The Power of Encouragement As a Force for Learning

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

As an educator and founder of a nonprofit education institute, I believe, as does recent TED Prize winner, educator Sugata Mitra, that we are better off creating conditions to "let learning happen" rather than creating rigid structures that favor rote learning, teaching to tests, or standardized instruction.

In line with the principle that you get the outcome you design for, Mitra's approach is refreshingly on target. If we want different results, we must change the way we do things. Rather than reiterating the common refrain that education is broken, Mitra contends that the education system itself is not broken, but that it is in fact, wonderfully constructed. And that the real problem is that we just do not need it anymore, or rather, it is outdated for the needs of today.

To critics who suggest Mitra is anti-teacher, it is not that he is throwing out the proverbial baby (teachers), with the bathwater (a rigidly designed educational system) by proposing to place the school in the cloud. His point is that we must redefine the role of teachers not as experts or gurus but instead as mentors and guides. The "grannies" in the cloud (volunteer grandmothers on Skype) whom Sugata has enlisted for mentoring young learners in India are encouragement and validation providers. In this way, it is the community that supports the success of learning, in an environment where the students themselves have self-organized due to the proximity of said structure (i.e., Hole in the Wall), or while in self-organized collaboration with their peers.

However, replacing the bathwater requires an entirely new set of conditions. It requires a connection to the Internet; freely available learning resources in a language the students can understand or learn (i.e., Wikipedia, OER Commons); collaborative tools to create and share learning; and support from other student peers, teachers, and mentors. Most importantly, Sugata's Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) overrides the traditional competitive learning confines of the classroom with a globally connected learning community that fosters positive support for universal excellence.

This is the genius of Mitra's work: It recognizes the power of encouragement as a force for learning. Great teachers have recognized this truth, and now, by leveraging the connectivity brought about by the Internet, through content that is openly available, and by those willing to help champion the learning efforts of our students, anything is possible.

Mitra's research, which is based on several years of testing and refining the cloud-based learning prototype, has further demonstrated the phenomenal power of pursuing a simple idea that turns a centuries-old model of learning upside down. By asking children big questions and allowing them to answer these questions in this environment with a newly configured set of supports, he uncovers the innate love of and ability to learn that we all share.

As a former professor who struggled with the growing legion of students who appeared to be more motivated by wanting to know how they would be ensured an "A", or by wanting to know precisely what was on a test -- rather than by their desire to learn -- I applaud Mitra's work because it introduces a potentially powerful and radical reform of education in the 21st century. His method continues the democratization trend engendered by Internet technologies, which have helped overturn governments as well as transformed publishing, music, and now medicine. It is about time we liberate learners everywhere from the confines of traditional classroom teaching and learning.

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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