Minimally Invasive Education

hole-in-the-wall-computers-2bwsvxlAnyone who is interested in Sudbury should familiarize themselves with the very important research of Sugata Mitra.  Beginning in 1999 Mitra and his team began a series of experiments to test whether young people could teach themselves how to use computers.  The cumulative findings are nothing short of stunning.

Regardless of location, education, gender, ethnicity, language or economic background, within a few months of free access to computers and the internet young people could:
  • Become computer literate on their own, that is to say, learn to use computers and the Internet for most of the tasks carried out by lay users;
  • Teach themselves sufficient English to use email, chat and search engines;
  • Learn to search the Internet for answers to their questions;
  • Improve their English pronunciation on their own;
  • Improve their mathematics and science scores in school;
  • Answer examination questions several years before they might normally be capable of doing so; and
  • Develop their social interaction skills and value systems.

In a particularly revealing 2007 experiment Mitra loaded some academic material written in English about molecular biology onto one of the computers in a remote Tamil-speaking hamlet in rural India.  The only thing the young people were told was as follows:  “There is some interesting new material on the computer, it is in English and it may be a bit hard to understand, but will you take a look at it?”  The researches believed that this phrasing was crucial because they did not want to instruct the young people to study the material, but rather only invite them to look at it.

Again, the results were stunning.  Here is Mitra in his own words:

I came back after two months, and the 26 children marched in looking very, very quiet. I said, “Well, did you look at any of the stuff?” They said, “Yes, we did.” “Did you understand anything?” “No, nothing.” So I said, “Well, how long did you practice on it before you decided you understood nothing?” They said, “We look at it every day.” So I said, “For two months, you were looking at stuff you didn’t understand?” So a 12 year-old girl raises her hand and says, literally, “Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing else.”

After only 150 days exposure to the material these Tamil-speaking young people scored as well on a molecular biology test as their counterparts at an urban elite private school where English was the primary language and molecular biology was taught as a subject by certified teachers.

It would be a mistake to think this research only applies to the mostly poor rural areas where it was conducted.  We are blessed with this research precisely because those areas are so remote and poor they lacked schools and/or qualified teachers in the first place.  It was the very lack of these traditional systems that gave room for these large-scale experiments to reveal their profound results.

Professor Mitra coined the term Minimally Invasive Education (MIE) to describe his method of inserting an educational tool with nothing more into the midst of young people and then getting out of the way.  According to Mitra education is a self-organizing system where learning is the emergent phenomenon.  At Sudbury it’s called normal.

(Professor Mitra has a TED talk here.  For those who want to dig deeper the published academic papers can be found here.)


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