In the most destitute slums of India, many children lack any formal education. Where schooling is available, the classes are enormous, spanning young and older pupils and offering little one-to-one attention. It’s an unlikely source of inspiration for a teaching method to boost attainment, self-confidence and behavior in Britain’s classrooms. But, then again, Sugata Mitra has never been one to follow established educational philosophy.
Mitra is the man behind the Hole in the Wall learning project, in which he installed computers with Internet connection in New Delhi slums for local children to discover. He found that the children began to teach themselves English, computing and math, just a month after starting to use the PCs. The project inspired Vikas Swarup’s Q&A, the novel that became the film Slumdog Millionaire.
Like the film, Mitra’s project has since found massive success: There are more than 500 PCs in walls across India and Africa. Now, as professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, Mitra is turning his eye to Britain.
Working with eight- to 12-year-olds at schools across Tyneside in northeast England, he is helping them to use computers to carry out “self-activated learning” in the classroom.
“Having watched hundreds of Indian children learning without teachers at the Hole in the Wall computers, it became obvious that all children can work by themselves, if they want to,” Mitra says.
“Most British children grow up with the Internet and have the means to learn what they want in minutes, and this challenges the traditional idea of school being about learning things that will come in handy in the future. They become disengaged,” he says.
Mitra is not alone in noticing this problem. John Dunford, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, last week told the group’s annual conference that computer games and Web sites have made children impatient and harder to motivate.
But Mitra thinks he has found a solution, with Hole in the Wall.
“It proved that if you encourage individual learning, and give children interesting questions to look into independently, the learning process is sparked by curiosity,” he says.
With that in mind, he is working with three schools — White Mere community primary and St Aidan’s Church of England primary in Gateshead and Bedlington community high school — to encourage children in school years four to seven to become partial autodidacts.
On each visit, Mitra asks students to divide into small groups to answer GCSE-level science questions on topics such as how animals adapt to their environments and how the human body works. The children can change groups at any time, look at what other groups are doing, chat and freely use computers. The effects, as recorded by the teachers, are astonishing.
Asked “why do we slip on wet surfaces?” pupils initially looked confused. But 15 minutes later, their answers ranged from “because friction occurs when two surfaces meet and there’s little friction on wet surfaces,” to a complicated discussion of traction.
“If you give children time to investigate an answer, it’s surprising what they can learn,” Mitra says. “Instead of guessing, they do their own research and acquire an advanced, university-style of learning. The children have a common goal and bounce ideas off each other — in the friction session, for example, they started to discuss everyday examples, such as tires, snow chains, carpet burns and Olympic swimmers’ shaved bodies.”