Letting Learning Happen

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

Worldwide, The Economist recently reported, "schools... are caught up in a global battle of ideas. In many countries education is at the forefront of political debate, and reformers desperate to improve their national performance are drawing examples of good practice from all over the world."

Why now, they asked rhetorically?

Because the new global technology-driven economy has made the whole system of education, not broken, but obsolete. That was the overriding conclusion of Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University (UK), whose idea of a "School in the Cloud" was awarded the TED Prize of $1 million this week to make his wish come true: "To design the future of learning by supporting children to tap into their innate sense of wonder."

Mitra's concern echoed that of former Education Secretary Richard Riley, who said several years ago, people will "have 10 to 14 jobs by age 38.. .and that, "the top 10 jobs that will be in demand (don't yet exist but will require) "technologies that haven't been invented. In order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."

Given the proliferation of the Internet, cloud computing, and the computerization of news archives and libraries available on the World Wide Web, literally thousands of references are available at the click of a mouse. The challenge today is not acquiring information, or memorizing it. Rather, it is determining which information is relevant. What do our young people need to know and why, in this new, global, technology-driven world?

Mitra's findings, after almost a decade of experimentation with the poorest of the poor in the slums of India, were that something radical had to occur. His idea simply is to "let learning happen," to develop self-organizing learning systems to take place where the teacher asks the right question but only the student, in collaboration with other students, finds the answer or answers. Mitra, quoting science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clark, who just happened to write about "synchronizing orbits" and gave birth to the scientific discovery of satellite communications: "If children have interest, education happens."

A fact of life in the 21st century is that technology has moved faster than anyone imagined. Unless we use technology to reinvent our current systems of education, we all will suffer as more and more people are left behind the learning curve, and left behind the mainstream of world economic development. Mitra's idea is to create a "school in the cloud" accessible by anyone in the world where the "toolkit" for creating self-organizing learning environments (SOLE's) can be downloaded.

The challenge, as he sees it, is to have teachers, educators, businesses and governments everywhere in the world think about how they might help, what they think young people need to know and what questions to pose; how, in short, to create the toolkit for others to use, and to bring the self organizing and learning habits to fruition.

This approach clearly represents a revolution in education. But as Mitra has discovered, students actually like this learning method. They want to be challenged, have the opportunity to be listened to and to be admired. It gives them the incentive to explore, to wonder, to imagine... in short to learn how to learn, and to think. As Casey Stengel was fond of saying, perhaps prophetically, "You can look it up." Little did he know that "knowing" can now be achieved by looking almost anything up on Google or one of the other search engines.

What we need to do is make learning "pleasurable" -- not threatening as most testing is -- and something young people want to do, not must do. We need to encourage them to take the lead and be in charge of their own learning.

Given the need to educate millions, perhaps billions, who would otherwise remain ignorant of what is happening in our world today, there may be no alternative other than Mitra's self organizing approach, and a form of cyber learning... learning by using the tools of the new technologies.

As globalization spreads, it is imperative that we not only close the "digital divide" in hardware and infrastructure, but also use technology to dramatically confront the world illiteracy problem in developing nations today. A fact of life is that in many parts of the world, systems of education either do not exist or girls, for example, are not allowed to get an education.

A form of cyber education -- using computers, broadband, collaboration and environments that encourage and enhance self-learning -- may be the only alternative to providing the basic skills for economic survival. Yes, it will take time for the toolkit to be fully developed, and to get businesses to step up to the plate, to get parents, teachers, and politicians on board. But we must take the first step in this journey to transform the way young people, young people all over the world, learn.

Two of the eight Millennium Development goals adopted by the UN Millennium Summit in 2000 focus on education, but the goals -- for all children to complete primary school, and to achieve gender equality at all levels of education by 2015 -- will not be achieved. And as Mitra suggests, the goal itself may not be realistic either.

The world needs a comprehensive solution, a Cloud-like School portal now, and it needs the attention, support and commitment of more global corporations, government and the larger philanthropic community.

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.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.