Back to the Future

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

Sugata Mitra's inspiration offers promise in returning learning to what humans are programmed for.

And that is not what we today think of as "school." The books-and-blackboards model of education will always be most productively engaged by students of two sorts.

One is the middle-class child from a quiet, book-lined home, in which concentration in solitude is drunk in from toddlerhood.

The other is the child of driven immigrant families, uniquely dedicated to their children's making the most of the new circumstances.

For all we hear about those two kinds of children in the media, they are but a subset of what young humanity consists of. Too much of the other subset is underserved by educational techniques of another age.

To be sure, there was a time when books and blackboards was the best one could do.

Yet the fact has always been that the page -- and listening to someone talk about what is on it -- is an unnatural way to teach a human something. Only so many have ever been good at it or liked it.

Think about how few people on a train or plane today are reading, as opposed to talking on the phone or watching a movie.

I know someone with an undiagnosed reading disability. For him, text is for utilitarian purposes only; meaningful communication is through the ear.

Watching how eagerly he has snapped up audiobooks, bought his first cell phone earlier than most, and rarely sends emails, it has occurred to me that his linguistic life is ultimately more normal, as humans go, than the print-focused one most people reading this are familiar with.

Fundamentally, language is speech -- not symbols on a page. Fundamentally, learning is doing -- not memorizing sequences of statements coded as symbols on a page.

Learning as doing was how humans learned worldwide until just some thousands of years ago when writing was invented. The Incas and the Aztecs constructed sophisticated civilizations without writing of any kind.

True, to perform such modern post-Incan tasks as calculus, at a certain point you have to go off by yourself with a piece of paper. Yet it bears mentioning in light of Professor Mitra's model's that college students have made great gains in calculus by working in groups, as work by Uri Treisman has shown.

In any case, we are all familiar with the saying that ultimately you learn by doing. The question is whether that ethos is useful earlier in the learning process as well as after it, and the SOLE discovery is showing that it is.

The SOLE model also lessens something else that hinders learning worldwide: linguistic shame. Probably most children on earth grow up using a dialect or even a language at home different from the one textbooks are written in. In practice, this means that students are expected to learn in a context where they are also taught to avoid using the speech they find most natural.

The Jamaican is not to speak patois in school, the student in India is not to use his local dialect of Hindi or Tamil, the African is not to use his local language.

Under the SOLE model, real learning happens between the kids in real language. Learning works better without shame.

Mitra's model reminds me of my Montessori education. From kindergarten through sixth grade, every day I chose what I wanted to do, and held it and touched it. School was a cafeteria.

As a result, thinking stuff up and sharing it with people feels more natural to me, I sense, than it does to many. Yet Montessori also gets me to questions about the Mitra approach.

Montessori worked better for the middle-class kid from a schoolish home setting. Mitra's videos are adorable, but is every child really drawn to learning for learning's sake? What about the ones beyond the camera frame? Mitra tells us that curiosity pulses through the brains of all children, and we all hope it does -- but does anyone know that it does?

Or, one must also consider the narcotic but transitory nature of novelty. Educators are familiar with the Hawthorne effect, where shiny new approaches lose their benefit after they stop being shiny and new. Can the SOLE effect actually ground an education, as opposed to anecdotes? I hope we find that it can.

But then, what about kids for whom computers are as familiar as sofas? I may lack imagination, but I wonder if white kids on the Upper West Side in New York could be so transfixed by laptop prompts that they would mutually work out the mechanisms of photosynthesis.

But that's just me, and here's hoping that Professor Mitra's approach puts paid to my worries and brings the whole world's children into a new one.

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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