No. I am not insulting Shimer – for its aesthetics or its size. Nor would I be insulting liberal education if I simply replaced the word Shimer with that phrase. Rather, I am asking a very important educational question. Sugata Mitra’s work on education may seem entirely dissimilar from that of Shimer (or many other small liberal arts college). The phrase links to a well-known, if somewhat sentimental, representation of Mitra’s work, the Oscar-winning film ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ And, yet, to speak about Mitra’s work is, I would argue, to speak about Shimer (and excellent liberal education more broadly) in many ways – at the very least there are significant parallels.
Here’s why I think that.
Let me begin by noting what Sugata Mitra’s “Beyond the Hole in the Wall” describes. (The essay is available as a kindle single.) Then, I will get to the subtitle of this short work – for it is in large measure where I see the parallels.
Mitra’s work began when he, quite literally, installed a networked PC (aka a personal computer) in a hole in the wall in a slum near New Delhi. Over time, he learned that he needed to ensure that the computer was accessible only to children (by placing the screen at a certain level, and installing it in such a way that taller people could not use it, for example). And, he learned to consider children’s safety by ensuring that the locations were out in plain sight and the computers could not access pornography. He located these computers in holes in walls where literacy ran low and poverty ran high. He placed them where schools fail and where people all too often thought no learning could take place. He did so over and over again.
Beyond the wonder of seeing children create small communities of learners and teach themselves how to use the computers, came also the wonder that they learned more – including languages and skills. While they might label the cursor something else entirely, they knew what it did and how to use it. And, they came to know how to navigate the net, gather and evaluate knowledge, and more. Hence, the subtitle of Mitra’s essay: “Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning.” This is the conceptual result of his repeated experiments with these “holes in the wall.” And, perhaps most crucially, for many of us, his project tells us not merely about learning computer literacy – or even language or math literacy – but also about how such groups learn what some might call “subject matters” as well. Among the crucial views Mitra arrived at through his project:
- Learning to learn is more important than rote learning
- Learning is collective and conversational
- Learning is intergenerational, but not a process of the elders dispensing wisdom to the younger, but of learners working together across generations
- Deep learning is an emergent phenomenon
He summarizes his conclusions, as all too many thinkers do, in acronyms – SOLE (“self-organized or self-organizing learning environment”) -- and new phrases, such as minimally invasive learning, for example. And yet, in challenging the ways education has been institutionalized, in which learning and teacher satisfaction, for example, are inversely correlated, Mitra returns us to much that we ought already have known. To quote from his work:
. . . the teacher’s role becomes bigger and stranger than ever before. She must ask her ‘learners’ about things she does not know herself. Then she can stand back and watch as learning emerges. (kindle location 586-590; Mitra, “Beyond the Hold in the Wall”)
Where else can you learn about this? The work of Paulo Friere, and of others, who have challenged prevailing models of education across centuries and cultures.
For Shimerians, this is a familiar model -- for what is Shimer if not a self organized learning environment? Through the strength of conversation and dialogue, the role of students and facilitators, here too is the power of SOLE, reaching across generations. For other liberal educ ation institutions, this may also be true -- or an aspiration.
Want to know more? Try the official site or this sample TED talk by Mitra or try Mitra's own blog, here. Or, ask yourself Mitra's question: Is education obsolete? (Read related material here.) More importantly, let us know how your experience of education is or was -- like or unlike what Mithra has to teach us all.