In 2006, a university professor in India named Professor Sugata Mitra decided to try an experiment. On a wall of his office, which overlooked a slum, he installed a computer that was connected to the Internet. He left it there so that children could use it as they wished. In subsequent years he repeated this experiment in some 20 communities in the country, and after refining the model, applied it in several other countries. “The adventure of children who learn on their own” is the title of an inspirational video on TED, where you can learn first-hand the details of this experience.
The results were wonderful and interesting. Children learn by themselves, without adult assistance. Motivated by posing questions and by the possibility of examining, investigating, and discovering, children learn. It’s hard to believe, but it works. The same Sugata Mitra has popularized a lucid phrase by Arthur Clarke: “If a teacher can be replaced by a computer, the teacher should be replaced.” In other words, where there are good teachers, excellent. Where there are no teachers, or where they are not good, technology can be an indispensable means for producing significant learning. And not through the technologies themselves, but through their potential to bring about new pedagogical processes.
This week Sugata Mitra participated in a seminar in Chile. There I had the honor to make a presentation and participate in a roundtable discussion in which we delved into the meaning of his work and his perspectives on education in Chile and Latin America.
There are four aspects that I believe are contained in Mitra’s proposal of a “minimally invasive education,” which are as follows:
1. Focus on students and how they learn: Do not lose sight of the fact that education is about every child and for providing the space and learning experiences that enable them to develop their enormous potential. Trust in children; give them opportunities.
2. Renew the enchantment with learning: Restore the enthusiasm, interest, the intrinsic motivation of students; let them express and discover, create and communicate. Spark their curiosity, let them try, let them fail, let them find paths.
3. Ubiquity: Realize that education is not something that happens in classrooms, but rather throughout everyone’s lives, and especially children; and that it is part of our daily existence 24 hours a day and throughout the year. The world, the cities, the media, the neighborhoods, are all full of missed educational opportunities. Education is not a time during the day. It is an attitude for interacting with the world and with others.
4. Technologies make these changes possible: While they themselves do not make a difference and create change, they give us the excuses and opportunities to change, to apply tools that meet the educational needs of specific students, to excite each student involved, to be present in every space and every moment.
I believe that such experiences can provide opportunities in Latin America in at least four situations:
1. In remote or rural areas where there are no schools or teachers.
2. By providing flexible forms of instruction where there are schools, but where students―and especially secondary-age youths―leave school or are denied access to schools.
3. Where there are schools and students who attend them, but where the quality of education is deficient. For example, the difficulty in our continent of teaching mathematics, science, and English is well known.
4. Where adults (over age 18) who dropped out of school can receive a second chance to achieve educational levels that will open up opportunities.
We must thank the CETHUMS Foundation for the gift it gave to Chile and to the hundreds of participants in the seminar this past Friday, and for inviting Professor Mitra to share his experience and findings. We face an urgent challenge to find different paths and to foster innovation and change for providing quality education to all children, especially those who have fewer opportunities.