Sugata Mitra was born in India in 1952. He earned a doctorate in solid state physics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi before beginning research in battery technology at the Technische Universität in Vienna. He then became a Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences in England at the University of Newscastle upon Tyne. Today, considered a specialist in education science, Sugata Mitra distinguishes himself thanks to his “Hole in the Wall” experiment which led him to believe that education is a system that self-organizes.
In 1999, Sugata Mitra questioned the autonomous learning capacity of children. He heard of numerous well-off families enraptured by their offspring’s technical computer prowess which made him question the learning process of children. He then put in place his famous experiment, the “Hole in the wall” that involved installing a computer in a wall with the screen and mouse protruding. The first was installed in a slum, with subsequent ones throughout different Indian villages. The success was immediate and systematic. Without formal training, the children learned to use the computer and to navigate the Web, regardless of their profile and social origin. In nine months, according to Sugata Mitra, the children attained the skills of a secretary in an industrialized country.
The principal of autonomous learning was brought to light.
He didn’t stop there, because he wanted to see how far he could go. He tried other types of learning; and, the results were identical to his first experiment. He then decided to try to dismantle his first hypothesis and prove that children need a teacher to learn. He asked himself, “Can a 12-year-old Tamil-speaking child learn by himself, in English and from a street computer, about DNA replication?”
He established the experimental protocol, chose a village, downloaded on the computer all that he found on the Internet about replicating DNA. When questioned by the children when he gave them the computer, he responded systematically, “I haven’t the foggiest idea!”. Two months later, he returned to the village to evaluate the children. They told him they worked at it every day, even if they didn’t understand anything, but they still wanted to try. At the first evaluation, the group of children earned three on ten, even though the researcher thought he would never see anything over zero. For the next two months, he asked a young girl to stand behind the children and encourage them regularly, as a grandmother would do. The result of the evaluation went up to five on ten. Sugata Mitra stopped the experiment there; the same result was obtained in a private school in Calcutta where the children followed teacher-led classes.
These experiments proved to Sugata Mitra that today’s schools are obsolete. He insists that they function very well; however, this education system is no longer adapted for the current needs. He explains that this way of proceeding can be historically traced back to the British Empire and fulfilled the needs of the time, particularly in the need to survive in case of threat. That era has long gone. Although it is still relevant to know how to read with a critical mind, handwriting or mental calculation no longer represent the same issue. Furthermore, we now know that the reptilian brain blocks the rest of the brain in case of threat, especially the prefrontal cortex which is used for learning. Sugata Mitra adds that punishments and exams are perceived as threats. The need today, says the researcher, is to give creativity the place it deserves.
Consequently, the researcher advocates for minimally invasive education, because the main thing is to give place to the student’s desire to learn and not to force learning. The process of learning must be initiated by the person himself. According to Sugata, it would therefore be relevant to redefine the role of teachers. He invented various concepts in the field of cognitive science and in educational technology. He created the “Granny Cloud”: grandmothers who, via the Internet, are put in contact with children who want support. Building on this concept, he put SOLE (Self-Organized Learning Environment) in place, which requires broadband, collaboration, and encouragement: the three essential elements of learning. This model has been tested successfully in different schools around the planet.
Regarding the future, Sugata Mitra casts a quizzical look: what will work look like? “Are we moving towards a world in which knowledge will be obsolete? According to him, we know that people will work from all over the world, whenever they want and how they want, something today’s schools do not fulfill. The researcher believes that a school program should be based on big questions for which students would look for answers as the teacher guides and admires their discoveries. The student would therefore be at the center of the learning process. As Sugata Mitra says, “Education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”