IATEFL 2014: Q and A with Sugata Mitra – Saturday 17.00 BST: a summary

At 17.00 BST (18.00 Palermo time!), the Q and A session with Sugata Mitra took place. Questions had been sent in advance of this session, and these appeared in turn on the slides, for Mitra to answer. I attempted to make notes during the session and here is what I managed to catch:

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Slide one


a)If you look at the paper, which was written in 2005, it describes quite carefully what the measurements are. There *is* more than anecdotal evidence. The paper was peer reviewed internationally and got a prize for the best paper of 2005 from the American Educational Research Association.


b)With regards to the second question, Mitra doesn’t have all the answers. What he is going to measure are improvements in reading comp, searching skills on the internet and self-confidence. There are indications, purely anecdotal, that there are, but these won’t be accepted until there are some results.

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Slide 2


He would love to see State involvement and indeed states across the world, U.S., U.K, India, has shown positive response. He has preliminary results and it would be great if the state as well as the private sector joined in.

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Slide 3


Mitra is not sure what they mean by wider approach, but likes the first part – 60% out of school factors, 20% teaching, 20% personal – but would like to capture that 60% and bring it into school. One needs to identify what that 60% is, where it comes from and whether it should be brought into school and if so in what way

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Slide 4


a) Of course they would have learnt better from a good teacher but they didn’t have teachers so two options either learn nothing at all or learn by themselves. Nothing great, a smattering of a few words that they could use, but they could read webpages, needs further investigation

b) Parents sent their children to a system which is driven by examinations in almost all countries, so as a parent you want your child prepared for those examinations. The average parent, particularly in India, is more interested in better marks than confidence etc. Until benchmarks change, why would parents want a SOLE? Is for teachers and educators to bring in SOLES, to help children in critical thinking and creative thinking.

c) Financial interests – have been funded by several sources: World Bank, NIT (private company) and a few others. Corporate social responsibility. Mitra’s work shows that you need fewer computers not more.


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Slide 5


FIrst of all, you must understand that if an experiment result says that children can learn by themselves, that doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t required. These are two different sentences. The two don’t equate. If we have teachers, we can get excellent results. We don’t have enough teachers. When would you use a remote method/self-organised? When the existing method is insufficient or not of good quality.


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Slide 6


It’s true. I’ve given this kind of talk hundreds of times over, in all continents, so why did Harrogate give such a strong response? Three possibilities. Harrogate mainly consisted of teachers of EFL. So 1) Teachers of EFL are much more inclined to look for hard evidence than all other teachers int he world put together 2) Teachers of EFL did not actually read the scientific evidence and without reading it wanted to hear it, and there wasn’t enough time for this in the conference. 3) Teachers of EFL have a sense of insecurity in their roles and therefore react strongly to any possibility that threatens their role.

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Slide 7


a) It’s not a question of believing, whoever makes an app tests and measures how it performs against a taught course. If it performs well, then it may be used. If it doesn’t compete well with a good teacher but still produces some learning outcomes then it can still be useful in contexts where a good teacher is not available.

b) Yes of course. (I missed some of this answer!)


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Slide 8


The Granny Cloud makes it possible to bring a certain level of teaching to areas where there is nothing else available.

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Slide 9


If you have a class of 30 children and you were a good teacher, and you taught something, some would learn it well, some wouldn’t at all and some would be in the middle. This applies also to hole-in the walls. The gang-pecking order was sorted out by the children themselves. The older girls would take charge and bring in a certain amount of admin and management, to bring order to the hole in the wall. Everybody does not benefit equally, just as they don’t in the formal system.

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Slide 10


I’m just one person, and Pakistan is one of many countries which haven’t been included. I want to go to as many as I can and I will try to do that depending on availability of time.

It’s not just a question of the mother tongue itself, but any language that you learn. It gives you a picture of another cultural way of thinking which is not there in your own language. If you learn English, you learn a certain way of thinking, if you learn Urdu on top of that, you learn another way of thinking. Three would be ideal – English, mother tongue and another language – but this is not easy to do. On a practical note, if getting a  job is important, in the world today knowing reasonably good English will help.


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Slide 11


Firstly, SOLEs are not done in computer rooms. Computer rooms are rooms where computers are lined up against the wall and children use them one-on-one. In a SOLE, children make their own groups, can make or break groups, can move from group to group, can answer the question, can play games, can share information between each other. Webquests and SOLEs are different.

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Slide 12


Are there children who don’t learn in groups and learn better by themselves? Should you encourage this kind of learning or try to get them into groups? I don’t have an answer to this, but suggest you consult the learner. If they prefer to work by themselves let them, but they don’t reach the same breadth of information as the groups. The individual learner tends to have looked at one aspect while the others have gone all over the place.


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Slide 13


This is pretty serious stuff. How sustainable is it? As sustainable as the people who make it I guess. Sustainability was not my objective in the first few years, I only wanted to see what children can learn by themselves. I’m looking to see if SOLEs will be sustainable and wonder what the situation will be 10 years down the line, will they still exist?

There indicated results that it could be used at all levels of instruction. Don’t you increasingly turn to your tablet to answer something that several of you are arguing about? SOLE is not about the computer room.

The teacher’s role is not that of content provider. Does it hurt if the teacher has content knowledge? I don’t have the answer. But it can hurt because some teachers have a very fixed opinion of what their subject should look like that it can hurt the process. <Mitra provides an example of this> You have to be a friend, not a guide or a sage.

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Slide 14


Critical thinking and problem-solving are obviously at the heart of learning, past or future, except for one area: the military. They are understood in a very narrow context in the case of the military. Our educational system has a few leftovers from this and we have to get over that. Critical thinking and problem solving will dictate whether you can fit into a job in the future, it’s as important as that.

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Slide 15


a) The non-intervention decision was not only for the research. Let’s suppose if I had made one intervention and said “this is how you use the touchpad”. Imagine making that method global. You’d need millions of teachers worldwide to replicate that. And you’d be back to the same problem. I decided to make it intervention free, as then what little it could do, it could do everywhere.

b) It;s difficult to say, when you’re talking about 12-13yr olds, the most important thing is to keep motivation going. I find that if you say surprise me, I think you’re very good, they go very far in trying to surprise you. You have to be careful with duration. I think 45mins is maximum, 15-20 for an easier question. Or interest will be lost.

c) You’re assuming the granny isn’t an expert teacher, but the cloud contains many experienced, expert teachers.

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Slide 16


We’ve been discussing this quite a few times. The teacher is no longer someone imparting information/knowledge. Mainly because we’ve managed to create an environment where uni-directional export of information is not required. We should be proud of that, that children can find out things for themselves. Should there be someone around? Of course, to encourage them, to admire them, to ask them questions. An adult friend. When negotiating the internet, comforting for groups of children to know there is somebody they can turn to.

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Slide 17


I, too, have a bit of a confusion about the role of the granny cloud on the one hand and SOLEs on the other hand. This is quite important. You can have a SOLE in a place with no school/teachers or a place with a good school/teachers. The Granny cloud has two different contexts: a place with no teachers and no facilities for learning or in a location where there is a good school/teachers. So four situations. I think that this will give rise to four or five different combinations, each with a different purpose. In a remote area with no school, a SOLE with a Granny cloud, this is better than nothing. What about in England, where there is a great school? I don’t know. Remains to be answered.

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Slide 18


There are two websites: http://www.theschoolinthecloud.org and http://www.solesandsomes.wikispaces.com. The latter (wikispaces) site came first and is amateurish, while the former site came later and is more professional. What happens is you say you want to be a Granny and you get put in the database. Someone looks and decides whether you should be or not. First level short-listing. Once clear that you have the time/equipment to be a Granny then we talk to you on Skype and go through another level of shortlisting. Once we’ve gone through the second level, you get into a third database and you are a potential Granny. You go and interact with a group of children, supervised by an experienced Granny. Once that’s ok, you can go solo but are monitored for a while till we are happy. That’s the process.

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Slide 19


a. I didn’t say we don’t need the education system, I’ve said we don’t need schools as they are today – they’re obsolete. The hole in the wall was an experiment to see if groups of children can learn to use the internet in groups with no intervention. Schools are extremely valuable. If you don’t put your child in school, you are taking a huge risk. Schools are extremely valuable, they just need to change that’s all.

b. Have you seen educators around the world? There are many instances where educators stop learning. Yes you need to change teacher training in order for schooling to change. The role of the adult is to bring up the questions, set a puzzle, admire the children. You’re a friend.

c. If you have a good teacher in a good school and you want to do a SOLE, that’s how you should do it.

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Slide 20


That’s a good question! What’s a good question? This is how you design a question. Suppose you are a history teacher. You’re walking into class in order to take a lesson on a particular aspect of your subject. Instead of delivery of that subject can you convert it into a question? So this is what you’d do in a good SOLE. Converting curriculum into questions. You need to ask why it’s there in the first place, why it’s important. You need to answer that first.

That was the end of the questions that had been sent in advance. Then there was time for questions that arose during the Q&A. I didn’t catch all of these – the sound cut in and out a bit, and it was difficult to keep up! But I caught a few: 


Do you think there is a political will to spread the idea of revolutionising education along the lines you suggest? Any signs of it?

I wish I had a positive answer, unfortunately I don’t. But in country after country, before the elections, then education becomes important. Then you don’t see much action once the elections are over. The good news is, we don’t need to wait. The system will change anyway because the learners are changing. So there will be no choice but to change. This will happen within a decade, perhaps.


How have teachers responded to your ideas? (Or something along those lines, I lost it a bit)

Teachers who listen carefully and read the literature are generally supportive. There are some teachers who have used the method very successfully. Others hear what they want to hear and we have many examples of that.


You say you are measuring reading and comprehension skills, what about other skills?

I had to deliberately restrict myself due to funding issues. I’m afraid I have to follow the approach that I measure just two or three different parameters but measure them well. But maybe others will pick up the same experiment, and repeat it using different parameters.


What do you think of the work of your colleague prof. James Tooley? 

I read what he writes and find his arguments convincing. I visit his schools and I see the point he is making. I’ve seen his model in Ghana, a pay as you go school, and find it fascinating. Are those schools better than state schools? He says yes and he has support what he has said, so I will take it at face value. I want to discuss with him how to put SOLEs into his schools.


Where are the longitudinal studies? [I missed the end of this question]

None designed. Some journalists have followed individual children. The most dramatic is a child from one of the villages, who has said on camera that it is because of the hole in the wall that he developed an interest in biology and it is because of this he went on to do a PhD. [I missed the end of this answer]

It was an interesting session – and lovely to get a little bit more IATEFL 2014 too! – and I think everybody appreciated the opportunity presented by this Q&A, after all the furore that has arisen since Mitra’s plenary on the last day of IATEFL this year. 

One really positive thing, to my mind, that’s come out the controversy he created at IATEFL is that post-IATEFL there has been lots of debate and discussion – through blogs, through the IATEFL Facebook group etc. I think it’s great! As long as we are discussing things and challenging our own and others’ beliefs, we can continue to learn and grow as teachers. 

Mitra said this in one of his answers today:

“FIrst of all, you must understand that if an experiment result says that children can learn by themselves, that doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t required. These are two different sentences.The two don’t equate”

I think perhaps a lot of the furore was based on the assumption that these were not two different sentences. I think there is some good food for thought in the Questions and Answers from tonights session and in Mitra’s plenary at IATEFL as well as his published works and other talks. 

Thank you, IATEFL, for a great conference and a thought-provoking follow up session. 

(Finally, please let me know if you think there are any inaccuracies in what I have noted down in this post, compared with what was said. If there are, it is of course entirely unintentional!)

Q&A webinar with controversial Sugata Mitra – Saturday!

Following Sugata Mitra’s controversial plenary on the final morning of IATEFL 2014, some educators were up on their feet applauding, while others were up in arms. As there was no time for a follow-up Q and A with Mitra at the conference, IATEFL has since arranged a webinar for this purpose. Here are the details as quoted from the IATEFL website:

Questions and answers with Sugata Mitra
19th April 2014, 5pm BST

Sugata Mitra will answer questions following his plenary session on ‘The future of learning’ at the IATEFL Annual Conference in Harrogate on Saturday 5 April 2014. If you have questions that you would like Sugata Mitra to answer during the webinar, please send them to Marjorie Rosenberg atmarjorie.rosenberg@besig.org or post them under the webinar announcement on the IATEFL group Facebook page. There will also be a chance to pose questions live to Sugata Mitra in the chat box during the webinar.

To join us, please click here

You do not need to register in advance to join this webinar, just click on the link above and then:

Select the “Enter as Guest” option, write your name and country, then click “Enter room”

You can check your local time here

We are looking forward to seeing you online!


Share the details with anybody who might be interested – it should be an interesting occasion! 🙂

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.