Self Organized Learning (Re)Discovered—Million Dollar Prize Awarded

This is a complex story with a lot of angles: self-directed learning, technology in the classroom, Montessori rediscovered yet again, education for very poor children, TED, and lots more.  And, because it is strongly pro-computer and takes Montessori for granted, it’s going to irritate some people.  But hear me out.

Education researcher Sugata Mitra (website, Wiki*) has been awarded the one million dollar 2013 TED Prize to fund development of a “School in the Cloud,” based on what he calls Self Organized Learning Experiences, or SOLEs.  He has challenged parents and teachers to implement document, and submit their SOLEs.  Three winning submissions will receive a weekend trip to the TED Youth  conference in November.

Mitra, a scientist and education researcher, is known for his Hole-in-the-Wall (website, Wiki*)experiments and later work in self-directed learning among children aged 8 to 12.  Here’s what he did.

In 1999, while working for an IT training company in New Dehli, Mitra, curious about technological literacy in very poor Indian children, cut a hole in the wall of his office facing into the adjoining slum, and installed a computer, a trackpad, and a video camera.  He was astonished to observe children spontaneously working in groups to become fluent internet navigators without being taught by adults.  He has since replicated and extended the experiment in hundreds of locations around the world, observing children learning computer skills, teaching themselves English, finding and using information from internet sources, and exploring motivating and open-ended questions such as “Do fish feel pain?” and “What is altruism?”

Mitra has made some observations which will be familiar to Montessori teachers. Children in the experiments:

  • displayed spontaneous activity, self-educating themselves without prompting
  • naturally formed groups to work together
  • worked better when the number of computers was limited and sharing was necessary

The experiment worked best:

  • with children aged 8 to 12
  • when children had freedom to move around their environment, to choose their own groups, and to collaborate
  • with a supportive adult who gave encouragement but not direct instruction

Now I know you’re all saying, “Great! He rediscovered Montessori philosophy and the second plane, but with the internet instead of the Great Lessons!”  But let’s keep a couple of things in mind.

First, one of Mitra’s key early insights was this: “There are places on earth where, for various reasons good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or don’t want to go.” We’re not anywhere close to sending an army of Montessori elementary teachers to those places, and if those children can have authentic self-directed learning experiences now, while they’re still children, I’m all for it.

Second, if there is solid research showing that what we do works, and a million dollar prize for it makes the news, I’m all for that, too.

That’s enough for today.  I encourage you to check out Mitra and his TED talks.  Tomorrow I’ll post about how Montessorians can get involved.

TED 2007 •  TED 2010 • TED 2013

* The Wikipedia articles are not up to the usual standard for the site, but they’re a good place to get started.

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