How semi-literate children in a remote Indian village taught themselves molecular biology

Sugata Mitra's radical new teaching method promises to upend education as we know it.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer
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In 2010, an ex-physicist and professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, Sugata Mitra, conducted the second of his two now-most-talked about, seemingly-wacky experiments in the field of education and technology.

Mitra plonked a computer in the middle of a backward and remote village called Kalikuppam in Tamil Nadu, India, and loaded it with molecular biology educational material in English. He then promptly disappeared.

The children of remote Kalikuppam, aged ten to fourteen years of age, apparently didn’t know what this strange beast called a computer was, let alone the internet. They couldn't speak any English and lived amidst some of the worst health, nutrition and sanitation conditions in the world. After Mitra left, they were left to contemplate this strange box-like object that had suddenly occupied a spot in their village square.

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A 'Hole-in-the-Wall'

When Mitra reappeared 75 days later, he administered a test on molecular biology and discovered that these children could answer one in four questions on the topic correctly. He once again did his disappearing act only to return and administer another test on the same subject. (This time around, in his absence, he placed a helpful local teacher, with no knowledge of English or molecular biology, to oversee the group. Her main task was to just be an encouraging presence.)

Mitra was floored by what he now witnessed. This time around, the children were getting 50 percent of the questions right and were able to easily identify and explain  things like DNA, RNA, neurons, heredity, and chromosomes. They were able to classify the good and bad effects of bacteria (by explaining the conversion of milk into yogurt, for instance), had picked up a few hundred words of English and were also beginning to read the language.

Meanwhile, Mitra had also placed an instructor at an elite private school in Delhi to teach molecular biology to a group of similarly-aged kids. Astonishingly, the results achieved at Kalikuppam village were on par with them. "If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it like bees around a flower," said Mitra in an interview.

This is the seductive promise of minimally invasive education first pioneered by Mitra when, on a whim, he embedded a few computers with internet connections into the wall of his office which he shared with a slum in Kalkaji, New Delhi. This 'Hole-in-the-wall' experiment also used video cameras to record goings-ons. Mitra discovered that within just a month, these children had taught themselves to use the computer and developed basic skills in English and mathematics.

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Indian village schools can be hell-holes

Today, Mitra—a suave and charismatic speaker—is a prophet of a radically new way of thinking about education, a method powerful enough to garner him last year's $1 million TED prize to further develop his next ambitious project called a 'School in the Cloud.'

An extension of 'Hole-in-the-wall' (which incidentally was the inspiration for the book on which 'Slumdog Millionaire' was based), these schools, twelve-strong so far and located mainly in disadvantaged communities, comprise of a 'room' located in an existing school’s premises with a glass front that is clearly visible to all those who pass by.

Nine computers in clusters of three allow for interaction amongst groups and across terminals. On average, four children huddle around a computer working or playing together, with many more occasionally peering above their shoulders.

The latest one, Korakati, located in a small village in the remote, mangrove-blanketed region of West Bengal’s Sundarbans is the first standalone centre (not linked to a school).  It is powered by solar, has a 40 foot bamboo tower receiver for better wireless connection, and uses Skype to connect with teachers to help mentor these children as they explore the world and devise answers for thorny problems. Most of his locations connect with retired school teachers in England who also pose as—not teachers—but 'e-mediators' or mentors.  They are there to offer mainly encouragement and support, thereby giving the project the unofficial name 'Granny Cloud.'

Mitra's contention is that self-organised learning, in groups, when assisted by technology, will result in an astronomical increase in the retention of knowledge and skills. He, as this WSJ online article discloses, is known to waltz into classrooms and ask kids questions like 'How do you stop something moving?' or 'Was World War II good or bad?' and then lets the kids go at it. He then reappears a little later with the questions 'Who was Isaac Newton?' and then 'What's the connection between Newton and stopping things moving?' which then leads the students to arrive at the laws of motion. 

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Our existing school system was originally built by the Victorians to clone officers for a colonizing mission but has no place in today's world of innovation and decentralised information consumption and dissemination

The key here is forcing a group of kids to share a computer rather than giving one to each since sharing foments disagreements, debates and a collaborative knowledge-seeking process which is usually far more effective than going at it solo—not that different from the collaborative philosophical enquiry that Socrates and his ilk pioneered many moons ago that is the purported bulwark of a good liberal arts education.

Mitra's contention is that much of the world is still mired firmly in an educational system that was spawned during the intersection of the Age of Empire and industrialization where places of work relied hugely upon the ability of workers to show up on time and not bunk work, be attentive and obey orders. Colonial officers who were dispatched to far flung places needed to have the same set of skills that the Empire could depend upon regardless of the colony they were being dispatched to, so cloning them through an effective educational system was an ingenious way to establish uniformity, predictability and therefore efficiency. 

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Sugata Mitra at one his 'Hole-in-the-Walls'

None of that has changed unfortunately, say many educators, which poses a gigantic problem in today's decentralized channels of information dissemination and consumption. Top-down systems no longer work, and if innovation and creativity are the essential criteria for economies of the future that spawn companies like Google and Apple this sort of education system is probably not going to produce them with any degree of consistency.

Yet, it all seems too good to be true—place four kids in front of a computer, introduce a profound-sounding problem and let the Einsteins emerge—and so, expectedly, Mitra has his fair share of detractors.

The fiercest of them is Donald Clark, an entrepreneur and educationalist, who has ripped into Mitra on seemingly any occasion he can find.  While he thinks Mitra is to be admired for certain things he says the hole-in-the-wall experiments are not just bogus but dangerous in raising false expectations. "The real danger is that we get carried away by under-researched 'feelgood' initiatives. Slumdog Millionaire is typical of the utopian nonsense that can emerge," says Clark who is siilarly scathing about MIT Media Lab star Nicholas Negroponte's education-related experiments.

The problems with hole-in-the-wall, says Clark, are manifold: Many locations have been simply vandalized, closed down or abandoned and were mostly used by boys to play games. The education there is basically of a low-level and not very challenging. Girls get elbowed out and bigger boys tend to dominate. Mitra's self-organised learning considers teachers 'invasive’', which could severely antagonise them. "Sugata Mitra is treated by the educational world as some sort of saint. Otherwise smart and reasonable people go gaga for Mitra. Hailed as the 'hole-in-the-wall hero', few question his questionable research or even more questionable recommendations,” he says.

The most serious of his claims is that Mitra fails to show data or research to bolster his claim, or research papers on his experiments that have been peer reviewed. It doesn't help that instead of rebutting Clark on his blog, Mitra somewhat petulantly says things like: "The above tirade made me really depressed. Maybe all my work is rubbish and I should let experts improve education for poor children, as they have done for hundreds of years in the past." 

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India's 140 million school children desperately need a better educational system

Of course, it would help Clark's case if he got his facts right.  On his blog, he says "few realise that hole-in-the-wall funding came originally from from NIIT then the International Finance Corporation, a commercial Indian e-learning company and the for-profit side of the World Bank. I know them well and believe me, this is no charitable institution." 

Apparently, he doesn't know them so well after all considering NIIT was founded decades ago by two Indian engineers and is in the education business and it is the International Finance Corp which is the for-profit arm of the World Bank. Nitpicking? Well, when you launch a campaign against someone with crusading zeal it would help to get your facts straight if you want people to buy into your critique.

Still, Clark's points are echoed by others who have tired of Mitra's hype. "Minimally invasive education skates the surface of understanding – it doesn't plumb the depths,” says Michelle Sowey on The Philosophy Foundation blog. "It’s limited, just as minimally invasive medicine is: X-rays don't pass through dense tissue; ultrasounds can't view past bone; keyhole surgery isn't always possible....Sometimes we need to be cut wide open,” she adds.

Instead both Clark and his fellow detractors feel that what children really need is an adult figure who can be a mediator, a critical guide to ensure bad content and counter-productive learning habits, both hallmarks of a digital era, can be avoided. Mitra's supporters feel that critics like Clark don’t understand the crisis of education in countries like India where there are practically no good teachers who are able and willing to teach in the hinterland.

So, is there a middle road, a place to reconcile Mitra's vision with Clark's critique into a powerful, new paradigm for teaching?

Wired magazine's superb piece documents what happened when a Mexican high school teacher in one of the country's most impoverished areas stumbled upon a video describing the works of Mitra. I won't spoil it completely for you in case you decide to read it but suffice it to say when Juárez Correa a high school teacher in a highly impoverished pary of Mexico stumbled upon one of Sugata's lectures and adopted his teaching methods it resulted in one of the most sensational end-results that I've ever heard of in the educational landscape.

From 45 percent of his class failing in the math section of the previous year's ENLACE—Mexico’s national achievement exam that all children have to take— to 31 percent flunking Spanish, now only 7 percent failed math and 3.5 percent in Spanish. And while no one got an 'Excellent' level score before, 63 percent now did in math. Do read the story.

India's 140 million school children rot for years in government schools without learning a thing (barely 50 percent of those who have spent five years in primary school have reached the 2nd grade level) and are practically un-employable when they reach adulthood. They are desperate for a messiah.

If Mitra's work can inspire such a messiah, as he did in Mexico, than maybe everyone needs to cut him a little more slack.

Here is Sugata Mitra’s much-seen TED talk from last year.

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