I had drafted this post back when the Sugata Mitra scandal was raging a few months ago (I think it’s a scandal, because I grew up in places like the ones where Mitra put up his computers in the wall and watched how kids responded, and I find the whole story and his interpretation of it utterly problematic). The main idea still seems worth sharing.
I find “hole in the wall” view of learners offensive because I know that it doesn’t work like that when societies try to do it without the romanticizer in place! I taught in Nepal for more than a decade before I came to the US for further studies, and especially back home, it always took very thoughtful implementation, adaptation, testing, and constant fine-tuning of the teaching/learning principles, methods, and strategies that scholars from other places provided. The challenge of engaging students, helping them overcome barriers of language, motivation, learning challenges was never easy, but all the effort that I made as a teacher was worth it. I saw in every student tremendous potential, and I tried my best to help them realize it. Technology (whatever was available back then, and whatever it is available today) has always “helped”–sometimes more, sometimes less. I consider myself a savvy user of technology in the classroom, and among the models of technology use that I like best is the TPACK model (developed by two scholars, one with a similar name, Mishra; the other Kohler). As a fellow graduate student here in the United States and I tried to adapt and experiment that model in classrooms where we teach language and writing skills (a poster version here), technologies work best when teachers take a deliberate approach to selecting, adapting, and integrating particular technologies to particular teaching/learning contexts/purposes.
The idea of simply setting up the technology and watching how students learn/explore something sounds great, but some educated and professionally trained adult has to design the curriculum and course, set up learning activities and use a means of assessment provide continuous feedback, teach students how and why they should use what technologies. . . . After he took his teacher-bashing (essentially) way too far, Mitra has started saying that his hole in the wall project was a “controlled” educational experiment. If that’s the case, what’s the difference in principle between what millions of teachers do on a daily basis and what he’s suggesting? Good teachers know how and when to use technology: they don’t set up and leave it. So, what we need is better support for teachers. Unfortunately, teachers are having to collectively defend what they value in their teaching in the first place—even when they are doing the same things that the machines, corporate hacks, and dishonest people are being introduced into the system! How sad!
There seems to be a cultural shift where people like Mitra don’t hesitate a moment to say that students will find all the knowledge (even for those who consider the goal of education) on their own if we provide them the right tools/environment. Fewer people seem to point out that that argument is ludicrous because no one would be willing to consider that kind of education for their own children. When I teach my five and three year old children, I guide them (and I will do so even when they are 15) by helping them to navigate and make sense of the information that they find—technologically, in terms of the objective of learning, in terms of being safe in the jungle on the web, etc, etc, etc. I teach them not just how to find answers but also how to ask questions in the first place, use what they find and make connections. The way Mitra talks about redesigning education for others’ children (I don’t think he ever imagines his own children being subjected to the hole in the wall) in the way that he does is offensive.
When people like Sugata Mitra say that we don’t need teachers, I start thinking that they’re NOT talking about teachers of their children or grandchildren! That is why, in my “book,” most of them are listed in the chapter titled “less-than-honest hackademics.”