Sugata Mitra – education futurist (#89)

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Sugata Mitra is an independent researcher, author and speaker. A Ph.D. in theoretical physics, he retired in 2019 as Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in England. His interests include Children’s Education, Remote Presence, Self-organising systems, Cognitive Systems, Complex Dynamical Systems, Physics and Consciousness. He received, among many global awards, the million-dollar TED Prize in 2013.


Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?

I am amazed at how much our sense of reality is dependent on our senses. This should be obvious, but we mostly believe that there is a ‘reality’ out there that is absolute. If a hundred people say they saw a bird, we believe that the bird would have been there, even if the hundred people were to disappear.

On the other hand, if each of us are actually creating our own reality inside our minds, using images and experiences projected by our senses, then there are many realities. Or perhaps none at all. But then, I argue with myself, the images come from somewhere after all. If I saw a bird, it was there and that’s how I saw it. Simple.

But what if I saw a bird in a dream? Does that bird also exist?

I don’t know and that is a strange feeling.

 

You talk about ‘Minimally invasive education’. What’s the best environment to support the natural curiosity of a child? What needs to be put in place? And what needs to be removed?

Children learn when they want to. They want to learn when they are comfortable, physically and mentally. They are comfortable when they are safe and with their friends and people they trust. All they need is the absence of threat or inhibition. That’s all.

 

In a group learning environment, what set up works best?

One Internet connection on a big screen for every four or five children. Large windows for high visibility from the inside or outside. Good light and air. Easily configurable seating. No external sound or noise other than their own.

 

20 years on from the first “hole in the wall” experiments many children across the world own or have easy access to smart phones. With so much knowledge at their fingertips, why aren’t we seeing more learning?

Because of the Internet and easy access to it, people, children in particular, are learning all the time. I don’t know what ‘learning’ we want to ‘see’. Maybe the rest of us don’t either.

When we look up a place on Google Maps, or some other app like that, we are learning. We just don’t see it that way. When children SnapChat with each other, they are learning. We don’t see that and we don’t want to believe it.

The change the Internet has made has happened so quietly that we just haven’t realised it. We have come from a time when learning used to happen in bursts, in designated places and at designated times. This was because we could not access learning resources everywhere and every when. We have moved to a time where learning is available everywhere, all the time. Often we don’t realise this as learning. And we don’t know how to measure it.

What can a human teacher give to a student that technology can’t?

Questions. Particularly questions to which no one knows the answers. If no one knows the answers, technology does not know either. Humans know how to ask questions. I don’t know why we know this, or why we evolved this way.

 

Looking to the future of education, what excites you the most? And what are your greatest fears?

‘Knowing’ doesn’t mean very much anymore. Figuring things out quickly and accurately is more important than knowing the answers. In any case, when you figure something out, you get to know it. Your brain will keep the knowledge if it thinks it’s important to store it. There is no need to spend the first seventeen years of life trying to know everything there is to know, just in case you ever need it. Education will become the ability to act using knowledge from the past and accurate anticipation of the future. That is exciting.

When you connect many simple things together to make a complex network, it begins to think. We know this because our brains and the brains of every living creature we know, works that way. The Internet is a complex network of people and things. Its big enough to think. We have no way to perceive or understand that ‘brain’, any more than an individual neuron in our brains can understand the whole thing. We will never know what that network thinks or dreams about. I don’t fear that, its just disappointing.

 

What changes would you like to see to the current education and exam system?

Change the classrooms into learning environments. Change the examinations from asking about things we know to things we don’t know. Complex Dynamical Systems is the New Physics. Introduce it into schools as early as possible. The Internet is our greatest and strangest technology, our children must know how it works and what its future is. We must do all this in our quest to find out why we are the way we are.

 

You can read more about Sugata’s School in the Cloud in this book.


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