IATEFL 2014 Final Day Plenary: Sugatra Mitra

It’s the final morning of IATEFL (boo hiss!) and despite the general lack of sleep this week (oh well, can catch up when I’m dead!), here I am in the auditorium ready to hear what Sugatra Mitra has to say…

 Schools in the Cloud

A few things that we know and a few things that we don’t know and need to find out…

We know it’s difficult to get good teachers in remote places. You could treat it as obvious but there is some interesting data. A small experiment: to go out of New Delhi and drive into rural India, then every time a school is encountered, administer a basic government test of English, Maths and Science. The results were plotted against the distance from New Delhi. Why would the results come down as we go more into rural India? Asked the same question at each place: “Are you happy here or would you like to work somewhere else?” In Delhi, the answer is “happy here”, even happier in suburban New Delhi. 50 miles out of Delhi, still ok. 100 miles away, Delhi is getting a bit far away but still ok. 250 miles away, “anywhere but here”. So everyone tries to get a job in Delhi and the good teachers get the jobs. How to solve the problem? Pay teachers more if they work in remote places? The teachers who were 200 miles away said, “but what would I spend it on?” So they trained the teachers to make them really good – and off they went to Delhi! It’s a social problem.

Sugatra didn’t find the same results in the UK but if you look at the GCSE results, they are not uniform. What would explain the variation for this country? He took data from North East England and tried to look for correlations. Found that the density of council housing (lower cost housing from the Government) plotted against GCSE results shows that the higher the density, the poorer the results. If you talk to the teachers in these areas, they say the children are lovely but it’s not a very safe place to live and work in.  They too want to go – to a safer place.

Remoteness in India/Delhi was geographical, in the UK socioeconomic. There are areas all over the world that are remote for different reasons. Each of these suffer from inadequate schooling.

Can we solve the problem by taking the teacher out of the equation? Sugatra tried a simple experiment. Computers work the same way wherever they are. Whether in remote India or remote Britain, they would work the same way. A computer can’t replace a teacher.But a computer, whatever it can do for children, will do it to the same extent wherever it is. The question is, what can it do?

  • Groups of children can learn to use the internet on their own: in Delhi, only rich people’s children could attend expensive courses where Sugatra worked. And it was next to an urban slum. He used to wonder how many good programmers he was missing because there was nobody to teach them? So Sugatra wanted to find out what would happen if you gave a computer to these poor children? Shouldn’t someone show them what to do? No, because we don’t have anyone to do that. Not sustainable. So just gave it to them. So how do you give a computer to a slum? Sugatra followed the example of banks and stuck it into the wall. It was running windows, had an internet connection and was all in English. The children didn’t know any English, had never seen a computer before and didn’t know what the internet was. The children came and asked what it was but Sugatra didn’t tell them as this would be a point of intervention that couldn’t be replicable over the world or not sustainable. So he said “I don’t know.” Eight hours later, colleagues reported that the children were surfing and teaching each other how to surf.
  • This was back when computers were new. He repeated the experiment 200 miles from Delhi to a village with a school but no teachers. He put the computer in the hole in the wall. Came back in a couple of months and saw the children playing games on the computer. They requested a faster processor! How did they learn these words? When asked, they replied “you’ve given us this machine which works only in English so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it”.

What was causing this kind of self-taught English to happen?

It was happening because he/the teacher wasn’t there. Can a teacher being there stop the learning?

After that, Sugatra got some funding from the world bank and spent the next five years exploring the hole-in-the-wall computer: put them in different places and collected results for computer literacy against time. Groups of children, given access to the internet, and left unsupervised, will in a period of 9 months reach the same level of computer literacy as the average secretary in the west. This raised a few questions about training and the purpose of training…

The question in Sugatra’s mind was, “how does this happen with such completely replicable results?” He had no clue. The press called these experiments the hole-in-the-wall experiments. When you go around and see the kids doing something amazing, you ask them what you are doing, they stop and say “nothing”. An observer changes the result. A hidden video camera? Not ethical unless you tell them, and then they change their behaviour (make faces at the camera!). So cannot say “how” they are doing it, only what.

So he started asking them to do things.


Sugatra: There’s something called a quadratic equation.

Children: How do you spell it?

S: I don’t know. <goes away>

25 minutes later, the children tell him about quadratic equations.


Hyderabad, 2002. 

Children were learning English, knew English, from local teachers. The teachers had a strong accent, so the children who learnt here came up against barriers when trying to get a job, due to their strong accent. How to improve your pronunciation in the slums of Hyderabad? Sugatra gave them a computer with a speech to text programme, Dragon. It was new then. You speak into the computer and it types out what you said – if it understands you. They tried it and it produced complete nonsense. He told them he’d leave it there for 2 months and they had to make themselves understood by it. They asked how. Having perfected the pedagogical technique, he said “I don’t know!”

2 months later: Asked one of the children, “How are you?” and he replied “Fantastic!” They had downloaded the speaking Oxford dictionary. You type a word in it and the dictionary speaks it back to you. They listened to it and tried mimicking it with Dragon. The project showed that learners, if they have no choice, will invent pedagogy. (Without baggage – they don’t know who Piaget is!)

Is there anything that DOESN’T happen by itself?

Research question: Can Tamil-speaking children in a remote village learn the biotechnology of how stem cell reproduces, using a hole-in-the-wall computer?

So Sugatra inputted some data into the computer on molecular biology from a western college. The 12-year old children wondered if it was a new game. He said it wasn’t a game but an important subject. That it’s exciting and interesting but will be lost on you. I’ll be back in a couple of months to see what you can do. They said “It’s all in English and has big science words in it, how can we understand it?” Sugatra said, “I told you, you can’t.” and left.

2 months later, he went back and found that they had been looking at the material every day. And they said, well apart from “biotechnological sentence”, we haven’t understood anything else. They had got from 5% to 30% in the 2 months, from pre-test to post-test. How to get the marks up (In biotechnology and English) another 20 notches. He got someone to use the grandmother technique – stand behind them and ask them how they managed to do each thing, how wonderful it is etc. Admiration as an educational method. This went for 2 more months.

2 months later: results had gone up to 50%.

This is not learning the way we understand it. There is something else happening, a new mechanism. Sugatra published the results and got a massive response ranging from “This is very interesting” to “this is rubbish”. Then some people wanted him to try the hole-in-the-wall experiment in England. He objected – the children would freeze…

But he turned the hole-in-the-wall inside out. Take a classroom of 20 or 30 children and shut down the computers until you have one computer for every 4 or 5 children (same size of groups as clustered in India). The children would start clustering and talking to each other, so you give them something absurd to. An absurd problem.

E.g. with 12 year olds. I’m going to ask you a question that not many people know the answer to. “Why is it that most men can grow a moustache but most women cannot?”  Within 30 to 40 minutes, they have gone deep into the science behind it. It’s a big question, not a small question. The answer stretches across the curriculum. This kind of big question is what you need to trigger this.

This became known as a “Self-organised learning environments”: Sugatra looked at the whole thing through a physics lens (his background) and this is what he saw.

We know Teachers can be ‘beamed’ to other places using the Internet. Sugatra formed “The Granny Club” – volunteers who give up an hour a week to talk to children around the world. This is the current experiment.

But we don’t know if children can learn to read by themselves. Sugatra is running experiments on this currently but it’s early days…

Curricula around the world need to be revised to include the internet

Sugatra argues that this needs to happen. Pedagogy also needs to make use of the internet. Use the problem-solving method, using collaboration for problem-solving and decision-making. Bring the internet into the examination hall. Of course the exam papers will have to change and the teaching will have to change. The current system is preparing students for dead employers – it looks like olden days… The current system is obsolete. So it’s time for change.



9 thoughts on “IATEFL 2014 Final Day Plenary: Sugatra Mitra

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