Can Children Teach Themselves?


Can Children Teach Themselves?

Sugata Mitra gave street kids in a slum in New Delhi access to a computer connected to the Internet, and found that they quickly taught themselves how to use it. This was the moment he says he discovered a new way of teaching.

He calls it the grandmother technique*, and it goes like this: expose a half dozen or so kids to a computer, and let them have at it. The only supervision required is an adult to listen the kids brag about what they learn. It’s the opposite, he says, of the disciplinary ways of many parents—more like a kindly grandmother, who rewards curiosity with acceptance and encouragement. And it is a challenge to the past century and a half of formalized schooling.
Last night Mitra won the $1 million TED Prize for his work. He will use the money to establish a lab in New Delhi that will put his ideas of a "School in the Cloud" to the test. The lab will be set up as a kind of cyber café, where 48 kids at any one time can go to learn English, considered in India to be key to any child's future. Volunteer “grandmothers”* — retired school teachers, for the most part—will participate via Skype to lend guidance. The cyber café will serve as a lab to see how self-organized learning can be scaled globally. “I want to see if this is feasible,” he says. “What are the technical problems, what are the management problems? If it works, we'll have a technique that will level the playing field, and that is the big missing piece.”

Self-organized learning is potentially disruptive to traditional education in the west, and in talking about it Mitra has alienated some teachers. For now, he's keeping to the developing world, and to the teaching of English.
* Sid and Shanarri wouldn't approve.