March 27th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

What if students learn faster without teachers?

By Richard Galant, CNN

(CNN) - What if everything you thought you knew about education was wrong?What if students learn more quickly on their own, working in teams, than in a classroom with a teacher?

What if tests and discipline get in the way of the learning process rather than accelerate it?

Those are the questions Sugata Mitra has been asking since the late 1990s, and for which he was awarded the $1 million TED Prize in February at the TED2013 conference.

Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, won the prize for his concept of "self organized learning environments," an alternative to traditional schooling that relies on empowering students to work together on computers with broadband access to solve their own problems, with adults intervening to provide encouragement and admiration, rather than top-down instruction.

Watch Sugata Mitra's TED Prize talk

Mitra's work with students in India has gained wide attention and was the focus of a 2010 TED Talk on his "hole in the wall" experiment, showing the potential of computers to jump-start learning without any adult intervention.

Coming to education trained as a physicist, Mitra said he was encouraged by his boss to start teaching people how to write computer programs. When he bought his first personal computer, he was surprised to find that his 6-year-old son was able to tell him how to fix problems he had operating the machine. He thought his son was a genius, but then heard his friends saying the same thing about their children.

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  1. Eldon Lee

    A case for a class action suit
    The current system of education was designed during slavery, in the 18th century by Thomas Jefferson who called its purpose “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish”.
    We all know that when slavery was abolished the problem didn’t end. There were many attempts to keep a people down including intimidation, segregated schools, the poll tax and the one best disguised, the current system of education.
    Although there were some great successes in resolving many of these problems, we have failed to meet the ultimate goal of justice for all.
    The post slavery effort to keep a people down has been totally successful continuing the same systemic education system and design that created the subclass in the first place and maintains the same people in the subclass today. Although schools were integrated, the system by which students moved through the system remained the same.
    Of course, when we look at overall progress, especially of African American students it appears that there have been successes. In reality, that is far from the truth. The disguise has been effective but the results still show a large percentage of African American students, in the words of the late Steve Orel, “being pushed out of school”. No, not dropping out, being pushed out.
    In an attempt to cover the problems we hear slogans like “poverty is not destiny”. In general I agree with that statement. Poverty, standing alone, by itself does not create failure. However, those who utter the statement expect the people to have the racist belief that all poor African American children are the same and their school came in to save them.
    The reality is that there are poor African American students with strong support systems who show success. And their support systems are responsible for the success of their children.
    To understand the real problem we must look deeper into the issues. According to Paul Tough, childhood stress literally slows the brain. Add to this the disrupting factors of a lack of strong parental guidance, malnutrition, chronic illness, learning in a new language etc. that create a diversion to learning. As an inordinate number of African Americans children are faced with these obstacles, the issue becomes that of racial inequity.
    Although we give lip service to resolving these issues, and we must provide a full frontal attack on them, the question prevails, “What do we do until these problems are resolved?” We are all aware that these problems won’t be resolved in the near future. We can be assured that under the current system of education, the children of the same people will continue to be afflicted by these problems.
    It only stands to reason that as the previously mentioned issues slow the brain and cause distractions, learning is slowed. And slow learning is unacceptable in the current system of education and the lives of those afflicted are systematically destroyed.
    To accomplish this we have, first, falsely coined a phrase “slow learner, to describe someone who is stupid or lacks knowledge with no consideration given to those who simply blossom at a different rate. Here’s how it works: Those who are afflicted learn, for a period of time, at a slower rate. In the classroom this translates into failing grades which are based on everyone being in the same place at the same time. Grades are often determined by artificial tests, and other indicators such as homework turned in, class participation etc. The classroom test, as an example, takes a completely different set of skills then actual demonstrations of learning and letter grades rarely indicate real knowledge gained. As a matter of fact, letter grades often hide what the child has learned.
    Let me be clear. The ranking and sorting of kids from smart to failure happens in the classroom. The often maligned “high stakes tests”, by itself, although problematic, really have nothing to do with kids. No matter what the value, the reality is that in order to succeed, the student score well at the exact same day the test is given, not one day later, not one month later. All in robotic sameness or you FAIL!
    Again, re visiting human growth and development and understanding that for many reasons kids blossom at different times, many students are left behind simply because they don’t learn fast enough to suit the desires of the elite.
    In the classroom, teachers are left with two fundamental choices when a child “fails”. First, they can, at the end of the term, fail the student and push them back to the beginning. However, this leads to students so far behind that they give up hope of ever graduating and are pushed out of school. Second, the teacher can allow a student to move forward with a “D” grade, stay up with other students and graduate with a letter grade but no usable knowledge, no preparation for the future. An atrocity of this nature perpetrated on the child is not only unethical, but is immoral.
    In life, failure is a learning experience, in school it is a devastating experience designed to push kids out of school and to ultimately maintain the same families in the subclass.
    Students who go through many trials often learn slower for a period of time. In school they are pushed into a failure track pushing them so far behind they drop out. Those who drop out, of course, do not get quality jobs and often no jobs at all. And their children are now poised to follow in their footsteps.
    As the current system of education is an extension of the post slavery effort to keep a people down and as children afflicted with childhood stress and other issues are primarily poor African Americans as well as other minorities, the process continues without question. Everyone seems comfortable with the same families going into the subclass year in and year out.
    The solution is easy to say but extremely difficult to accomplish.
    1, Take kids “from where they are” celebrating success and using failure as an integral positive part of the learning process.
    2, Have students demonstrate learning in the way they are most capable. Learning is personal and the student’s background knowledge is the jumping off point for success.
    Understand if these two concepts are followed, the dominoes will fall from every angle as schools become re designed for all children.
    I see the only way to accomplish this is a class action lawsuit supporting all kids unjustly failed and pushed out of school.
    The real question is “Are YOU too comfortable with the same families going into the subclass year after year, decade after decade?” Which side are you on? Will YOU sit quietly watching the injustice of the Slavery Based Education System?
    Eldon “Cap” Lee

    March 27, 2013 at 2:41 pm |