Friday, September 19, 2014

Is Knowing Obsolete?

I drive literally hours to and from work each week and I find that audio books and podcasts make it not just bearable, but actually enjoyable. A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a Ted Talk Radio Hour called, “Unstoppable Learning.” It was unbelievably fascinating. You have to listen to it yourself, but in essence, the message was that children don’t always need teachers; they need people to not get in the way of learning. Facilitators, if you will.

Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at the University of Newcastle in England, performed a very interesting experiment. He took computers and put them in walls in poor villages in India. The children had never seen computers, never used computers, didn’t have running water and very limited electricity. Their schools were crowded and limiting in what they could teach. The children didn’t speak English and didn’t know what the Internet was.

He put these kiosks in the walls and walked away. There were no teachers there for the children to rely on and no one to help. But they somehow managed to use the mouse (there was no keyboard) and open Paint and Word. Then they found the Word character map and started typing things in mere hours. He did this in an even more remote village and came back after a couple of months to find that the children were playing games on it. In English, they told him they wanted a faster processor and a better mouse. He asked how they knew all this and they said in sort of an irritated tone, “You’ve given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it.”

After doing this in several villages, he determined that in nine months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language would reach the same standard as an office secretary in the western countries. He decided to try an experiment that was bound to fail. His new question (the answer was obviously NO) was, “Can 12-year-old Tamil speaking children in a village in southern India teach themselves the biotechnology of DNA replication in English 10 years ahead of their time, clustering around a roadside computer?"

He brought a computer to the village and it was all in English with diagrams in chemistry. He left the children for two months with zero answers (they asked and he said, “I don’t know.”). He came back and asked them what they thought and they said, “We’ve understood nothing.” He asked them how long it took them before they decided they couldn’t understand anything. “We haven’t given up. We look at it every single day… [but] apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes disease, we haven’t understood anything else.” In English.

It was fascinating to listen to. There is more from other educational thought leaders in this episode, too, but the last segment is also from Sugata Mitra. I loved this part:

If you look at present-day schooling the way it is, it's quite easy to figure out where it came from. It came from about 300 years ago. Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet without computers, without telephones, with data hand written on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It's still with us today. It's called the bureaucratic administrative machine. In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people, the school. The schools would produce the people, who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must have good handwriting because the data is handwritten, they must be able to read, and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction in their head. 

...It's quite fashionable to say that the education system's broken. It's not broken, it's wonderfully constructed. It's just that we don't need it anymore. It's outdated. What's the kind of jobs that we have today? Well, the clerks are the computers. They're there in thousands in every office. And you have people who guide those computers to do their clerical jobs. Those people don't need to be able to write beautifully by hand, they don't need to be able to multiply numbers in their heads, they do need to be able to read. In fact, they need to be able to read discerningly.  

…Is knowing obsolete? We are in an age where knowing is not a big deal. And therefore, the current assessment system of examinations is ridiculous because it relies on the old Victorian concept of knowledge being resident inside the human brain, in a form such that it is reproducible at a moment's notice. But our children are not growing up in that age. They are growing up in an age where everything that humanity has ever known is inside their pockets. And we're telling them, no, don't keep staring at your mobile phone all the time and, you know, don't huddle up with your computer all the time. Read a book. I don't know if we are doing the right thing.


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