Mitra, S. (2014, April). The future of learning. Plenary given at 48th Annual International IATEFL Conference, International Association of Teaching English as a Foreign Language, Harrogate, England.
Mitra’s plenary shook things up. Passionate Twitter comments applauded for and reeled from research that shows that groups of children can learn most things on their own. Mitra is changing traditional learning-cultures and examining autonomous and collaborative learning outside schools.
Mitra showed that children’s test results decreased as distance from Delhi increased. Many factors were constant: school funding, buildings, and quantity of teaching. But Mitra questioned the quality of teaching. Mitra asked teachers, “Would you like to work somewhere else?” In Delhi, teachers were happy; 100 miles away, teachers wanted to move closer to Delhi; and 250 miles away, teachers answered “Anywhere but here”. Good teaching is rare in remote places. Throughout the world, test-results decrease as remoteness increases (e.g. socio-economic- and ethnical-remoteness). Good teachers and less-able teachers who up-skill, migrate to better contexts. Mitra experimented with removing teachers from learning contexts.
However computers affect learning, computers will affect learning in similar ways in different contexts. So in 1999, Mitra installed computers for dis-advantaged children in India. To keep conditions constant, Sugata provided no adult guidance. After nine months, children had learned computer literacy skills and functional English. Children learned autonomously and collaboratively when teachers were not present. In two months, other children learned English pronunciation, and other children learned advanced molecular biology of genetics, going from 0% to 30% in pre- and post-tests. Observation changes children’s learning behavior, so Mitra recruited a ‘grandmother’ who merely observed and admired, supplying comments such as “Fantastic!” In two months, the children’s understanding of molecular biology improved to 50% in post-testing. In England, groups of children cluster around computers to solve deep cross-curricular questions like “Why is it that almost all men can grow a mustache but most women cannot?” In our digital-world, children can learn most things by themselves, but in autonomous and collaborative ways.
Mitra examines phenomena as theoretical physicist. In the Theory of Chaos, things remain constant in Ordered Systems, and things are random in Chaotic Systems. But where Ordered and Chaotic Systems meet, Self Organizing Systems occur and order appears out of disorder. Mitra creates Self Organized Learning Environments (with beamed in ‘grandmas’) to facilitate children’s autonomous and collaborative learning.
Children need internet access, big interesting question and room to learn in autonomous and collaborative ways. In our assessment-driven educational-cultures, changing assessments could instigate changing questions, curricula, pedagogy, teaching, and learning!