Two years ago, Salman Khan took the stage at TED and completely upended my sense of what is possible when it comes to innovation around education. Yesterday Sugata Mitra did that again. This year's TED Prize winner doesn't just turn our current model of education on its head. He blows it completely out of the water.
What if, instead of transferring content from teacher to student, the role of the teacher was to provoke students with questions and to encourage but not directly instruct? What if learning took place primarily in groups, as students worked together to uncover content and solve problems using the Internet? What if the teacher, rather than evaluating learning, focused on admiring findings? Moreover, since we live in an increasingly broadband connected world, what if the teacher sat in New York while his students sat in rural India?
In retrospect, some of Mitra's most fundamental ideas were right under my nose. As the mother of a 22 month old, I've spent the past six months consumed by preschool applications. When my husband and I researched different philosophies, we were drawn to the Reggio Emilia methodology. At the core of that approach is the view of the child as a capable, competent individual. The teacher serves as an experienced observer and guide. The curriculum emerges as educators respond to students' cues, leading and following in turn, down unexpected paths of interest. A rock discovered at the playground gives rise to an extended exploration of geology.
Emergent, child-centric preschool just makes common sense to my husband and me. Children are not just naturally curious; they are literally programmed to learn. A dynamic curriculum amplifies a child's natural learning modes, whereas a structure that forces all students to move from A to B ignores it. Motherhood has shown me how tremendously competent children can be. Yet, the vast majority of programs that adults have designed for kids grossly underestimate what they are capable of. To ensure that no one in the TED audience missed this point, Mitra's talk was bookended by a 12-year-old Kenyan inventor and a jaw dropping bluegrass performance by a 10 year old and his teenage siblings.
Mitra extends the ideas of competent children and emergent curricula beyond preschool and rethinks education to reflect the 21st century context. Two massive changes in particular distinguish today from the time when our current systems of education were designed during the British Empire: 1) much of the world's information is available via the Internet and 2) a child in rural India can connect to a teacher anywhere in the world. Sal Khan is taking the Internet and making lectures as scalable as textbooks, freeing up time in the classroom for hands on, interactive learning. Sugata Mitra suggests we should do away with lectures altogether and let the learning take place as groups of students embark on Internet-enabled adventures to themselves answer meaningful questions. Strikingly, Mitra prescribes a complete upheaval of education in an argument that is not only simple but also seemingly obvious in hindsight.
But an idea is the lesser ingredient to change; implementation is the larger challenge. What I find most compelling about Mitra's wish is not the persuasive and revolutionary nature of his ideas, but rather his approach to bringing his vision to life. He doesn't purport to hold a silver bullet for education. He doesn't ask the TED community to give him funding and support to scale his ideas. On the contrary, Mitra's wish is a call for experimentation. He wants to set up an India-based learning lab where he can test his approach; but his agenda for prototyping and testing doesn't stop there. He's also created a Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) toolkit, which enables schools, parents, and communities worldwide to experiment and learn from each other. This distributed method for prototyping and testing big ideas is an enormous idea in and of itself.
One person can't have all the answers to something this massive. But one can imagine that independent testers, each encountering different pieces of the puzzle, can start to put the big picture together. Along with every TEDster I've spoken to since Mitra's talk, I can't wait to see where this year's TED Prize winner leads us.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Three winning submissions will get to attend TED Youth 2013.