“Hole in the Wall”: A Student-Driven Experiment

A while ago, one of my colleagues shared this inspiring and creative TED Talk with me by educational scientist Dr. Sugata Mitra, called The Child-Driven Education. Dr. Mitra is known for his “Hole in the Wall” experiments where he placed computers in public areas in poor slums, gathering places, and rural towns in India, South Africa, and Cambodia. Have a look at what happened:

My take-aways from Dr. Mitra’s experiments are:

  • Learning is a collaborative effort, no matter how you approach it. Collaboration happens in many ways–face to face, online, while you are researching a topic, and whenever you make cognitive connections while engaging in some other activity. Teachers and students need to engage each other in open and flowing conversations, including those that go down seemingly irrelevant paths, or those that are filled with divergence and differing opinions. It is through this engagement that we develop deep understanding, reflect on our learning, and solidify it in our brains. For this reason, using technology for research and learning works best when students share computer resources, instead of allotting one per student.
  • Searching for answers to questions that you do not understand (whether in a different language or otherwise), requires problem-solving, collaboration, analysis, synthesis, and many other skills that all students should learn. For those who consider Dr. Mitra’s challenges to students as knowledge questions (limited to regurgitation), I argue that the point is not what was asked, but how the students approached the questions, and where they could go next to delve deeply into the topics presented. Typing a question into Google does not include analyzing the results to check for accuracy, nor does it lead to more learning about related topics as you follow links to other sites. It does not point out key words or help you with analysis, synthesis, or conclusions about the topic. These are the deeper effects of such learning.
  • Education must no longer be about regurgitating information. If it is available anytime, anywhere, to anyone, then our goals should be to teach students to ask questions, develop mental models for thinking, systems for problem solving, patience, collaborative skills, and how to find, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and draw conclusions.
  • Learning to use technology as a tool to answer a question or solve a problem is a learned skill, just as learning to use a hammer as a tool for a specific task is a learned skill. People can learn to use a hammer without the help of others, but it is a lot easier when you have a guide (parent, teacher, friend, or colleague) to model, encourage, support, and help you. People can learn to use technology, no matter who they are, what they know, or how they live.
  • Technology tools and the vast amount of information available on the Internet allows us to be more curious than we have ever been before. Students should be encouraged to follow their curiosities and passions instead of memorizing concepts from a rigid and over-stuffed curriculum. After all, it is time and patience spent focused on a passion that results in the most effective results.
  • Self-organizing systems (structures that develop without explicit intervention) take time and patience to develop. We should use the power of student engagement to set self-organizing systems into motion around challenging curricular objectives. And beyond the classroom, self-organizing systems can draw students together to make a difference in their communities and become leaders.
  • Emergent phenomena (systems that develop into something that they were not originally meant to do) are what makes inquiry, real-world application, theme-based, and problem-based learning so effective. Allowing students to delve completely into a subject results in rich, deep learning.

What are your thoughts on Dr. Mitra’s experiments? Have you witnessed the creation of self-organizing systems in students and adults? What makes them effective?

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