Learn Something New Every Day!

Our Educational System:

school houseWhen you think of school—no matter what level—what image comes to mind? For most, it is a teacher at the front of the room, perhaps writing on a blackboard, and students sitting in nice neat little rows.  Things may change with the different levels and over time, but not very much. Sometimes there are computers in the room.  Or maybe the chairs are in a circle, or students are clustered in small groups.  Still, the basics of education have not changed much since schools were first being built.

Sugata Mitra explains that this basic educational structure was delineated during Victorian times when capable workers were needed in factories.  The workers needed to be able to read enough to follow directions accurately and to follow rules and regulations to the letter.  They needed to be able to step in and do the job in the factories without asking too many questions.  Today’s problem is that those skills are no longer what are needed for most jobs.  According to Mitra, “The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling] system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.”

Mastery of content—once prized as the mark of an educated person—is also not so crucial today given how quickly information changes these days and how readily all that new information is available to anyone over the Internet.  What general workers and good citizens need today includes the ability to access information, assess its credibility, and then apply it as needed in new situations.  The world needs critical thinkers who can create, collaborate, and cooperate while still getting the job done.  The world also needs good communicators who can use social media as well as traditional communication pathways to keep the customer informed and satisfied.  And those customers could be from anywhere in the world.  Things like business acumen and marketing strategies and specialized skills or processes are still needed, but by themselves, these abilities will not necessarily keep someone employed.

The Need for Change:

Ask most educators today if the educational arena needs to changed, fixed, reformed, and you will hear a resounding, “Yes!”  The problems come with deciding what changes will help.  And then it is not just the need to try that change in the classroom, but to have the change accepted throughout the system.  Especially in higher education, what happens at the community college has to transfer to four-year schools.  There is a movement through accreditation processes to develop more realistic and appropriate learning outcomes and assessment practices, so the critical thinking and habits of mind needed by workers today can be at least part of what is being taught.  Even the language needs to change:  shouldn’t we be more focused on what the students learn than on what the teachers teach?  The call for this paradigm shift is not new.  Barr and Tagg have been pushing it since 1995. Some have embraced these ideas, but active learning and student-focused education are still not the norm everywhere.

Thus systemwide change is not happening—or at least it is not happening quickly enough.  Online education has brought some changes in the delivery system, but—even though the students are logging on from home—the basic structure of the educational system is still about the same.  Teachers present materials and opportunities for the students to grapple with and learn from.  To really figure out what to change to help people learn and to clarify exactly what should be learned these days, maybe we all need to just step back.  Start over.

Sugata Mitra’s Plan:  Curiosity & Encouragement:

Fortunately, Sugata Mitra has a great idea on how to revolutionize education.  He makes the change sound so simple when he presents his idea at Ted Talks 2013.  Actually, he has been working on this idea since the late 1990s.  And his ideas are based on working with students, with actually trying things out, with kids, getting them to learn. Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, calls his idea “minimally invasive education.”  Over the years his project was called “The Hole in the Wall” experiments, but he is now working on “The School in the Cloud.”

Mitra’s plan:  Give kids a question and some learning tools and get out of their way.  Let curiosity take over, pushed forward gently by persistent praise and encouragement.

Listen to him share this simple, profound idea in February 2013 as the winner of the TED2013 Prize:

Can it really be this simple?  I think it can.  The grown-ups just have to let it happen—and then figure out a way to use this notion to reform higher education as well.  Any ideas?

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Quotes by Sugata Mitra

“It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken — it’s not broken, it’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.”

“In nine months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language will reach the same standard as an office secretary in the West.”

“It took nature 100 million years to make the ape stand up and become Homo sapiens. It took us only 10,000 to make knowing obsolete.”

“My wish is that we design the future of learning. We don’t want to be spare parts for a great human computer.”

Comments on: "CURIOSITY: The Key to Educational Reform?" (11)

  1. I think it really is that simple, too! Get rid of all the testing, all the cramming and memorization of useless information that can be found elsewhere, and let kids discover and explore on their own. Most teachers already know this, however, and it is somewhat frustrating for someone else to come along who’s been working on “his” idea since the late 1990’s, as if it’s some kind of revolutionary new idea about learning. Unfortunately, when teachers fight for letting knowledge evolve more through discovery than through standards and scripted lessons, they are either ignored or are accused of not doing their jobs.

    • I agree. It is so sad when the creativity of classroom teachers is cut short because of the system or regulations. Maybe with attention like that from Mitra at least a few schools will start encouraging creativity in the classroom to excite the students. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. To me, the third paragraph is very powerful! Although many teachers may say YES to the reform question, when it comes to discussion, many of the same people gather the protective wagons around what they do to protect themselves from change … that is, it is very difficult for teachers to embrace, “We need to change and I must in accordance to our change.”

    • You are so right. It is hard for anyone to change, but especially teachers, I think. They are a group of people who chose a profession where they would be in control in their own room. On top of that, change and experimentation and creativity do not occur smoothly, so some things will work, and others will not. It is hard to say, “Hey, I tried this and it did not work!” So too many teachers stick to what they have done because they feel it is working, etc. It is a viscious cycle. If only student need could really guide everything, but higher education–even public education–is a business and needs to make salaries, etc.

      Thanks for stopping by, especially since you have been so bus lately!

      • Great description of the vicious cycle.

        I recall someone using the jet engine analogy – that is how the invention of the jet engine changed aviation – meaning education needs the equivalent to the jet engine.

        Here’s something from my archives that I wrote about education reform. Keep in mind that my experience and focus is K-12. http://afrankangle.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/on-school-reform-the-difficulties/

      • Thanks, Frank, for sharing your link. As usual, I appreciate your thoughtfulness and perspective. Your closing thought questioning if the system we have is one we want to perfect hits the heart of our educational problem.

      • Thanks Patti. My experience is K-12. Although I’ve been away from it for awhile, for what I can tell, it hasn’t changed much … well, at least behind the illusion of change. After all, change is difficult … very difficult.

  3. I obviously was here when originally posted, but good to return (thanks).

    Mitra’s plan is interesting. Besides, a good teaching plan starts with a question followed by students doing something (but not listening to a teacher). … and I proudly say that I taught that way … and I wrote my own lessons that way. Interestingly, textbooks and programs that are written that way aren’t big sellers. …. to me, that’s very telling.

    • Frank. You are so right. The teaching ideas that say use curiosity, address students an individuals, care more about learning and developing habits of mind and how to think are ignored in favor of cookie cutter approaches and collected statistics. I do still like connecting with the students and sneaking some real learning into each class!

      • No question about developing habits of mind, but I also planned around a model of the students figuring out information on their own. For example, think back to your high school chemistry class. Were labs used to verify what the teacher said or for students to discover information?

      • You are right that the best learning comes from discovery. My lab experiences in high school were not typically in the discovery mode. One teacher, however, did take us on an overnight field trip, camping in the desert–that left me enamored of the outdoors (but not camping) and also a pet kangaroo rat. Some jerk in class had captured it and smuggled it home. The teacher was not thrilled when she found it, after we got back. The guy’s idea was to just kill it–duh. I took custody.

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