A Million Dollars to Create Self-Organized Learning Environments

Sugata Mitra’s work is well worth following by anyone interested in how children learn. Now that he has won the million-dollar TED Prize Wish for his inspirational work, Mitra has decided to use it to continue his work with online learning. Like John Holt, Mitra’s training is not as an educator so he didn’t bring all the preconceived notions taught in schools of education about what children can and can’t do at certain ages to his experiment. As an engineer he conceived a simple experiment, “What would children do with a computer that is made freely available to them in their rural village in India?” The results of his experiments are surprising to most educators, but hardly surprising to parents and teachers who work with children in nonschool ways. In short, without any adult help, 30 percent of the village children not only learned how to use the computer fluently, but learned English well enough to navigate the Internet. Mitra found the children taught themselves and each other how to do those things. When Mitra added an adult to the mix, he did not chose a professional teacher but rather an adult who cared about the kids. This person was asked to simply encourage their activities,  not to explicitly direct the children. With this type of help, Mitra noted that 50 percent of the children learned English and how to use the computer fluently, all without conventional school professionals or curricula. The implications for how we can best help children learn and what the proper role of adults and mentors should be are fascinating; given Mitra’s standing with TED and some quarters of the education establishment, he might be able to shake things up so genuine self-directed learning becomes more acceptable to conventional educators.

If you’re unfamiliar with Mitra’s work, this video of Mitra’s acceptance speech provides a good summary of his work and his wish to build a school in the cloud, “a learning lab in India, where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online.”

For homeschoolers, and unschoolers in particular, there is an opportunity to be part of Mitra’s research by using what Mitra calls his self-organized learning environment (SOLE) toolkit and joining the Challenge:

Part experiment, part contest — your challenge is to test the SOLE method with students in your school, home or after-school program and to share what you learn with TED in the form of a 500-1000 word blog post. What was your experience like in setting up SOLE? Tell us about your SOLE adventure and the students who participated. What were the challenges, how did you overcome them and what did you learn? How do you believe SOLE can be used at your school in the future?
Up to three winning submissions selected by Sugata and the TED Prize team will win a weekend trip for you and your child to attend TEDYouth 2013.

If any homeschoolers enter this challenge I would really like to know how you make out. I like Mitra’s work and want to support anything that seriously challenges the status quo of school, but I do worry about his emphasis on learning environments. It seems from his very first hole-in-the-wall experiment that there is no need for a special learning environment—it took place under a tree in a rural village—and, in fact, humans have been learning without special learning environments since the dawn of time. Our proper learning environment is the world at large, not some special place designed just for learning. However, I think I’m being too judgmental at this early stage of the project: perhaps learning environments in the SOLE project will be defined broadly to include any type of space that children create or use for their explorations and play and the focus will remain on self-organization—what children actually do when given the freedom to talk, play, and explore together on their own—rather than what they do when placed under the anxious eyes of educators.