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Sugata Mitra: The Ignorant School Teacher?

There has been a lot of debate about the  ideas of Sugata Mitra after his recent plenary at IATEFL. Find a nice summary of these posts / discussions through this post.

I'm kind of confused by all the kerfuffle. I've been writing and thinking about Mitra's constructivist premise... for 7 or 8 years and have seen his plenary a few times. It's nothing new but somehow in ELT it is now a hot topic. I think this points to our insularity as a profession (and also sensitivity towards the security of our own jobs) than anything else.  I also think most posting about what he's experimenting on (and Mitra is very clear that he's experimenting and not making stark conclusions) are missing the key points he's trying to make. The debate isn't about declaring teachers defunct or of technology as a panacea. This totally misses what he's really talking about .... 

1. Mitra is positing an age old idea, the idea, almost Rousseauian that learners/students can acquire knowledge and learn on their own and without the aid of a "master".  I use the word "master" in reference to Jacques Ranciere's wonderful book, "The Ignorant Schoolmaster".  It posits this same question and in one chapter telling the story of a French teacher, Joseph Jacotot who in 1818 discovered that he didn't need to teach his Flemish students French. He found out by accident that they could learn French on their own, when provided the right conditions.  Read Ranciere's outlining of his philosophy on which the book/story is based - The Ignorant Schoolmaster.doc  or the original - Ranciere: Intellectual Adventure.pdf

Mitra is seeking to close the distance between students and knowledge/learning, the distance that traditional school sets in place. That's his main point. This doesn't mean we won't need teachers, just that a teacher's job might be quite different and about creating the conditions of learning and not controlling the processes of learning.  Mitra is also along the lines of Ranciere, suggesting that teachers can teach things they do not know - that there might be an important role for "ignorant" teachers to play. 

"If children know there is someone standing over them who knows all the answers, they are less inclined to find the answers for themselves."
"It would be better, in a way, if any adults present were completely uneducated. There is nothing children like more than passing on information they have just discovered to people who may not already have it"

2. I also think Mitra is most importantly trying to address the crucial question of where all the teachers will come from in a world with an exploding population and need / hunger for education. He's positing a solution to this and showing through technology, there is another way for the billions to gain quality education without the creation of a vast infastructure nor a huge expenditure. he's for providing access to all the "slumdogs" of the world. And again, he's asking us, where will all the teachers come from, to teach as our traditional schools presently do? We certainly don't have an answer to that and continuing down the road the present paradigm/system offers, will doom billions to poverty and mcjobs. 

"Teachers are not supposed to be repositories of information which they dish out. That is from an age when there were no other repositories of information, other than books or teachers, neither of which were portable. A lot of my big task is retraining these teachers."
"The best schools tend to have the best teachers, not to mention parents who supervise homework, so there is less need for self-organised learning. But where a child comes from a less supportive home environment, where there are family tensions perhaps, their schoolwork can suffer. They need to be taught to think and study for themselves."

I could point out many weaknesses in Mitra's work. There are a lot of holes and he also doesn't address a number of crucial variables regarding the implementation of his ideas. I'll refrain from a long post commenting on these, they are obvious. However, let's applaud him for raising these two issues to the forefront where they rightly belong. 

PS. - I highly recommend this, as Mitra's best lecture and presentation of his ideas. A must to watch and think about .... 

Views: 1547


Supporter
Comment by Graham Stanley on April 8, 2014 at 4:58pm

"This doesn't mean we won't need teachers, just that a teachers job might be quite different and about creating the conditions of learning and not controlling the processes of learning."

- This is not true. I first thought this, and so reacted the way I did (defending him) before I had the chance to watch the plenary. Listen carefully to his IATEFL plenary and the interview and you will hear a very different set of ideas being voiced. 


Supporter
Comment by ddeubel on April 8, 2014 at 5:48pm

Hi Graham,

Yes, point taken that in the interview he starkly says something about teachers' jobs disappearing (but don't get his point about bus drivers, still a lot of them around....). However later, he retracks and talks about the "teachers" being in school but not "teaching" and having a different role.  Yes, contradictory. 

I still maintain after briefly meeting the man, attending in person a couple of his Future of Learning presentations and watching many interviews/lectures of his online - that he sees schools as still part of the equation and within schools no teachers but people who will create the conditions in which SOLEs will occur.  I call them teachers, maybe Mr. Mitra does not. 


Supporter
Comment by Graham Stanley on April 8, 2014 at 6:51pm

David, that's all very well, and I think the idea of reaching places in rural India where there aren't teachers is a great idea and one which the SOLE is tailor made for. I also applaud the hole-in-the-wall project for being a bold solution to the problem of no teachers in rural areas. Setting up SOLEs in the north-east of England, though sounds dubious to me. It's also not just about what you call someone, teacher, or not, but the training and experience that person has, and whether they are paid or not. My problem with SOLEs in the UK is that I can see a proposal being brought forward to the government to cut the number of teachers by half in UK schools and replace them with groups of kids in SOLEs, overseen by the occasional visit by a kindly grandmother. It seems an inevitable conclusion to the line of research Suagata Mitra is following in the UK at the moment, and a worrying potential future. It would certainly save money, but I think children's education would suffer for it, not to mention the numbers of teachers put out of a job. I am uncomfortable with the implication, which was made on Saturday (it may not have been made in previous talks with the same name, but it was made then) that you don't need teachers, you just need a 'grandmother' figure (unpaid, volunteer, without any training or knowledge of education). What I recognise as a brilliant idea to a particular problem in the context of Indian rural schools (it's not the best idea - the best idea would be to get good teachers physically in those schools), I see as a particularly bad idea in places where trained 'teachers' (let's agree to call a spade a spade!) are available. With the social status of teachers in most places in the world not being very high (and education levels suffering because of it - just look at Finland for proof of what happens when a teacher is valued by society), I think the direction SM is moving in at the moment is very much one not to be lauded and applauded, but one that needs to be challenged and opposed.


Supporter
Comment by ddeubel on April 8, 2014 at 7:41pm

Graham,

I agree that all things considered, MUCH better to have a trained and passionate teacher in the classroom. I'm not in favor of the "no teacher solution" unless as you say, it is an alternative where no other option exists.  [that's not to say I don't think there are problems with "how" teaching is done but these should be addressed by training, support, mentorship of teachers].

And yes, when and if those like Sugata Mitra get into bed with the techophiles that only see cost and return, (but won't admit to this), then there is a problem. 

However, I will say that in regards to "teacher status" this doesn't always translate into a great educational system or students that are prepared for the world as it is and will become. I spent years teacher training in Korea, teachers there are highly valued, well paid. Still, the return and students that are produced I would say are not what I'd call "well prepared" despite the dry numbers of PISA etc..... What works in the case of Finland is the freedom teachers have to deliver curriculum as they see fit - they can do things in the classroom others teachers could never and they are thus highly motivated and get better results because they teach in a way that fits them. They still need to obtain common objectives but how they do that is entirely up to them. Plus, they are well supported and not just financially. 

One of the problems too is that Sugata doesn't have a background in education and doesn't understand well the diversity of the school body. Further, he doesn't have the vocabulary and metalinguistic knowledge to properly convey his ideas to a teaching community. This makes things problematic and so he tends to "dumb it down" and use metaphors which may be misinterpreted. 


Supporter
Comment by Graham Stanley on April 8, 2014 at 7:56pm

I think I agree with all of the above, David - glad to have had this discussion


Supporter
Comment by lakshminarayanan rangarao on April 9, 2014 at 5:57am

My connectivity has been very poor so I wasn't able to listen to Sugata Mitra's presentation as indicated by 'this' towards the end of your write-up. 

From whatever little I could gather from what little I heard, Sugata is talking about difficulty getting teachers to teach so many millions in rural areas of India. Yes, the number of children that should be attending school is very high in comparison to the number of teachers available. The disparity in the proportion is not because teachers are just not available, but because though there are thousands of graduates and postgraduates are available, there is no attempt by governments to lure them to teach in schools. A teaching job doesn't weigh high in the minds of parents when it comes to choosing bridegrooms. The existing teachers don't get much support from either emplyers--private Trusts who are in the majority running profit-making school industry and the government--for consultation or participation in curriculum planning, book writing.  

In Sugata's intent I can concern for the welfare of those poor children not getting the education they have a right to. And so he probably proposes a solution he thinks best to solve the problem. But his statistical interpretation of teachers not being available to man schools doesn't hold water. There is more to it than he thinks there is. Someone should tell him that. 


Supporter
Comment by ddeubel on April 9, 2014 at 7:56am

Hi LR,

Try the link at the bottom of the post. That should run on very low bandwidth and its an excellent lecture/talk - especially after 1hour, the q and a. 

I do agree, there is  always in education "a lot more to it" than fits into our usual mental frameworks. It's not something that fits into any straight forward, neat and tidy, "solution".  It's dynamic and always changing and has to be danced with like that, on the ground. 


Supporter
Comment by lakshminarayanan rangarao on April 10, 2014 at 4:57am

I couldn't respond immediately because my connectivity was down totally. I don't see any link at the bottom of the post.


Supporter
Comment by ddeubel on April 10, 2014 at 12:03pm

Supporter
Comment by lakshminarayanan rangarao on April 12, 2014 at 1:26pm

Thanks, David. I'll try. 

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