Kevin: Hi. I'm Kevin Chavous, and I'm so excited to be hosting this brand new series. Welcome to "What I Want to Know," a show based on curiosity and conversation, with those who drive our local economies and the schools in our communities. Can we be better? Of course we can. This is "What I Want to Know."
The pandemic has brought to bear the realities of our education system, the highs, the lows, and the areas for further exploration. In fact, the curtains have opened. The virtual stage has been lit to reveal a whole host of assumptions about what it means to engage with students. It also has revealed the roles equity and access play when we contemplate what is best for our nation's youngest and most impressionable. I want to know more. I want to understand if the signs and signals have been there all along, pushed to the wayside of the needs of the present day. So I've extended the microphone across the globe to bring you and I closer to an answer that prepares us for now, right now. I had the pleasure of discussing these issues with the famed educator and futurist, Dr. Sugata Mitra of TED Talk notoriety, and author and educator, Rachael Mann.
This global reset that we're going through clearly involves education, teaching, and learning environments. And to talk about the learning environments of yesterday, and today, and, wow, even tomorrow, I'm so pleased and honored to be joined by researcher and physicist, Dr. Sugata Mitra. I met him several years ago. He is famous for having one of the most successful TED Talks ever. He received the first TED Talk prize of $1 million to help fund his school in the cloud. Back in 1999, Dr. Mitra was...and I'm going to be charitable, he was haunted by this notion of whether or not poor kids could actually learn. He noticed in his native country of India, that many of the rich kids had access to computers. And they were designated as gifted and talented and they learned, but many of the low income children in poor villages didn't have that same opportunity.
So, in a creative way, he put a hole in the wall, installed a computer, and put cameras around the computer, and just left it there. And lo and behold, these young children, who had never been subject to any formal education, they learned how to operate a computer. This led to Dr. Mitra really being a strong advocate for self-organized learning. That was then and this is now. So, first of all, I want to thank you, Dr. Mitra Sugata, for joining us. It's a pleasure to have you. I look forward to talk to you about learning environments of today and tomorrow. So how are you doing?
Dr. Mitra: Well, I'm fine. The answer to that question today, of course, is, I am doing today what I was doing yesterday. And yesterday, I was doing what I was doing the day before, and so on and so forth, for the last one year. I'm at home in Kolkata in India. I came here for a holiday from England where I live, and I couldn't go back because of the pandemic. Luckily, I have a computer here, and I have the internet. And that keeps us all going, doesn't it?
Kevin: Yeah, it does. But this idea of learning, I talk about reset in learning environments. You know, there's this tension between the classrooms of yesterday and this notion of structured education. You exploded that when you did the hole in the wall experiment. Let me ask you, what has changed in the last eight years since you were awarded the TED Prize, 20 years since you did the hole in the wall, especially with the pandemic. What are the immediate changes that you see in how kids are going to learn and in environments in which they learn?
Dr. Mitra: It's kind of an interesting story really, because 20 years ago, when I first did the hole in the wall experiment, I found that groups of children could learn things off the internet and answer questions. If you asked them an interesting question, they could find the answer if they were in groups and if they were unsupervised. I was a bit surprised. What's this with groups? What's this with supervision? Why is it that they freeze up if an adult comes close by and says, "So what are you guys doing?" And, you know, the street children in Delhi with their hole in the wall computer would kind of turn around and say, "Nothing. We're doing nothing." Maybe it's kind of natural that children behave in a different way and more freely when they're unsupervised. Anyway, so the result was, groups of unsupervised children, using the internet, can learn almost anything by themselves.
And people, you know, would say, "What do you mean by anything?" And I would say, "Well, look at this series of experiments that I did over 10 years, from 1999 to 2009, which got me from India into England, from England into the United States. And I showed that the same thing would happen to the children, with the children in both of those countries. It landed me inside the MIT Media Lab where they said, "Well, how does it work?" Then it landed me on the TED stage. So for these 20 years, I kept saying, it looks as though in the present information environment that we have, education takes on a somewhat different meaning, particularly knowing. Mind you, I'm not saying knowledge but knowing, is different today. You don't have to know stuff in advance because you can know it instantly.
Kevin: What does that say, though, about the assumptions we've made about the "best learning environments" for children? Traditional education was grounded on this belief that the teacher was the know all be all. And what you found out, for lack of a better word, was almost blasphemy to traditional education purists. Do we need teachers at all in the learning environments of tomorrow?
Dr. Mitra: You know what, the answer is actually, yes. A lot of people think that my message is that we don't need teachers. This is absolutely not what I'm saying. All that I'm saying is, don't teach learners what they can learn by themselves. You can't have anything simpler than that, can you? If a guy can learn something by himself, then don't teach him that. But do what? Ask him to learn. Ask her to learn. Make it possible for her to learn. Ask her an interesting question and say, "Can you figure that out?" So the job of the teacher changes from being the source or the giver of knowledge and wisdom, or whatever, to asking simple, interesting, and funny questions.
Kevin: Kids can get the content on their own, but how do you ask those important problem-solving questions? How do you manage the content? Is that what you're talking about?
Dr. Mitra: Absolutely. The internet has so much content in it. Where would a child start from? What would she or he look for? So the teacher can ask a question, which takes them into a certain direction, which makes them examine a certain aspect of life. And this is not new, I need to mention this, I must, I owe it to the old man to mention it. This was done by a man more than 2000 years ago. His name was Socrates. If you read his work, you will find he never ever taught. He simply asked a question. And then he said to his students, examine that. It's a pity the old guy didn't have the internet. If he did he would have reached very far.
Kevin: Well, it's almost like not just Socrates, but if you think about Confucius, all the questions humanity faces lead to other questions. That keeps that exploration going. How has the pandemic either accelerated this new world or held it back? What are your thoughts?
Dr. Mitra: First thing that the pandemic did was it closed the schools. Country after country closed their schools, couldn't quite figure out whether they should open it, and then so on and so forth. The parents started to say, "Well, what are we going to do with the children? The children are at home all the time. And the children are on the computers all the time. And the children are, you know, constantly on the internet all the time." And I guess I was amongst the very few people in the world who would say, "Ah, thank you virus. Thanks for doing that." Anyhow, so that went on for a while. And then came the next huge hurdle. Teachers were told, go ahead, teach using the internet. The same system, which said do not allow the internet anywhere near the school, the same systems that teach using the internet.
What did the teachers do? They tried to create classrooms using media like Zoom, what we're using right now, to get 24 children to log in, and then pretend that you're in a classroom. It was just the wrong thing to do. Because virtual is not real. It can't be, it can't pretend to be real, you have to do it differently. I got into the act, I started to play with self-organized learning environments, where I would get children virtually together, then I would ask them a question. And I would say, "I don't know how long this connection is going to hold, guys. I'll be back in half an hour to see where you can go." And, like, I know from the hole in the wall, half an hour later, they will say, "Oh, Sugata, we just found this answer, you know. Did you know..." And they would start describing something.
So you could do what I call a self-organized learning environment, a SOLE, S-O-L-E. You could do that across homes, and schools, and teachers, where the teacher sparks off the SOLE with a question. The children group together, not physically, but on the internet, they exchange notes, and they come back with the answer. Okay, all very fine. So this went on for a while, many teachers tried it, thousands of teachers tried it.
And then the government said, what about the examination? What's an examination? Well, I'm going to give you a question paper on paper. And I'm going to give you a pencil, and you're going to sit alone and you're going to answer that question paper. The internet, of course, you cannot use the internet. Then what's the point of asking you a question if you find the answers on the internet. So they postponed all the exams. So you have no exams, you can't do any exams. Some countries started saying, okay, we're going to trust the children. We're going to say, "We will send you a question people over the internet. You must promise, promise, promise that you won't look up the internet." Of course, nobody kept those promises. The children looked stuff up quickly. And they started answering the questions.
Kevin: Based on the self-organized learning, which clearly resonates with young people and keeps their curiosity, how do we mold the right learning environment in this structured system? What needs to change? How can we radicalize that change in a way that works?
Dr. Mitra: The first bit of good news is, over the last year, I found that self-organized learning environments work approximately similarly, whether you do it physically inside a classroom, which many, many, many teachers have done, or you do it over the internet, which a few teachers have done so far. It works approximately the same way. So what does that mean? It means it doesn't matter if the child is at home, or if the child is in school. So I see a school, a future school, where a class full of 24 children may have 14 who are sitting there, and 10 who are coming from somewhere else on screens over the internet, because they couldn't come, or because there was a problem, or because they're too far away in a different time zone. Suddenly, the idea of school opens out to everybody on this planet, doesn't matter who you are, where you are, etc., etc. I love the thought that one day, we could have schools like that.
Kevin: But in your vision of the future of learning, I'm going to put on my education sort of system hat, how do we measure whether it's working? How do we measure the outputs?
Dr. Mitra: This is the most important question. But there are two answers to it, difficult answers for anyone to accept. First of all, if a child gives you the right answer, do you want to know whether that child knows or found out from somewhere? Why? Why do you want to know if you got the right answer in the time that was allocated? Well, that's because we have an important word. Is he cheating? I don't know what that word means. I think, Kevin, you're talking about redefining stuff. I think we should redefine the word cheating. It doesn't mean anything anymore. What do you mean by cheating? It means getting information from somewhere and then doing the right thing. If you use your iPad to find the recipe, and then looking at your iPad, you cook that recipe, are you cheating? Exactly.
Kevin: Well, you know, the other thing is to know may not mean you know, it's just you're good at memorization, which a lot of tests reflect that as well. To me, if you are engaged in the process of sharpening your critical thinking, critical analysis skills, then you're learning. But I think that we have put these artificial metrics in place that I know, in the States and other places around the world, is good or bad. And that needs to be exploded. And so I totally agree with you.
Dr. Mitra: I believe that we need to look for three things. The first is comprehension. It's fine that you can look up stuff, but do you comprehend what you're looking at? Not just understand, but comprehend. You know there's a difference between understand and comprehend. The second, can you communicate your understanding to somebody else? So comprehension, followed by communication, and lastly, computing, not as in writing computer programs, but in being able to use computers, and the internet, and devices to get to the answer correctly, quickly, and confidently. If you have these three abilities, and if we could measure them, and they're not very hard to measure, then in principle, you could actually educate yourself in any direction that you want, if you have comprehension, communication, and computing. If we can enable children to develop these three basic capabilities in their formative years, I think the rest, to a large extent, will take care of itself.
Kevin: Wow, you've just dropped the mic. That is the answer we need. Sugata Mitra, thank you so much for joining. I think this notion of self-organized learning, its time has come. And thank you for your wisdom and your vision for America's and the world's children. So, thank you for joining us.
Dr. Mitra: All the best, Kevin. Thanks for having me.
Kevin: I'm so excited about this next portion of the program. And the question is, does our understanding of an engaging learning environment need an update? Well, to join us during this program, I'm so excited to have Rachael Mann. Rachael is a speaker, a teacher, a lecturer, and edu-futurist. I just love that expression. And she's passionate about all things education. Rachael is a big advocate for understanding what learning "spaces" really mean, and what they look like. She's also a huge believer in disruptive technology to drive change in education and learning environments. And as a speaker, I love this expression. She inspires people to think big and dream beyond. Rachael spent 14 years as a teacher, a culinary teacher, she's had an eclectic career. And I'm so pleased to have you with us, Rachael, welcome.
Rachael: Thank you, Kevin. It's an honor to be here with you today.
Kevin: You know, Rachael, I learned so much about you. And one of the first things I wanted to talk about in terms of learning environments, is really dig a little deeper into your background. You make no secret of the fact that traditional education, in its primarily current form, didn't work for you growing up. Talk about your experience as a young learner and how that environment can be so counterproductive to education.
Rachael: You know, Kevin, I think back to when I was young and get my experience of school. And I did not enjoy going to school. I remember Sunday nights, dreading the next morning because it was Monday morning, and Fridays, just looking forward to that last bell ringing and going home. I missed a lot of school, sometimes as many as 18 days a semester. And back then, if you didn't miss days, you wouldn't have to take exams. And I would always take the exams. My grades were good. I mastered the subject content, but my attendance was poor. And the experience that I had really made me want to go into education, to ensure that students had a different experience, that within my learning space, there was something to look forward to, that it was something where they knew that they were valued. And that if my class was the only class that mattered to them that day, at least it was a highlight for that day.
Kevin: Now, you've written and you've spoken about this sort of "classroom experience." What was wrong about your learning environment in the typical classroom setup?
Rachael: Well, you know, I think about even the structure of the school. And, you know, right now I have in mind to the middle school that I went to in West Virginia. And it was just this old building with these big hallways. It felt cold. The environment felt cold. The structure of the classes, it doesn't represent what the real world is in any way, when you think about how our days are structured in a school system, or, you know, the way that our subjects are compartmentalized. And to be honest, the social aspect too. I was a very shy kid. And I felt there were some of the practices that are so called best practices in teaching, which I discourage, can really cause a child to have a horrible, horrible day. That was something that impacted the way that I approached my teaching style or how I've trained teachers to interact with kids in the classroom.
Kevin: You were driven to be a teacher, what was your immediate goal to try to change that system? I mean, think about, you had a bad experience, or it didn't work for you. You knew you wanted to make sure other kids had a different experience, but you still were in the same system. How did you navigate that?
Rachael: And that's a great question. And that's something that I feel like within our current education system that does need an update, we don't always let teachers teach. I went into a content area where I had more leeway, more freedom. When I first started teaching, standards hadn't been written yet for culinary arts, and it was something that I was inventing based upon my prior knowledge and based upon what I felt students needed. It was being built... You know, building the plane as we're flying it, so to speak. And I think that having a little bit more leeway gave me the ability to really build relationships with my students, which we know is a foundation for student learning, that relationship is huge. And anytime I hear people talk about the future and how teachers are going to be replaced by robots, that's not going to happen. You know, that human interaction, that human piece, that human element is so important in our education system.
Kevin: You know, you've written a couple books, I'm so intrigued by this idea of how you define space, learning space. I mean, you took it to the next level when you literally go out of space. But talk about the learning space and how it matters for a child.
Rachael: You know, when you look at how we work as human beings, how we're programmed, if you look at the brain rules and some of the writings by David Eagleman or by John Medina, it talks about how we're not designing the learning spaces in a way that set up for success. We're doing the exact opposite. There are some guidelines that could truly transform what we're doing, such as having PE right before math. Studies show that if students are moving, you know, they're breathing, their blood's flowing, that they perform better in some of these STEM areas that they may not have been successful in before. So even how the class day is structured, getting more movement in the day, period, is really important. But also really showing the interconnectedness between content area. If a student asks, why am I learning this, and the teacher doesn't have an answer, we need to rethink what they're learning.
But also, we're seeing this huge shift because of the pandemic where folks who were traditionally hesitant to learn that technology or to use some of these advances in the world around us, have now had to embrace it. And they truly see what an impact it can have on creating an environment that sets each child up for success. It could be that you have a child who is very successful with the virtual learning environment, and they can achieve the content that would have taken a full day in a traditional school environment of going class to class. And then they have time to do passion projects, to work on an innovation and doing some more hands-on pieces that really complements what they're learning. But it also gives them the autonomy to choose a direction. Education isn't being done to them. And right now, I think that's what's happening, is education is being done to students and for our teachers. Our teachers who feel as if their hands are tied, and they're not able to do what's best for student learning.
Kevin: Now, do you think with the reset that we're all going through globally because of the pandemic, that gives us an opportunity to reconsider these learning environments. And how can we do that?
Rachael: This is the time. I've had people ask me over the years, so many times, what's wrong with education? Why is education broken? Why aren't we doing anything different? And this is the right time because first, we see a system that's traditionally slow to change because of all the bureaucracy that had to change overnight, basically. And we had some people who were already doing these amazing things that they're now having to do in this virtual environment, in some cases, sometimes in hybrid environments. But I think that there's so many lessons that we can learn, even things such as, now that we've moved to these learning management systems, I had a superintendent share on a webinar that I was co-hosting, that there's no reason to have snow days anymore. We're able to switch to a virtual environment.
Kevin: By the way, they do have snow days in the east, even though the school district may be all virtual. So it's really interesting.
Rachael: Oh, really?
Kevin: Yeah. I mean, we got snow storms on the East Coast the last week or so. And there are several school districts who said, "Well, it's a snow day." But, you know, no one's coming to class. I think it's sort of ingrained. But Rachael, I was struck by the fact, and this is a plug for your book," The Martians in Your Classroom." I was struck by the fact that you and your co-author never met before writing the book, but you were able to use technology, make sure you could collaborate in meaningful way. As we close out, talk about that. Because I think that's another example of how learning can come to us through technology in ways we don't even imagine, even when you're collaborating on projects like a book.
Rachael: Oh, absolutely. And Stephen and I, we met once. I was speaking at a STEM conference in D.C. and asked him if I could interview him because I had read his book, "The Gravity Well," and been following his work and his view on education, being the key to really ensuring that we're able to accomplish what we need to accomplish moving forward in innovation and in space exploration. And he agreed to meet for an interview. And at the end of the interview, he told me that he wanted to write his second book together, to make it education focused, and that it was something that he wanted to do together. And to be honest, Kevin, I told him that he had the wrong person. And then he pointed out the different work I was doing within STEM and said, "No, you are the right person." And I thought, why would I let this opportunity pass. And from that point on, we worked virtually using Google Docs and collaborating through phone calls, text messages.
And we wrote the entire book, published the book, and did not meet again until the following June for our first book signing. And that was in Richmond, Virginia. And it was just such a phenomenal experience to realize that we were doing what we were talking about in the book, that whole sense of not having to be in the same space. A globalized world where you can have a guest speaker come into a classroom, who's coming in virtually. And I think that's something that the pandemic has brought to us as well, is that sense of, I would have teachers, I would always offer at the end of my talks, that if someone wanted to reach out to me, I could do a virtual talk for their class. And it was rare that anyone took me up on this opportunity until the pandemic, when folks started to realize the power of these virtual tools, and to be able to invite a speaker from across the country or in another part of the world into the classroom to work with the students.
So, you know, there's a lot of phenomenal opportunities, but yes, "The Martians in Your Classroom," I think that what I love about the concept now that I didn't realize at that time, was that it was based on this idea that the first person to step foot on Mars has already been born and could be a student in the classroom. So we're teaching, possibly the first Martian, but also that the world that they're growing up in is so different than the world that we grew up in, that it might as well be a different planet. Now, the pandemic has made that even more so. You know, I think back to a year ago, it feels like we're on a different planet than we were a year ago, when you look at how much our world has changed. So it's truly that sense of not preparing students for our past, but preparing them for their future.
Kevin: Well, and that's what you've been all about through your career. Think big, dream beyond. Hearing you solidifies the fact in my mind that our learning environments not only need to be updated, but frankly, we need to make sure we're not overly prescriptive about what they look like in the future. As you said, we can't be governed by our past experiences. And with all the advances that we see, no telling where it's going to end up. But it doesn't aid learners of tomorrow to hold them hostage by what we did in the past. Rachael Mann, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a pleasure.
Rachael: Thank you, Kevin. I really enjoyed our conversation today.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too, explore other episodes, and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Join the conversation and let me know what you want to know, using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Sugata Mitra is famous for his big question that drove his TED Talk and subsequent work – can impoverished children learn, if given the chance with similar results as those kids who are afforded the right to attend formal school? His experiments proved that children, from impoverished backgrounds, could not only learn, but they could do so even if through a monitor with the educators speaking a different language.
His work on children’s education includes the ‘hole in the wall’ experiment where children accessed the internet in unsupervised groups, the idea of Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs) in schools, the role of experienced educators over the internet in a ‘Granny Cloud’, and the School in the Cloud where children take charge of their learning—anywhere. Sugata’s interests include children’s education, remote presence, self-organising systems, cognitive systems, complex dynamical systems, physics, and consciousness.
Sugata is Professor Emeritus at NIIT University, India. After earning his PhD in theoretical physics, he worked as a Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in England for 13 years before retirement. He was a Visiting Professor at the MIT MediaLab for a year during that time. He has received many global awards including the million-dollar TED Prize in 2013.
Rachael Mann is a former culinary teacher who left and kept coming back to education. She finally arrived at the metaphor of outer space as the canvas that provides an opportunity to explore what environments mean to the learning experience.
As an “edufuturist,” Rachael believes in the importance of shaping the educational philosophies and spaces of today by looking toward the innovations of tomorrow. She is a writer and frequent keynote speaker across the country on disruptive technology, education, and careers. She is the author of The Spaces You Will Go and coauthor of Martians in Your Classroom, an educational title about integrating STEM into the classroom utilizing space-related initiatives.
Rachael holds a master’s in educational leadership and has 14 years of classroom experience as a career and technical education instructor. Her experience includes her work as the Network to Transform Teaching State Director, the Professional Learning Director of STEM, and the Arizona State Director for Educators Rising. She is a founding member of the Council on the Future of Education, president-elect for the NCLA executive board, and vice president of New and Related Services for ACTE.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.