Asking Ourselves the Big Questions in Education

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

We believe the Internet can provide a platform for engaging in rich learning, for sparking in children and adults alike a sense of wonder and a feeling of connection to the broader world. The Internet allows for unprecedented exploration and collaboration opportunities that are not constrained by geography and time. We are excited that Dr. Sugatra Mitra has won the 2013 TED prize by trusting and unleashing the power of the greatest learning tool invented, the Internet, to light a fire of learning in young minds.

Children and their sense of wonder are far too often limited by circumstances beyond their control -- such as where they live, their family's socio-economic status, their gender or skin color or language spoken in their home. We know that our children are (and that we all are) more than the sum of our circumstantial parts. All have potential, imagination, hopes, beliefs, strengths, and goals -- but, often because of circumstances, not all can actualize and achieve them.

Dr. Mitra believes that all kids, rich or poor, urban or rural, have an innate curiosity and wonder about the world. He believes that wonder can be harnessed towards collaborative, self-directed, and powerful learning experiences, further enhanced by the use of technology. We wholeheartedly agree, and we are pleased that TED awarded him for his Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) project.

The SOLE project is not, as Dr. Mitra declares, new pedagogy; thousands of years ago, Socrates guided students towards learning through a similarly intensive, inquiry-based process. Of course, asking the right "big questions" is key, as is ensuring that students have sufficient supports to pursue them. This prompts us to reflect on fundamental "big questions" in education, such as how to ensure equitable access to high-quality teaching and learning for all students.

Recognizing that learning can and does take place anytime of day, anywhere, Dr. Mitra questions whether our present-day, inflexible education system can adequately prepare children for the future, which will likely continue to integrate ever-changing technologies into our lives. We share his doubts. He is also critical of the cookie-cutter approach to education, in which all students are expected to learn the same things, in order to perpetuate the "bureaucratic administrative machine," and asserts that what children need most is consistent affirmation of their own curiosity as they learn. While we truly appreciate these sentiments, they also give us pause.

We believe in holding high and consistent expectations for all students, regardless of where and how they live. While we agree that supporting children's freedom of inquiry and sense of wonder can and does lead to extraordinarily deep learning, we also believe in the power of a good teacher and of standards of excellence.

When children are less engaged, when life interrupts their curiosity in one of so many possible ways, when a student needs more than encouragement to proceed, a good teacher is invaluable. We believe strongly in the power of relationships, and not only the ones between peers. Like Dr. Mitra, we do not think the model of a teacher being a sage on the stage makes sense any more -- but we cannot in good faith abandon the teacher as guide and mentor, as a facilitator of learning. We worry that volunteers who live in the cloud -- no matter how sweet, smart, or well-meaning - might not establish the kind of sustained relationships that are essential to developing habits of ongoing, lifetime learning. We know firsthand that good intentions alone won't ensure excellence in education, that clear expectations and quality standards are key, and that we all need mentors to challenge and support our learning. How a person -- whether it be a teacher, a parent, or a "granny in the cloud" -- frames and scaffolds the inquiry process for students matters. There are many students who are self directed and can function with little guidance, but that does not describe all children. Many benefit from guidance, support and an on-going relationship in learning. While we think SOLE can be incredible for a great number of students, many will do better with a more supported inquiry process.

As educators and parents, we marvel at the bold, inquisitive, and playful spirits that preschoolers bring to the world; and we observe with heavy hearts that many become increasingly disengaged, timid, and unhappy as they advance through their years at school. Like Dr. Mitra, we want all children to embark on exciting "intellectual adventures driven by big questions" that "tap into their wonder and their ability to work together." We applaud Dr. Mitra's inspiring vision and work, and we also recognize that there is more to improving education than SOLE. We want to ensure that all children, wherever they are in location or status, have access to motivating teachers and excellent learning -- and we are committed to staying engaged in and focused on the difficult "big questions" in education to work towards that end.

TED and The Huffington Post invite you to take the SOLE Challenge, a unique contest in which we're asking teachers and parents to create child-centered learning labs in their homes and schools. Write an 800 to 1,000 word blog post on your experiences and send it to Three winning submissions will get to attend TED Youth 2013.

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