Finding the hole in the HE wall – learner engagement

Sugata Mitra’s story about how children in New Delhi flocked to a computer screen built into a wall like a bank ATM is well-known (see his TED Talks). Driven by their sheer curiorisity and niavity, he tells the tale of how children with fresh open minds  co-operated, driven by their compulsion to learn despite their adverse conditions. 

I was fortunate enough to attend the Yorkshire & Humberside WEA AGM on Saturday to which Professor Sugata Mitra had been invited to give the keynote based on his work since 1999 when he first decided to install an internet-connected PC in the street for the less privileged children in the area. He wasn’t an academic then, but he was relatively affluent and he also had an insatiable curiosity. He decided to invest the equivalent of two month’s wages to answer the question ‘what will children do if they see a computer connected to the internet?’ This question was important to him because he could see how social division excludes potentially ‘good’ students, yet he recognised that nobody wants to come to a slum to teach.

Having installed the PC, he walked off without giving way to the temptation to ‘teach’ them. Yet, one of the outcomes of the experiment is a redefinition of teaching. The drive and adeptness of the curious learner, when connected through Google to an unending supply of answers, only requires that they have well-formed questions and a determination to develop sufficient skills and confidence to ask them. This forms what he calls the Self-Organised Learning Environment (SOLE). Professor Mitra has rerun the experiment and offered the essential idea of the SOLE on innumeral occasions globally with the support of $1 million funding he received from TED.

In his presentation he described the hive-like behaviours demonstrated by the children as they grappled with their questions together. He asked us to reflect on how it is that ants co-operate as they intuitively harvest food together, all playing a role in what appears to be a co-ordinated effort, but which takes the form of ‘spontaneous order’ rather than chaos.

The SOLE of higher and adult learning

Above I have used the words curiosity and niavity as prerequesit conditions for the experiment. In a follow-on workshop, we were asked to assume the readiness and openness of the 9 year old child.

I am left reflecting on what I have learnt and how this might apply to the teaching and learning of adults and university students. First, here are some immediate thoughts:

  • Let learning happen, it has an inclination to surface;
  • Create the conditions for  problem questions to find the level appropriate to the learner;
  • Know the teacher’s role is to create and maintain the conditions for learning, not to ‘give’ the learner the knowledge, but to help them construct a knowledge that makes sense to them;
  • Create a social constructivist co-operative context in which each student is able to add to the knowledge of their peers and shape their collective understandings for mutual benefit;
  • If the problem, the opportunity or the question is well-framed, learning need not be arduous, only challenging;
  • A well-framed question or problem can provide subtle clues to solving the puzzle (the children eventually noticed a keypad, not just the screen);
  • Feedback involves satisfying the learner’s ego (he talked about the Granny Cloud experiment in which grandmothers showed how to respond to a child’s apparent arrogance – learners seek reassurance and confirmation);
  • Listen to the learner and what they need to know next, rather than challenging them to answer what you as teacher want them to know next;
  • Focus on literacies and capabilities because curious, capable learners will then find the answers (and devise their own next questions) for themselves;
  • Authentic assessment is the flip side of learning – self and peer assessment is part of an effective, interactive learning environment. If our systems demand summative assessment consider how it’s design can be made efficient, user-centred and meaningful;
  • Do not intervene in learning unless you are really clear about how your intervention will be decisive and significant.

The value of niavity

So, do we need to foster an openness and niavity as a precondition for an effective learning environment for university and adult learners?

My thoughts are, that would be dishonest and actually niaive. I feel more inclined to look to something that young children do not have: experience. How do we draw upon experience and support the experienced learner to re-evaluate their experience to find deeper and even different meanings in a socially moderated context?

The important thing is learner-centredness: considering how each student will or can connect themselves to the learning context. This is not something that the teacher needs to know specifically for each student, only that they need to create contexts that make sense to each student. This is why problem-based learning is so useful and why negotiated assessment is so important. Both allow each learner to take ownership of, or identify with, the learning situation. In a social situation you create a co-owned learning environment in which the learners (like the metaphorical ants) are driven to execute a collective task, knowing that each of their interpratiins is aligned to that of their peers. 

This explains the main difference between co-operation and collaboration (both are needed) to achieve personal and common goals: co-operation is about the effective alignment of effort. Collaboration is about taking different parts of the same problem.

There are many further angles for us to consider here: the role of technology as a learning space for example, though I don’t think this is that important in Sugatra Mitra’s experiment. Literacy, capability, self-confidence, peer co-operation, and so forth are much more important.

Our challenge, I think, is about how we adopt practice that ‘lets learning happen’.

Thanks to Yorkshire & Humberside Workers Educational Association for allowing me to attend this excellent event and for inviting Sugatra Mitra to provide the keynote.

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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