Child-Driven Education

In his work, Sugatra Mitra shows that children are self-organizing learners. Now that he has demonstrated this, how do we take advantage of this across the world, and also in Taiwan?

Children will learn to do what they want to do
I started in 1999 to try and address this problem with an experiment, which was a very simple experiment in New Delhi. I basically embedded a computer into a wall of a slum in New Delhi. The children barely went to school, they didn't know any English -- they'd never seen a computer before, and they didn't know what the internet was. I connected high speed internet to it -- it's about three feet off the ground -- turned it on and left it there. After this, we noticed a couple of interesting things, which you'll see. But I repeated this all over India and then through a large part of the world and noticed that children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.
This is the first experiment that we did -- eight year-old boy on your right teaching his student, a six year-old girl, and he was teaching her how to browse. This boy here in the middle of central India -- this is in a Rajasthan village, where the children recorded their own music and then played it back to each other and in the process, they've enjoyed themselves thoroughly. They did all of this in four hours after seeing the computer for the first time. In another South Indian village, these boys here had assembled a video camera and were trying to take the photograph of a bumble bee. They downloaded it from Disney.com, or one of these websites, 14 days after putting the computer in their village. So at the end of it, we concluded that groups of children can learn to use computers and the internet on their own, irrespective of who or where they were.
At that point, I became a little more ambitious and decided to see what else could children do with a computer. We started off with an experiment in Hyderabad, India, where I gave a group of children -- they spoke English with a very strong Telugu accent. I gave them a computer with a speech-to-text interface, which you now get free with Windows, and asked them to speak into it. So when they spoke into it, the computer typed out gibberish, so they said, "Well, it doesn't understand anything of what we are saying." So I said, "Yeah, I'll leave it here for two months. Make yourself understood to the computer." So the children said, "How do we do that." And I said, "I don't know, actually." (Laughter) And I left. (Laughter) Two months later -- and this is now documented in the Information Technology for International Development journal -- that accents had changed and were remarkably close to the neutral British accent in which I had trained the speech-to-text synthesizer. In other words, they were all speaking like James Tooley. (Laughter) So they could do that on their own. After that, I started to experiment with various other things that they might learn to do on their own.

If children have interest, then education happens
I got an interesting phone call once from Columbo, from the late Arthur C. Clarke, who said, "I want to see what's going on." And he couldn't travel, so I went over there. He said two interesting things, "A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be." (Laughter) The second thing he said was that, "If children have interest, then education happens." And I was doing that in the field, so every time I would watch it and think of him.

Education is about 'thinking deeply' not 'stuffing your head with knowledge'
All over India, at the end of about two years, children were beginning to Google their homework. As a result, the teachers reported tremendous improvements in their English -- (Laughter) rapid improvement and all sorts of things. They said, "They have become really deep thinkers and so on and so forth. (Laughter) And indeed they had. I mean, if there's stuff on Google, why would you need to stuff it into your head? So at the end of the next four years, I decided that groups of children can navigate the internet to achieve educational objectives on their own.

Impossible targets
I set myself and impossible target: can Tamil speaking 12-year-old children in a South Indian village teach themselves biotechnology in English on their own? And I thought, I'll test them, they'll get a zero -- I'll give the materials, I'll come back and test them -- they get another zero, I'll go back and say, "Yes, we need teachers for certain things."
I called in 26 children. They all came in there, and I told them that there's some really difficult stuff on this computer. I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't understand anything. It's all in English, and I'm going. (Laughter) So I left them with it. I came back after two months, and the 26 children marched in looking very, very quiet. I said, "Well, did you look at any of the stuff?" They said, "Yes, we did." "Did you understand anything?" "No, nothing." So I said, "Well, how long did you practice on it before you decided you understood nothing?" They said, "We look at it every day." So I said, "For two months, you were looking at stuff you didn't understand?" So a 12 year-old girl raises her hand and says, literally, "Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we've understood nothing else."
The Grandmother Mentor
So their scores had gone up from zero to 30 percent, which is an educational impossibility under the circumstances. But 30 percent is not a pass. So I found that they had a friend, a local accountant, a young girl, and they played football with her. I asked that girl, "Would you teach them enough biotechnology to pass?" And she said, "How would I do that? I don't know the subject." I said, "No, use the method of the grandmother." She said, "What's that?" I said, "Well, what you've got to do is stand behind them and admire them all the time. Just say to them, 'That's cool. That's fantastic. What is that? Can you do that again? Can you show me some more?'" She did that for two months. The scores went up to 50, which is what the posh schools of New Delhi, with a trained biotechnology teacher were getting.

The 'Scientific Research' Method
So I came back to Newcastle with these results and decided that there was something happening here that definitely was getting very serious. So, having experimented in all sorts of remote places, I came to the most remote place that I could think of. (Laughter) Approximately 5,000 miles from Delhi is the little town of Gateshead. In Gateshead, I took 32 children and I started to fine-tune the method. I made them into groups of four. I said, "You make your own groups of four. Each group of four can use one computer and not four computers." Remember, from the Hole in the Wall. "You can exchange groups. You can walk across to another group, if you don't like your group, etc.
You can go to another group, peer over their shoulders, see what they're doing, come back to you own group and claim it as your own work." And I explained to them that, you know, a lot of scientific research is done using that method.

Is this Deep Learning?
The children enthusiastically got after me and said, "Now, what do you want us to do?" I gave them six GCSE questions. The first group -- the best one -- solved everything in 20 minutes. The worst, in 45. They used everything that they knew -- news groups, Google, Wikipedia, Ask Jeeves, etc. The teachers said, "Is this deep learning?" I said, "Well, let's try it. I'll come back after two months. We'll give them a paper test -- no computers, no talking to each other, etc." The average score when I'd done it with the computers and the groups was 76 percent.
When I did the experiment, when I did the test, after two months, the score was 76 percent. There was photographic recall inside the children, I suspect because they're discussing with each other. A single child in front of a single computer will not do that. I have further results, which are almost unbelievable, of scores which go up with time. Because their teachers say that after the session is over, the children continue to Google further.

It's pretty simple stuff
Back at Gateshead, ... two children watch a TEDTalk. They wanted to be footballers before. After watching eight TEDTalks, he wants to become Leonardo da Vinci.
It's pretty simple stuff.

Education is a self-organizing system.
So you know what's happened? I think we've just stumbled across a self-organizing system. A self-organizing system is one where a structure appears without explicit intervention from the outside. Self-organizing systems also always show emergence, which is that the system starts to do things, which it was never designed for. Which is why you react the way you do, because it looks impossible. I think I can make a guess now -- education is self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon.
It'll take a few years to prove it, experimentally, but I'm going to try. But in the meanwhile, there is a method available. One billion children, we need 100 million mediators -- there are many more than that on the planet -- 10 million SOLEs, 180 billion dollars and 10 years. We could change everything.

Here is the first TED talk Sugatra Mitra gave, How Kids Teach Themselves.