Sugata Mitra couldn’t believe what happened when he left a computer in a slum: the children simply taught themselves. Now he is using his discoveries to revolutionise education.

How much can children learn when you just leave them alone?

It’s a question that’s been asked throughout the modern history of education – resulting in some famous experiments, like the free schools of the 1970s. These idealistic projects promised no compulsory lessons or indeed rules.

They didn’t last long. Today, they have all but disappeared. Now, however, technology has renewed the notion of autodidacticism. Kids love interactive computer play. The question is: how much can they learn from it with zero intervention?

This was the question asked in a series of famous experiments by educational researcher Sugata Mitra. A decade ago, he set out to explore a slightly different issue: that of the education gap between prosperous and deprived regions. He wanted to know how learning was affected by the absence of good teachers and resources.

This led him to start an experiment. He embedded a computer into a wall of a slum in New Delhi, where schooling was virtually non-existent. Crucially he left no instructions and didn’t draw attention the installation. It was just left there for the children to discover.

To clarify, these kids knew no English, had never seen a computer before, and didn’t know what the internet was. Before long, he observed children browsing, downloading pics from websites and even recording their own music and playing it back to each other. Crucially, they were also teaching each other how to use the computer. In some instances this took a matter of hours.

Incredibly, this was just the start. The children even taught themselves English, learning an average of 200 words – unsurprisingly words like ‘save’, ‘delete’, ‘file’ and ‘paste’. The process also improved the English of those who knew some of the language. Here’s how Mitra describes it.

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Sugata Mitra with a group of students at his School in the Cloud – Photo source: TED

“I gave them a computer with a speech-to-text interface, which you get free with Windows, and asked them to speak into it. So when they spoke into it, the computer typed out gibberish, so they said, “Well, it doesn’t understand anything of what we are saying.”

“So I said, “Yeah, I’ll leave it here for two months. Make yourself understood to the computer.” So the children said, “How do we do that?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And I left. Two months later their accents had changed and were remarkably close to the neutral British accent of the speech-to-text synthesizer.”

One of the most profound conclusions of the Hole In The Wall project was that children learn best in groups. Four kids gathered round the same computer will share knowledge, discuss what to do, and reflect on the things they’ve learned. It all embeds the learning deeper than when a single person uses one device.

Mitra repeated this technique with children in a school in Gateshead, UK. He gave the groups six exam questions, which they solved using Google, Wikipedia etc in 20 to 45 minutes. But here’s the important bit. Two months later, he tested them again on the same questions, this time with a purely paper test. The average score was 76 per cent.

In another trial, Mitra went to Turin to try the technique with 10 year-olds. They spoke only Italian, but he wrote only English questions on the blackboard. The children used Google to translate them into Italian, then search for answers. Mitra says: “I asked…who was Pythagoras, and what did he do? There was silence for a while, then they said, “You’ve spelled it wrong. It’s Pitagora.” And then, in 20 minutes, the right-angled triangles began to appear on the screens. This sent shivers up my spine. These are 10 year-olds.”

Today, Mitra is a flag-waver for self-organizing systems, where learning ‘emerges’ without explicit intervention from the outside. He has created the concept of SOLEs (Self Organized Learning Environments) to put the concept into practice. The first was launched in West Bengal earlier this year. In it, children learn by exploring the Internet with their peers. They receive only minimal guidance from an adult mentor.

Mitra wants to create 10 million more. Can he? Well, he won the 2013 $1 million TED Prize, so he’s on his way.

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