Barefoot In the head

If you think so....

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Location: Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, United Kingdom

I am around if you are around.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

From the
Hole In The Wall
to the
School In The Cloud
The story so far....


The Hole in the Wall

Groups of children can learn to use computers and the Internet by themselves,
If they are left unsupervised

Later experiments 

Groups of children can learn almost anything using the Internet

 This kind of learning happens in unstructured, unsupervised and free environments

Why did we not have this before?

Schools of the 19th century were meant to produce soldiers, clerks and factory workers

There were no telephones, computers or the Internet

Creativity would adversely affect the smooth operation of Empires


is meant to produce these people

but we still have them!


Self Organised Learning Environments can be created inside schools

Creating a SOLE

One computer with Internet for every four children

Children make their own groups around each computer

They can talk to each other and to other groups

They can walk around

They can change groups if they like.

They research a Big Question

Create the 'Edge of Chaos' in the classroom and you will get Emergent Order

The ‘Granny Cloud’

Children react well to encouragement

Children exceed targets if encouraged

Children like to show off to a friendly adult

A New Primary Education

Convert the curriculum into questions

Preferably, questions to which no one has an answer

Change assessment from factual recall to creative expression of ideas

Look for methods of problem solving rather that the application of memorized procedures

Use SOLEs as a major pedagogic method where children find their own answers

                            SOLE+Granny Cloud+Big Questions

This can be built anywhere

It is a space, not a school

It may produce people

for offices like this....

Will this improve:

 Reading comprehension?

Critical thinking?


Self confidence?

Searching skills?

We think so, and are collecting the evidence….

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A New Literacy

“I don't need to know everything, I just need to know where to find it, when I need it”.
 - Albert Einstein

These words from Einstein, written decades before the Internet was created, are prophetic. They predict an age when ‘knowing’ becomes obsolete. We live in that age.

Now, this does not mean we don't need to know things. We do all the time. It’s just that we don't need to know as much as possible in the first seventeen years of our lives, and then, remember and use this knowledge for the rest of our lives.

There was a world where we were mostly in places and situations where, if we needed to use knowledge in some form, we had to get it from our own brains. There were no other places to look in. That world does not exist anymore. When we need to know, we can know in seconds, anywhere.

We need the skill for where and how to access the knowledge that we want. Those skills are very different from how knowledge is accessed in a library, from a teacher or even on the phone. Children growing up at this time need to learn this new skill.

We know that children can learn to use the Internet on their own, if they are allowed to and encouraged to.

How would we measure if children have acquired the skills to learn things rapidly, accurately and confidently? We need a new kind of test.

It is rather pointless to measure children’s ability to learn using the Internet, by breaking up the process of knowing into small parts. For example, ‘does the child know how to use a mouse?’ is no longer a relevant question. Touch pads, touch screens, voice recognition, and a host of other interfaces still to come, makes that question obsolete. Similarly, does a child know how a computer works is an obsolete question. It doesn’t matter anymore.

We need a test that will measure whether children, either individually, or in groups, can answer questions and solve problems using the information cloud and the myriad access techniques and devices that pervade our world today. We need to measure how quickly, accurately and dependably they can acquire knowledge. We don’t need to measure how they do this, because the methods, techniques and processes of knowing are too many and change too quickly, for such measurement to be useful.

To devise such a test, we will need to design questions of different levels of complexity. They should range from questions that are purely factual to those that require critical thinking. For example, a level 1 question may be ‘What is the time in New York?’ while a higher level question might be, ‘why do things float or sink?’ .I have made a first, and rather crude attempt at making a test based on tasks. We evaluate this test by asking, ‘could they anwer?’, ‘was the answer right?’ and ‘how long did they take?’. Ritu will try to calibrate this test in the next few months.

Such a test measures searching, reading, technological literacy and analysis skills all together. We don’t have a name for this ‘all-in-one’ skill.

It is a new kind of literacy.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

They know no better

An interview of mine published recently in the Telegraph

Produced this, rather interesting, exchange of email:

From: ML
  Sent: 03 August 2013 08:54
  To: Sugata Mitra
  Subject: Your latest pronouncement
  Sir, (or is that unnecessary?)
  You are doing the young people of this country no service by your pronouncements.
  Whatever does "writing in a cryptic way " mean, and do you move in such restricted circles that only people who are like you can understand the code you are using?
  From my experience, spellcheckers and grammar corrections are frequently dependent on the writer's understanding grammar and spelling, anyway.
  I quote the experience of my brother in law, whose daughter, albeit extremely intelligent, was dyslexic.  She would look up spellings in a spellchecker, choose the wrong one and then enter it into the online dictionary.  Her father had frequently to peruse that dictionary and check the spellchecker!
  Apart from practical use, the glory of our language has to be preserved inasfar as it is possible to do so.  I do not know your age, but my husband and I have been involved in computers since they were enormous machines with a room of their owm.  We know that technology changes very rapidly, and whatever statements are made will be out of date very quickly.
  The English language is a beautiful thing when properly used.  When it is not properly used, it is sloppy, careless and often incomprehensible.  Beware of making such statements when you really do not know what you are doing.  Even though I believe that you simply want to get your name in the press, it is dangerous.
  Sincerely (and I am suncere in this)

On 3 Aug 2013, at 09:42, Sugata Mitra wrote:

  Thanks for your mail.
  Of the various responses I got to the Telegraph article, people over the age of 50 were uniformly rude, in perfect English.
  People below the age of 30 seemed happy with the article. "U R Cool'' wrote one.
  The rude ones want to whip the cool ones into submission.
  Sugata Mitra



I do not think that I was rude. To tell you that you are wrong is not rude, it is simply a statement of truth.  If you interpreted my email as rude, you were mistaken.  I simply think you were misguided.  The younger ones, of course, would agree with you: they know no better.  I well remember, when I was teaching (French, not English), that the younger members of the English department often, very often, had to ask me if their use of English was correct, as they were not sure about their own use of English.  I fear that at least two generations of pupils have been neglected.  Perhaps (and please remember, I do not know your age) you were in one of those generations.

I cannot believe that any French professor would be so, well, dismissive of the incorrect use of his or her native language.  I wonder if you suffered from dyslexia.  If so, it is not your fault and you can blame those who did not help you.
Should you ever wish me to help you, please ask.  If I have time, I could even proofread for you.  I have no wish to whip anyone into anything, nor yet to make them submissive.  You are not a professor of English usage and can, perhaps, be excused.

It is a fact, not an opinion, that many people will ignore the skills of a person, if that person's use of language is defective.  I myself, when listening to a speech or presentation, if the speaker uses language badly so that meaning is unclear, will stop listening to the gist of what is being said, and start listening for the errors.  That, no doubt,could be because my life has been spent teaching a language, were it not that my husband, who has never been an educator, is just the same. 

Finally, please remember that you have a successful career.  Your students, whether they like it or not, will be judged not only on their academic success but on their presentation.  If the choice is between two candidates of equal academic value, but one uses ungrammatical language, it might be the cause of his or her being discarded.

Yes, I am old, but I am not senile.

Good luck.  I  hope your career goes from strength to strength.


I was silent and she wrote again.

   From: ML
   Sent: 04 August 2013 08:58
   To: Sugata Mitra
   Subject: A final note
   Obviously, you think you have to have the last word.  And equally obviously, your education has had a bad effect upon you.  What a shame.  We teachers should all be sacked and children left to educate themselves.  What point is there in teaching hoi polloi to communicate effectively with the majority of other people?  Why should we learn other languages when we can communicate  by Iphone?
   And what use  is history?  It is all over and done with!
   Let us abolish geography.  We can see it all on the TV  set or whatever  follows that.
   Surely you, in your job, must realise that most technology becomes obsolete,  relatively quickly.
   However, reading and writing are lifelong skills that only let you down if either you have not learned them or you have not practiced them frequently.
   I know that I am one of the relatively few people who glory in written and spoken good language.  In fact, I am part of a group locally, to whom the local NHS sends leaflets ahead of publication, for correction and the elimination of jargon (which I detest even more than bad grammar).  Why use " going forward' instead of "in the future"? I was one of those who told the NHS that the phrase "Liverpool Death Pathway" was cruel and misleading.
   I know that you will not succeed in your crusade to have grammar eliminated from ths school curriculum.  I believe that you know that and that your aim was to make yourself better known.
   It worked but not, I believe, to your advantage in the end.
   Sorry, I cannot prolong this correspondence.  I must get back to my knitting.
  On 4 Aug 2013, at 11:31, Sugata Mitra wrote:
   Actually I quite agree with most of the things you have said.
   Its just that you didn't understand the difference between 'we don't need to teach spelling' and 'we don't need to learn spelling'. I said the former and not the latter.
   Reading comprehension is a serious problem nowadays :)
   Sugata Mitra

  From: ML
  Sent: 04 August 2013 13:49
  To: Sugata Mitra
  Subject: Re: A final note
  Indeed  I do understand the difference.  But children will not learn in the crowded classrooms of today, unless someone teaches them.
  I learned without being taught because, believe it or not, I have (or rather had) a pretty intelligent mind and a grandmother who devoted all her time to reading to me.  The result was that I astonished visitors by reading at the age of 2 and by 3, my parents had to hide their letters from me as I could read handwriting too.  I had the library tickets for the whole family and, by the age of 9, had exhausted the children's library.  I was given permission at that age to join the adult library.  So, I had  2 great advantages.
   But most children do not have a family member whose time is entirely devoted to them. They come from homes where there are no books and where both parents work.  Indeed, many parents will  have a reading age below 11 years.
  Therefore, my grammar, comprehension and spelling did not have to be taught. Would that all children were like that.  While the present situation exists, we have to teach them.
  Interestingly, when children were taught French through books, they hardly ever made spelling errors in that language.  In about 20 years I met only one pupil who misspelled in French.  it turned out that she was dyslexic.  And, in time, the pupils  also learned to speak French, too and correctly.  I was pretty fluent when I took my exams, yet we had no particular emphasis on speaking.
  Once we started teaching them through an oral method we threw the baby out with the bath water.  They made spelling errors but were no better at speaking, because they were in classes of over 30 and 3 forty minute lessons per week are not enough.  Yet, by A Level (I was  a senior A Level examiner for spoken French, so I travelled around schools and colleges) they were truly fluent.  Their written  French was another matter.  They had not really been taught that, in written work, bad grammar often causes misunderstanding.
  This really is my final missive.  My knitting is being neglected.
On 5 Aug 2013, at 15:25, Sugata Mitra wrote:

  If you knew how to search on the Internet, you would find I am trying to get children their grannies back through technology. Its called the Granny Cloud, and thousands of children in Colombia, India and other places have spent hundreds of hours with their English grannies.
  And yes, children can, and do, teach themselves spelling, grammar and general communication, using the Internet.
  Anyway, I do despise terms like 'moving forward' or 'out of the box'  and all one has to do is ask a group of children if these are good usage or not. No need to teach, be a granny.
  Lastly, I will remember your phrase 'they know no better' with horror. It is this belief with which the Victorians destroyed country after country.....but thats another story.
  Knit away.
  Sugata Mitra

Her last email to me.



Saturday, July 13, 2013

Schools in the Cloud – What could they be?

 Let’s look back at some past work:

1.   Groups of children can learn to use a computer and the Internet by themselves, under certain conditions described a little later. This is a finding from a set of experiments between 1999 – 2004, often called the ‘hole in the wall’ experiments.

2.     There are places all over the planet where it is difficult or impossible to build schools.

3.     There are places all over the world where good teachers cannot, or do not wish to go.

4.     Children who know how to read can use the Internet in groups to research and answer questions far ahead of their traditional curriculum.

5.     This kind of learning is a ‘self organizing system’ in the technical sense of those words. It happens in a ‘minimally invasive’ environment and appears to be a  ‘emergent phenomenon’, again, in the technical sense of those words.

6.     The emergence of learning in children from a chaotic, self organized situation seems to be helped by the occasional presence of an admiring, interested, but not necessarily knowledgeable, adult or adults.

7.     Reading comprehension is a key requirement for this kind (perhaps any kind) of learning.

8.     We don’t know, but can ask, whether children in groups can learn to read by themselves. This question is courtesy Nicholas Negroponte. We could also ask if children in groups can read at higher levels of comprehension than individually.

Is it possible to put all this together into a learning system for children in need?

If you give children, below the age of 13, access to a computer connected to the Internet, they learn how to use it. However, there are some conditions for this to happen.

1.     The computer has to be in a safe, public place so that parents will let children come there. A playground, for example, is a good place. Public visibility is important so that people can see what the children are doing and the children know this.

2.     There should be no adult directing them, children don’t like having people breathing down their necks watching their every move.

3.     About four or five children with one computer seems to be the optimal number.

4.     They should know that they are free to do what they like and there is no pre-selected activity. What they choose to do is a group decision. Usually they find and choose to play games.

If you then ensure the computer is in working order, children begin to tire of games in a month or so and look for other activity. Painting is a very popular activity and they learn to save and load pictures in the process. Some children learn to look for and install games from the Internet. In the process they discover Google.

If they can read sufficiently well in English or some other language that is adequately represented on the Internet, such as Spanish, Italian, Chinese etc., children begin to search for answers to questions. These questions are usually about games, but in the process of looking up these words related to games, they stumble upon other sites. In about six months time, they begin to understand keyword searching.

Some begin to search for homework related materials while others look for news or sports. I have seen some look for a job for their fathers, a horoscope forecast for their family, or medicines for the elderly.  They must have considered these questions important.

If a group of children find a question that they think is important, they will search for an answer. On the Internet, this will usually result in finding good information. Groups of children, in the presence of good information will discuss possible answers. Most of the time, such a process results in the emergence of good answers. A by-product of this process is learning.

We can bring this process into classrooms through Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs). This is now fairly well understood and accepted by many teachers around the world.

We can ‘beam’ people to places where they cannot physically go by using the Internet. The ‘Granny Cloud’ is a group of mediators that are Skyped into schools. It has been in existence since 2009 and is currently (2013), quite active.

Can the SOLE and the Granny Cloud come together?

Well, we have some problems:

1.     Are SOLEs really self-organizing? When conducted in a classroom, children are asked to make groups (by themselves), each group is given an Internet connection and they are asked to answer a question. We allow them to move around, change groups, talk and look at each other’s work. But it is we who are telling them to do all this. Are we moving away from the chaotic self-organization of the hole in the wall? (this question is courtesy C.Y. Gopinath). We could argue that an ‘attractor’ or a ‘seed’ is required for emergent behavior to happen in a self organizing system. But is the adult organizing a SOLE just a seed? Or is this adult the traditional teacher in disguise. Is it fake? This is a troublesome question.

2.     If self organized learning is an alternative to traditional teaching, then how is the Granny Cloud of any use? Are we not bringing traditional teaching back, disguised with some clever technology? To my mind the Granny Cloud was to improve children’s English, but did I actually mean to ‘teach’ English? “The first granny said, "How did you do that?!" She …sold them on their own power. Then (on the Granny Cloud) you said, "sorts everything out." I hope you misspoke. I hope your granny cloud does nothing of the sort. I hope they don't work one-on-one with struggling learners because that would take us back to the empire.” wrote Thomas Garrod in an email to me.

3.     None of the original holes in the wall are in working condition. Payal Arora pointed this out, several years ago. Technical sustainability is a big problem, often confused with the sustainability or the usability of the method of self organized learning.

The TED prize gives us the opportunity to sort all this out and get some answers.

Schools in the Cloud must be sustainable facilities that provide unsupervised self organized learning environments to children. The role of the Cloud Granny reverts to the admiring adult, who sometimes asks a question, but mostly observes and records learning as it happens.

But what about reading comprehension? I don’t know.  The eMediators will have to tell me how to do this, as we progress. This will be our central research question.

The role of the Granny Cloud will be somewhat different when they are remotely in charge of a School in the Cloud. In addition to developing one or more approaches to how they will interact with the children, they will also have access to much of the hardware in the facility. They will eventually be able to turn the lights on or off, check the batteries in solar powered systems, look anywhere in the facility, and, perhaps, ‘walk’ around through multiple cameras.

“A session is not a lesson”, Jackie Barrow had once said. That just about sums it up.

Seven facilities will be set up over the next year or so. Five will be in India ranging from very remote villages to urban slums and the urban middle class. Two will be set up in England, in relatively affluent areas with excellent schools. What we do in each of them will, I think, emerge, as we go along.

What else can one do when studying emergent phenomena?