Article from Guardian, March 16, 2010 - http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/mar/16/slumdog-millionaire-education-online-independent
additional related story: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/mortarboard/2010/mar/16/reading-stories-indian-children-slumdog
In the most destitute slums of India, many children lack any formal education. Where schooling is available, the classes are enormous, spanning young and older pupils and offering little one-to-one attention. It's an unlikely source of inspiration for a teaching method to boost attainment, self-confidence and behaviour in Britain's classrooms. But, then again, Professor Sugata Mitra has never been one to follow established educational philosophy.
It's a year since Education Guardian exclusively reported Mitra's Hole In The Wall learning project, in which he installed computers with internet connection in Delhi slums for local children to discover. He found that the children began to teach themselves English, computing and maths, just a month after starting to use the PCs. The project inspired Vikas Swarup's Q&A, the novel that became the film Slumdog Millionaire.
Like the film, Mitra's project has since found massive success: there are more than 500 PCs in walls across India and Africa. Now, as professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, Mitra is turning his eye to Britain. Working with eight- to 12-year-olds at schools across Tyneside, he is helping them to use computers to carry out "self-activated learning" in the classroom.
"Having watched hundreds of Indian children learning without teachers at the Hole In The Wall computers, it became obvious that all children can work by themselves, if they want to," Mitra says.
"Most British children grow up with the internet and have the means to learn what they want in minutes, and this challenges the traditional idea of school being about learning things that will come in handy in the future. They become disengaged."
Mitra is not alone in noticing this problem. John Dunford, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, last week told the group's annual conference that computer games and websites have made children impatient and harder to motivate.
But Mitra thinks he has found a solution, with Hole In The Wall. "It proved that if you encourage individual learning, and give children interesting questions to look into independently, the learning process is sparked by curiosity." With that in mind, he is working with three schools – White Mere community primary and St Aidan's church of England primary in Gateshead and Bedlington community high school – to encourage children in school years 4-7 to become partial autodidacts.
On each visit, Mitra asks students to divide into small groups to answer GCSE-level science questions on topics such as how animals adapt to their environments, and how the human body works. The children can change groups at any time, look at what other groups are doing, chat and freely use computers. The effects, as recorded by the teachers, are astonishing.
Asked "why do we slip on wet surfaces?" pupils initially looked confused. But 15 minutes later, their answers ranged from "because friction occurs when two surfaces meet, and there's little friction on wet surfaces," to a complicated discussion of traction.
"If you give children time to investigate an answer, it's surprising what they can learn," Mitra says. "Instead of guessing, they do their own research, and acquire an advanced, university-style of learning. The children have a common goal, and bounce ideas off each other – in the friction session, for example, they started to discuss everyday examples, such as tyres, snow chains, carpet burns, and Olympic swimmers' shaved bodies."
Emma Crawley, a year 4 class teacher at St Aidan's, confirms the scheme's success. "I'd seen footage of children using the computers in India," she says. "The children were learning things far beyond their years in a short time, without a teacher. It made me think we should give it a go here."
So Mitra was invited to St Aidan's, where he asked the eight-year-olds to look at fractals (repeating patterns in geometry). "That was in November, and the children are still talking about it," Crawley says. "What's really noticeable is they seemed to understand it better – they've been linking the research to everyday life, noticing fractals in pineapples and trees."
Perhaps because it seems like fun, the knowledge seems to stick. Three months after one session, Crawley gave the children a surprise test. "I was shocked when I marked the papers: they had all remembered everything, even though the test was a surprise."
Mitra acknowledges the well publicised dangers of the internet, but tackles the problem in the same way as in India. "In the slums, I put the computers in highly visible places. If using a computer is public, there's very little danger of children visiting inappropriate sites. Because they are working together in groups, on screens that everyone can easily see, the children stick to the task in hand."
He hopes to develop the project so that all schools will put autonomous learning in the timetable. "It could be a whole new way of schooling and will help people who have been excluded, or can't attend school, or are just struggling with homework," Mitra says. "Technology has given children the potential to be far more independent at learning, and we should embrace that."
Crawley now uses the method every time she introduces a new science topic to her class. To other teachers she advises: "You have to let go a bit and trust the children. At first, they get excited and move around a lot, and noise levels rise, but a calm atmosphere will develop. Try not to get involved."
Mitra recently met the Lord Mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne and told him about bringing the ideas from the Hole In The Wall to Tyneside. "His reaction was to say that there are lessons from developing countries that can be useful to countries that have stopped developing," Mitra says. "I think that's the ideal way of looking at it. The scheme means hundreds of English teachers are now teaching children in Indian slums, whilst the kids there are teaching us a thing or two about education – it's a perfect circle."
• Last year in Education Guardian Professor Sugata Mitra appealed for volunteers in the UK to read stories over the internet to children in Hyderabad. "When I last visited India, I asked the children what they would most like to use Skype the internet telephone service for. Surprisingly, they said they wanted British grandmothers to read them fairytales – they'd even worked out that between them they could afford to pay £1 a week out of their own money," Mitra said.
He had already recruited one woman to spend a few hours a week reading fairy tales to the children, with her life-size webcam image projected on to a wall in India. He appealed to Education Guardian readers to volunteer. And some 200 people stepped forward.
"Many are retired teachers, who are now regularly on Skype teaching children in the slums," says Mitra. "The children are forming relationships with them, and the teachers, many of whom were upset at the thought of having finished their careers, have realised they're more important than ever."
In the future, Mitra wants to create a "cloud" of working and retired teachers as a resource for children all around the world to tap into. He has teamed up with distance-learning company ICS and, in India, hundreds of children are now learning from "Skype grannies".
He is now looking for experienced maths and science teachers to work with students in Hyderabad.
Readers, over to you...