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.

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  We know that technology changes very rapidly, and whatever statements are made will be out of date very quickly.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?

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Three graves from another time..

As you enter the Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, you encounter an impressive Bengali 'Chhatri'. It is the grave of Raja Rammohun Roy.

Educational reformer, religious reformer and the man who abolished the 'suttee' system of burning widows on their husbands funeral pyres.

He was also the last Moghul Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zaffar's ambassador to Britain. The plaque on the tomb says it all.

The grave was built by one of the richest men of those times, Dwarkanath Tagore. It was designed by William Prinsep, a name that many would remember on the banks of the Hoogly in Calcutta. 

Its not so grand at the next graveyard, the Kensal Green Cemetery in London. Entering the cemetery, if you walk straight down, you will encounter an unassuming grave. It is the grave of Dwarkanath Tagore, grandfather of the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize - Rabindranath Tagore. 

The Kensal Green Cemetery on Harrow Road, London

Dwarkanath was a businessman of some acumen. What is business was is, perhaps, best left unsaid (Rabindranath destroyed his papers). But he was rich. Rich enough to go to London to negotiate with Queen Victoria to buy out half the business rights of the East India Company and take over all trading in eastern India. But it was not to be, he died of a heart attack in London. 

Dwarkanath Tagore's grave


He would never know that his grandson would be India's national poet and one of the greatest poets of our times. 

But his grandson's story takes us to yet another grave. 

Far away, in Buenos Aires, Argentina is an incredible graveyard called the La Recoleta. It is a city of the dead. 

La Recoleta in Buenos Aires

If you walk straight into the graveyard for quite a distance, you will come to the grave of Victoria O'Campo.

Tagore met Victoria on a trip to Argentina and brought her to Shantiniketan in Bengal. That story is well documented, so I need not recount it here. 

Victoria O'Campo's grave

Well, that ends my story of graves. I feel fortunate to have touched the stone that surrounds the remains of Rammohun Roy, Dwarkanath Tagore and Victoria O'Campo.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Physics of Education?

The behaviour of children in Self-Organised Learning Environments everywhere Is reminiscent of self-organising systems. A self-organising system (SOS) consists of a set of entities that obtains an emerging global system behaviour via local interactions without centralised control (Elmenreich,W. and de Meer,H.(2008). Self-organising systems fall under the general area of Chaos Theory in Physics. It is interesting to apply the definition of Chaos to education in general: ‘A system whose long term behaviour is unpredictable, tiny changes in the accuracy of the starting value rapidly diverge to anywhere in its possible state space. There can however be a finite number of available states, so statistical prediction can still be useful.’ (Complex Systems Glossary, Internet references).

The sentence above perhaps sums up, in the language of Physics, what we understand as education and assessment. Working with a group of children, a school cannot predict what will emerge at the end of schooling, but can make statistical guesses based on test scores.

In a SOLE, children seem to maximise the information content of what they are researching. This too is uncannily close to the definition of the term ‘Edge of Chaos’. The definition is ‘the tendency of dynamic systems to self-organise to a state roughly midway between globally static (unchanging) and chaotic (random) states. This can also be regarded as the liquid phase, half way between solid (static) and gas (random) natural states. In information theory this is the state containing the maximum information.’ (Complex Systems Glossary, Internet references).

Finally an explanation of the children’s ability to read in groups above their individual capabilities could be found in the science of Emergence. Emergence is commonly found in nature and is the appearance of properties that are not evident in the parts of a system. Nebula’s, flowers, cells, markets all show emergent behaviour. The definition is: ‘System properties that are not evident from those of the parts. A higher level phenomenon that cannot be reduced to that of the simpler constituents and needs new concepts to be introduced. This property is neither simply an aggregate one, nor epiphenomenal, but often exhibits 'downward causation'. Modelling emergent dynamical hierarchies is central to future complexity research’ (Complex Systems Glossary, Internet references).

These subjects are in their infancy. However, they have the potential to explain not just how learning happens, but why it happens the way it does.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The future of people?

Schools are designed to produce children who will:
-please their parents (because they send the children to school)
-please the government (because they pay for the school)

Schools are not designed for:
-employers (because they don't pay schools)
-peers (because who cares what peers think? they dont count)

20 or more years later, parents would be gone, the government changed 5 times, the employers - starnge new jobs. The peers would be only ones around, for whose desires we do not design schools.

From neuroscience:

- threat perception stops the prefrontal cortex from rational thought. a teacher hovering around produces threat perception, as do examinations

- suppression of emotion also stops the prefrontal cortex, this is what happens when we 'engineer' behaviour.

creative thought and imagination activate when there is no threat perception, no emotion suppression, peer interaction and imaginative problems.

From history:

- the education system is designed to produce identical clerks to run an empire that does not exist and a manufacturing industry that has gone away.

In other words, we are doing everything - exactly wrong.

The curriculum should be taken from the nature of the Universe and our purpose, if any. The universe has a scale from around zero to the 30th power of 10 as far as I can guess. Time goes from the big bang to plus infinity as far as we know. If we examine each power of ten over each epoch of time, will get a curriculum.

Then we can use a combination of the findings of neurosciece and peer expectations to build an education that will produce people who cannot run empires, fight wars, kill animals, hit other people - but are quite intersting, fun to be with and get along well with each other.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

My School on Saturday

My school is shaped like a hexagon. I know that’s a big word, but it’s simple. Really. A hexagon has six sides. My school is a hexagon because it has six sides. Do you know why? Well, because six carbon atoms can make a hexagon. When carbon atoms join up they do this with bonds. Like tiny elastic strings that join them. One string is called a single bond and two strings are called a double bond. Double bonds are stronger than single bonds, of course. When six carbon atoms make a hexagon, they use one single bond, then a double bond, then a single and so on. That makes the hexagon stronger. And then, you can fix a hydrogen atom to each carbon atom, at all the corners of the hexagon, and you get a molecule called Benzene. Benzene smells rather nice and it burns like petrol, so you have to be very careful with it.

The benzene ring.

Benzene is very important. It’s because of Benzene that we have life on Earth. Benzene rings can join up together to make really big molecules. That’s what our bodies are made of. Trees, animals, food, plastics are all made of benzene rings. Everyone knows this of course. I learnt this when I was very little and now I look for more complicated things because I am much older. I am nine, and a half.

My school is shaped to look like a Benzene ring from the air. There are six circular domes connected by corridors, double corridors for the double bonds and single corridors for the single bonds. The domes are called C1 to C6. Connected to each dome there is another small corridor leading to six smaller circular rooms called H1 to H6.

We can do what we like in my school. First, we decide what we want to know and how to know it. Sometime we choose study. This means you have to listen to a teacher and write down what she says. Most of the time we learn – by getting together with our friends and surfing and searching the Cloud. I don’t like studying much because it makes me feel sleepy.

My school

On Saturday, Pa and Mum and I had a big breakfast, but things were not good after that. Pa got really annoyed with mum and threw his coffee on the ground. They were arguing and made me go up to my room. I didn’t want to so I stood near the door until Pa said, ‘Jini, get out’ so loudly that I started to cry and ran upstairs. I knew then he was going to hit mum and I heard her sobbing and falling.

I tried not to listen but they were really loud, so I put on my earplugs and told Prime that I was not happy. Prime said to take it near the door so it could listen too. Pa was saying things I couldn’t understand and he was kicking and slapping my mum.

‘Go to school, Jini’, said Prime.

‘But its Saturday’

‘GO TO SCHOOL’, Prime said, loudly.

I put Prime in its silicone case, hung it around my neck and slipped out of the back door. It took twenty minutes of running to reach school and it was all closed. Prime connected with school and everything came on at once. I could not see very well because I was crying. Not a lot, you know. Just a bit.

All the walls in my school are of glass and I ran into H4 because I saw Granny Diane come on sleepily on the wall. She is my best friend, although she was not looking her best, early morning in her country, Belgium, four and a half hours behind Indian time.

‘Good morning, Diane, why are you here on Saturday?’, I asked.

‘Your Prime called me Jini, are you OK?’

Diane has a soft voice and it makes me feel very comfortable so we sat and talked for a long time. Diane told me about people and relationships and how not to get worried about things. She was also typing all the time, I could tell, although she pretended not to.

I ended up having a really good time that morning because two kids from Malaga came on the side screen and we played with virtual Lego for a while. It was a bit slow because we had to use Google Voice Translate to talk – they speak only Spanish in Malaga, you know. Then Mr. Maskall from Australia came on looking very sleepy because it was past his bedtime and told me about the time we found life on Titan and how excited everyone was.

At four, Prime said I should go home, so I went and school locked itself up.

My parents were out and Prime said they had gone to a counsellor and would be back in the evening. I propped Prime up on the lawn and played virtual tennis with it until I was really tired. Then we went in and Played SimCity for a while. You know, a city runs really well if you adjust the demand-supply curves properly.

Monday is curriculum day. Oh, I know it’s another big word but we have to do it. Curriculum is about what we have to learn. Every Monday we decide what we want to learn that week. We look for BIG questions on the Cloud and also ask the Granny Cloud of course. Then we make up a plan and take it to Mrs Steel. She then makes a plan for us. Prime said Sumeeta is online and I connected.

‘I don’t have any time, Jini’, said Sumeeta. She always says that and then talks for an hour. She told me about how seasonal fruits have the right vitamins for us, but the question is why is it that way? Really, do they know what we need? That’s a cool question I thought. Prime said it will remember that question for Monday.

‘I hope they don’t ask all this in the exam’, I said to Prime.

‘Exams are only to find out if you know how to learn something’, said Prime

‘Of course I know how to learn things, stupid!’

‘Well the school needs to know that’, said Prime in a matter of fact way. I put Prime upside down and it went to sleep.

Mum and Pa came back at six. I was a bit anxious but it was OK. Pa said he was sorry about what happened in the morning and he will try not to be that way again

I know! I know what happened. Their Primes must have listened in the morning too. And then talked to my Prime. And they must have talked to Diane, that’s why she was up so early and why she was text chatting while talking to me. She must have organised the counselling.

I woke Prime up and asked about counselling. Prime said the counsellors try to calm people down when they are angry and sometimes use medicines. They used to do this to children a long time ago, when they thought children who don’t pay attention have some disease. But someone found out that it is adults who make children behave that way and invented medicines to treat them, the adults. Lucky us!

Pa had got himself a very big whiskey and was sitting watching 3V in the living room. Mum looked quite cheerful and was playing with her Prime. I sat down next to Pa, his stomach is like a trampoline, very nice.

‘I am having a bad time in office’, said Pa, ‘the quantum entanglement storage device isn’t storing half as much data as it should, I can’t even get a thousand terabytes in a square micron’

I had heard him complain about this before.

‘I am going to ask Serge on Monday, maybe he will have an idea’. I said.

‘Who is Serge?’, asked Pa

‘He is very old, more than 110 years, but he says he knows a bit about quantum entanglement. He is there on Mondays on the Granny Cloud’

Pa sat up and stared at me, ‘Do you mean Serge Haroche?’

‘He won the Nobel Prize!’

‘Yes, I think that’s him’, I said, yawning.

Pa was silent for a while. Then he got up and went to the kitchen sink and poured his whiskey out. Then he came back and we talked about collapsing waves of probability. Even mum didn’t interrupt.

That night I dreamt of an old man with a funny German name. He put a cat into a box with some poison that may or may not work, and closed the lid. He said, as long as the box remained closed, the cat was alive and dead at the same time. As soon as you open the box, it would be either alive or dead.

It’s funny what old people say.