these questions come from? Each question that is posed contains a value judgement, giving it a value above other areas of knowledge. Who makes this judgement call?

8. A comment by Datafiend led to this question: Do children who already have access to the Internet, and have an autonomous desire to learn, create their own SOLE’s with like minded peers? Or does it require some kind of intervention, such as a school or a teacher to facilitate the learning?

9. And also inspired by Datafiend, most people are by definition fairly conservative in their interests. How do you get them to look at the world outside their own in an autonomous environment?

10. Heike Philp does the work for me here in this comment “He mentions that the biology experiment with English information about genealogy ‘only’ produced 30% and adding a granny meant that they got up to 50% – isn’t this the proof in the pudding? Does this not mean that by adding an ‘adult’ to the equation that kids learn more? Wouldn’t this support the added value of a teacher?”

11. She also makes a point about the long term effects. These studies started in the late 90’s - where are the results? What happened to those children who used the first SOLE’s back then? Did they gain a significant advantage compared to their peers who did not have access to the computers?

Hugh Dellar’s fiery article, also on eltjam, has inspired a massive amount of feedback and comment. Let’s start with the post itself.

12. Hugh accuses Mitra of being a snake oil salesman, claiming that children using a SOLE were able to teach themselves English without mentioning to what level they reached, how this was tested and without a control group for comparison. Is this rigorous enough to back up Mitra’s claims?

13. Language acquisition is a complicated business. How is fluency in a language possible by googling it?

14. What are the implications of having an education system that uses unpaid and under-qualified volunteers at its core? Is there not a danger that this will give governments a licence to stop investing in teachers, and start investing in SOLE’s? Anyone reading this who is British or lives in the UK can imagine how the ‘Granny Cloud’ would fit right into David Cameron’s idea of ‘the Big Society’.

15. Following on from question 8, and inspired by comments by Scott Thornbury, Marcos Benevides and Hugh himself, the Internet is not the first massive bank of human knowledge we have seen. They are called libraries. Is there any evidence to suggest that having access to that repository of wisdom was sufficient to encourage autonomous learning on a large scale?

16. From Scott Thornbury “Underlying all this Mitra-mania seems to be an implicit faith in the almost totemic power of the Internet – just by virtue of its being there, it somehow magically triggers learning – whether mediated or not. Show me the evidence.” Does this evidence exist?

17. Lindsay Clandfield comments that if it’s difficult to get teachers in remote places, then isn’t the consequence of installing SOLE’s in these areas that the good teachers will be more likely to be pushed towards the more affluent areas? And isn’t there a contradiction at the heart of this, as if we follow Mitra’s logic, the remote areas will be the one’s receiving the superior form of education?

And from some other blogs...

18. A question from Gavin Dudeney on the eltjam blog “But really, is any of this (the introduction of SOLE’s) more scalable than getting in and training teachers, and – more importantly – is it actually better than getting in and training teachers?”

19. Philip Kerr has pieced together the vested interests behind Mitra’s company. How involved are these corporate entities in the Hole In The Wall project, and how much do they stand to gain from its success?

20. David Petrie bumped into Mitra at the train station after the plenary (so did I but I didn’t ask him any questions. I didn’t have this list then!) and had a chat with him. David’s impression is that he doesn’t place any particular importance on explicit language instruction, and I’m curious as to why this is. What is it about language as opposed to science or history that means it can be casually picked up as a result of studying other disciplines?

21. In Chia Suan Chong’s article for the English Teaching Professional blog, she posits that Mitra is not looking to abandon the teacher, but redefine it. But isn’t his idea of a top down, transmissive teacher out of date with contemporary language teaching?

22. Inspired by the Secret DOS, who observes that when you get ‘good teachers’ in remote places, they inevitably leave for the big city and this creates a social divide where the richer areas get the best teachers and the poorer areas are now supposed to teach themselves. Would we not be better off investing in the social problems that cause this situation, as opposed to trying to find an adequate and temporary solution?

23. The Secret DOS also points out the amount of distraction, and the sheer volume of information available online, and the difficulty the vast majority of people have in focussing on finding out exactly what they want to know (in her case, how to look after a goldfish!). Are the children using SOLEs somehow impervious to this temptation? Do they have the skills required to focus on the task at hand, or is it something they need to be taught?

24. A quote taken from Mark Hancock’s post: “His final words, as we looked at a photo of some joyful Indian kids learning at a computer, were something like, ‘and does it work? I think you can see the answer in their faces’.” As a physicist, does Mitra think this is a relevant piece of evidence for his ideas?

And a question I’d like to add:

25. The effectiveness of SOLE’s centres around the premise of an egalitarian relationship between the kids crowded around the same computer. But do all the children learn equally? Some children, probably male, will dominate the control of the device and subsequently the path that the learning takes to suit their own means. And if this is what they are doing, then aren’t they essentially taking the role of the teacher, albeit a less qualified and less conciliatory one, in their own micro-class? (For more on the ineffectiveness of self organised groups, watch this short clip by filmmaker Adam Curtis.)

I also have some questions for you to consider, based on my experience in the last week or so of reading, talking and observing how this debate has rolled out. I don’t expect you to answer them now, they are just things to think about.

1. There are many places in the world where teachers are not to be found. Surely the granny cloud is better than nothing?

2. So far this reaction has been led by predominantly white European men (and that includes me), so where are the voices from the developing world, especially India?

3. Does Mitra’s stance make you reflect on your role as a teacher? Has he achieved anything in this regard at least?

4. Were you swayed by his charisma the first time you saw him? What have you learnt about your own critical faculties from this debate? I know I’ve learnt something…

5. The talk has been praised for creating debate, which is always welcome, but is this substantial enough for us to spend this much time on it?

6. What in your view is the appropriate style of discourse for discussing these types of issues?

If I have one, non-Sugata Mitra based conclusion from this whole debate, it’s that it may have the most interesting week online that we’ve ever had in our profession. The quality of writing, reflection and discussion has been fascinating to observe, and has proved to me that our community is full of intelligent, critical and analytical voices, a prerequisite for any developing profession.
And I'll leave you with the always wise words of Kurt Vonnegut to ponder...


  1. Hi there, and thanks for this summary and list of probing questions. I came across this on Facebook.
    One of your questions to us was about alternative voices to white European men about SM's ideas. One of the people's whose work is often cited in a citrique of Mitra's project is Dr. Payal Arora. I only know she is not male. You may be interested in the paper she wrote based on original research into Hole in the Wall experiments years after they had been implemented.

  2. A horse can never be replaced by a machine. Can a car run, gallop, jump?

  3. Thank you Lindsay, that was a very welcome perspective on this debate.

  4. Thanks for your comment Sugata. I've needed a few days to mull over how to respond to it, and if I'm interpreting it correctly, I think you're saying that there will always be things that teachers can do that computers can't. While I obviously agree with this, and I think you'd be hard pressed to find a teacher who doesn't, I wonder if you might reflect on why so many people responded to your IATEFL talk by thinking that you were suggesting that SOLE's will mean that teachers are no longer necessary, not just in rural areas but in developed countries too?

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