Friday 7 November 2014

Shut up and get out of the way

Some time ago, I was regularly excited by TED and its talks.  I used to download their 20 minutes pieces-to-camera on company time, because we had such a terrible connexion at home, so I've probably got 200 talks on a hard-drive somewhere in the house. Then it all started to pall: the business model seemed to be exclusive and self-congratulatory - a club for rich and successful people who needed to be endutained when they met. The earnest and relentless feel-good - "heart-warming" was one of the tags you could search for - threatened to insulate the real audience and us in the cheap seats off-site from actually going out to do something useful.  Then last Sunday night I was cooking for my-Bobby-no-pals-self and whacked on the radio to see what was happening.  The TED Radio Hour was happening & I got to hear an extraordinary vindication of an educational programme that we allowed to run for 20 years.

Dr Sugata Mitra has a PhD in solid-state physics so nobody doubts that he is smart.  What he's shown is that kids are smart as well.  Not just the middle-class children who are being hot-housed for Harvard, but children from the other side of the tracks too, children from the other side of the world. A fortunate series of events had him set up the Hole in the Wall [HIW] experiment in a city slum in Delhi. This amounted to a computer screen and a mouse-pad embedded in a wall 100 cm off the ground. That was all. The insatiably curious local children mastered this new toy and used it to draw and paint, record their own music, surf the interweb and find out things that they felt they needed to know.  Dr Mitra had a parallel screen in his office at the University and he could monitor progress. Suspecting that a geeky student had wandered in to the ghetto and given the youngsters some impromptu tutorials, Mitra set up a similar system in a remote 2-cow village 300km from Delhi.  The results were effectively the same, the local children mastered the operating system, picking up enough English as a necessary but trivial stepping-stone, and went off to learn and create extraordinary things.

The limits were pushed when Mitra set up a computer in a remote Tamil speaking village in Southern India and challenged a cohort of 12 y.o.s to learn about biotechnology. He maintained that he knew nothing about the subject, so regrettably he was unable to guide them in any sensible way; but he assured them that the subject was hot, sexy and important and caught the plane back to Delhi. That was a bit of an ask because he knew that college-going young adults back at the University found the subject hard and these kids had no tutor available. When he returned two months later, he found his young protegés glum and claiming that they didn't understand anything  . . . “apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease”.  Which is a fair enough summary of molecular medicine as we understand it today. And they had taught themselves English to get at the details of adenosine-tri-phosphate, ribosomes and reverse transcriptase. It's not that Indians are the master race[s]: the same thing happened in Gateshead across the River Tyne from Mitra's office at Newcastle University in England.  The HIW project was the inspiration of the book and the film of the book Slumdog Millionaire, which I haven't seen yet because we live so very remote in Ireland.

The TED talk is heart-warming and inspiring and all those TEDdy things, but I've been there myself with Dau.I and Dau.II: stepping back and letting them at it as they each carved out a chunk of the known world and made it their own, and built it up into a tool-set with which to face the world and contribute to the society which they are going to make.  They were, and are, every bit as smart and curious and unafraid as any illiterate contemporary from the backwoods of India. School is fine, school can be fun, but it's not necessary for education, Executive summary in TES. More on Shutting Up.

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