Sunday, 3 March 2013

A School in the Clouds

A friend pointed me to Sugata Mitra's TED talk on his prize-winning idea for a School in the Clouds.  It is very well worth watching.

Firstly, he is an engaging and skilled presenter, with a great tale to tell.  Secondly, he has stumbled across something truly impressive: the capacity for children to learn extraordinarily well, provided with technology to give them access to knowledge, curiosity, an ethos of collaboration, and some encouragement.  Thirdly, the specific examples he gives, and the children whose enthusiasm and success he highlights, are both moving and inspiring.

However, the more I reflected on what he is saying, the more questions and reservations I have.

At the level of theory, I think that he has constructed (or bolstered) a philosophy or set of ideas that are not supported by his evidence.

His thesis is that we no longer require schools (which he seems to think were invented 300 years ago, by the Victorians?...) as knowledge is available via the Cloud and children are, as he has demonstrated, remarkably capable of acquiring that knowledge very rapidly in self-organised groups.

But I think he misunderstands what schools are, what they do, and how they do it (he is an academic, after all).

Schooling is not merely about pouring information into children's heads, though that is clearly one useful function.

Which leads me to the practical problem: it is all very well (and indeed profoundly impressive) to demonstrate that Tamil children can acquire a good knowledge of DNA replication from information on the cloud in a foreign (to them) language - and acquire language skills as they go.  But information is not the same as wisdom, and one needs wisdom to discern which information to attend to.

For example, a bunch of enthusiastic kids on the web, keen to learn about the 9/11 disaster, or the moon landing, could, if they took an initial wrong turning, come to believe that the first was a CIA plot; and the second a complete fake: there is plenty of information on the web supporting these theses.

And when it comes to the really profound issues, such as how should we live, the web is a poor guide indeed.

Another reservation was the thought that Mitra's experiment worked wherever he tried it: amongst poor people in developing countries.  I have real doubts that it would work in our decadent post-Christian Western European or North American cultures.  We have, it seems to me, created a culture in which it would as likely for the hole-in-the-wall computers to be vandalised or taken over by a gang, and used to sell access to porn, or something.  Why and how we have created such a culture is a topic for another time, but I worry that Mitra's disdain for schooling, which implies a disdain for learning from the wisdom of those older and more experienced, and conceivably wiser, than us may contribute to the destruction of the very social factors that make his experiment work at present.

Nonetheless, I wish him well: his technique is astonishing, powerful and potentially very useful; it is his philosophy that I question.

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