Teachers! What are they good for?
In the beginning, schooling served a purpose. The British Empire needed to produce people who could keep the empire functioning by being cogs in its bureaucratic machine. Nowadays we keep the same system but without the purpose.
What I propose is based on the work and research of Sugata Mitra, and I believe this may be the solution we need.
The model of education proposed here will make school integration trivially easy: Students won’t have to take any tests or be assigned to schools based on the results of those tests. This model of education uses diverse learning environments and the results are incredible. But to understand where I will lead you, you must understand where we are.
Currently, the way schools function is thus: Knowledge is put in students’ heads, then we check if it’s still there a week or so later. Everything we ask them to recall is predigested information vomited directly into their mouths as they are forced to do their best to swallow this information vomit.
What if we let students find and chew their own knowledge?
Sugata Mitra performed an experiment in India, briefly summarized as follows:
- He tested a group of children on their knowledge of a particular subject.
- He put a large computer with internet access and downloaded resources on that topic in a public space.
- He came back a few months later and tested the children again.
In his experiment, he gave Tamil-speaking children resources in English, but that did not stop the children; they learned and their scores improved.
He performed the experiment again, this time with an adult who would show up for about an hour each day, ask the kids questions about what they were doing, and provide encouragement. This time, the children’s scores improved even more. How much more? We’ll see shortly.
Over the course of his studies he discovered four critical factors in the success of this model of learning:
- The students must be unsupervised.
- Groups of children must be heterogeneous (i.e. have boys and girls and children of varying ages).
- The students must have access to a large computer with internet in a safe public space (not laptops in students’ bedrooms).
- The students have a question to answer.
Mitra found that no matter how seemingly complicated the question posed to the group, if these conditions are met the children will find an answer.
His model of Self-Organized Learning Environments or (SOLEs) and Self Organized Mediation Environments (SOMEs) with an adult asking questions and providing encouragement like a stereotypical grandmother, as Mitra would say, has shown test scores on par with or even above affluent private schools (in India) and always above the public state schools. Read more here. Similar outcomes in America would be a huge improvement over our current system.
This figure “shows the progress made by the Kalikuppam sample group in the 150-day period compared with the random group of the same age group in the New Delhi school who were taught by a subject teacher. The two groups achieved the same test scores despite the rural group not having any access to a subject teacher.” – (Mitra, Sugata, and Ritu Dangwal. “Limits to self‐organising systems of learning—the Kalikuppam experiment.” British Journal of Educational Technology 41.5 (2010): 672-688.)
The most important note regarding student outcomes: Reading comprehension, universally recognized as the most critical skill for students, shows the greatest increase with this model of learning.
Trying this in America should not be hard. This has already been tried here at a school in New York during (as far as I can tell) the 2015-16 school year, and you can read what the UFT wrote about it here or in this Wired article. But let me explain how this could be expanded to the city as a whole.
- The standard curriculum shall be made as a list of questions in the three areas identified by Mitra:
- Need to know – (e.g. How do you renew your passport?)
- Good to know – (e.g. Why do the planets orbit the sun?)
- Stuff for the exam – (e.g. How do you find the area of a regular polygon?)
- Students will be allowed to organize their groups to answer any of the questions they want.
- Teachers will be replaced with (as Mitra calls them) “Grannies” who will provide encouragement, ask questions, stay out of the way, ensure general safety, etc..
- Students will graduate when they can provide satisfactory (judged by logical coherence and comprehensiveness of content) written answers to all questions in the curriculum, and perform well on similar multiple-choice tests (for more objective scoring).
- Students will have access to internet-connected computers while taking exams. (“We don’t need people who can tell the time without looking at a watch.”)
- Students will be encouraged to collaborate on exams. (At what point did we decide that sharing was cheating?)
This model is perfect for NYC School Chancellor Richard Carranza’s goal of maximizing diversity. Students will learn better in heterogeneous groups. And all the current issues with segregation would fade away under this model as there would be no need for assigning students to schools based on anything besides how long their commute would be.
Mitra’s research shows that we don’t need teachers with advanced subject knowledge or field trips or fancy lab activities to teach children. Learning will happen on its own. The ability and desire to learn is one of the few things that is innate in all people and forgetting that is what has ruined our education system.
I do not claim that there are no other options. I know from experience that there are teachers, passionate experts in their subjects, who can be wonderful. Often a teacher like that will make learning happen with what feels like no hard work, because the class is just so enjoyable, or they can make the complex material extremely easy to understand. But this model has one critical flaw: When the teacher is gone, when you move on to the next grade, the student suffers from great teaching withdrawal.
This withdrawal leaves the student feeling helpless: It may not be reflected in test scores — they are likely well prepared for their future classes by a great teacher — but meaningful learning has stopped with loss of that great teacher. With the Mitra model, however, no one will have to suffer like I did and weather the tempest of incredibly variable teaching quality. Everyone will have a solid baseline and after-school programs. Plus, universities can still provide education from experts if the students haven’t already figured out how to get that online.
It may seem to you as if this model undermines the very nature of learning rather than enhancing it. I’m sorry that you were made to believe that learning was equivalent to remembering, but ask yourself this: What would you prefer? Being able to read, or already having memorized the contents of every book ever written, but never being able to read one word more?
This has been a very general overview. Watch Sugata Mitra’s TED talks for more information.