Kids Teaching Themselves: Where Do We See This in Today’s Schools?

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One of my favorite podcasts of all time, “TED Talks,” is a one-hour radio show that focuses on new ideas, inventions, and ways of thinking about the world. Recently I listened to a fascinating episode entitled, “How Much Can Students Teach Themselves?” The first part of the podcast centers on a series of experiments by Educational researcher Dr. Sugata Mitra, entitled “Hole in the Wall.” The theory being tested by Mitra was whether or not students could teach themselves and each other, particularly in impoverished parts of the world that lacked proper schools or teachers.

Mitra’s revolutionary experiment is outlined on his website as follows:

“On 26th January, Dr. Mitra’s team carved a “hole in the wall” that separated the NIIT premises from the adjoining slum in Kalkaji, New Delhi. Through this hole, a freely accessible computer was put up for use. This computer proved to be an instant hit among the slum dwellers, especially the children. With no prior experience, the children learnt to use the computer on their own. This prompted Dr. Mitra to propose the following hypothesis:

The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.”

Amazingly, the children not only learned how to use the basic computer, but also taught themselves how to use the World Wide Web, and gained a deep understanding of complex concepts such as DNA replication. It is remarkable what the children were able to do on their own, and this pedagogical method became called, “Minimally Invasive Education.”

According to Dr. Mitra, “If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion, and then she stand back in awe and watches learning happen.”

Here is a great visual to sum up the TED Talk:

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When thinking about not only how technology is utilized and taught in our classroom, but also how most learning occurs, I am struck by how much of our focus as teachers is on “making” or even “forcing” learning to happen. The process of learning is modeled by the teacher and then copied, often inauthentically, by the students. In light of Dr. Mitra’s experiment, I am left wondering, where are the crucial moments in the day or the lesson that the students are set free to discover and teach themselves? How can we shift the focus in our classroom, at least at times, to pushing the responsibility and creativity of the learning process onto the students? I believe that denying students that opportunity is denying them of both an essential life skill and the joy of discovering something on one’s own.

Utilizing Technology in the Classroom

Darrell M. West & Joshua Bleiberg’s article entitled, “Five Ways Teachers Can Use Technology to Help Students” is a great reminder of the numerous benefits technology can add to the learning experience of students, if utilized correctly. The article describes the United States’ resistance towards innovation of the classroom experience, stating that it still operates “under the antiquated needs of an agrarian and industrial America.” West and Bleimberg go on to argue that the government controls how schools are run “more than any other organization.” They state that by integrating technology into our classrooms, we are able to empower both teachers and students–and in turn–change the face of American education.

I completely agree with the article’s emphasis on choosing technologies that “enable teachers to do more with fewer resources.” Teachers should be incorporating technology that redefines (allows for tasks that were previously inconceivable–SMAR model goal) how the content and curriculum is taught and learned. It shouldn’t serve as a hinderance or a distraction to the learning, but rather, should add something that couldn’t otherwise have been added.

I also really like the idea of having students create online portfolios–even in the elementary school grades. This would be such a cool thing for parents to be able to view student work, and for a student to look back and reflect on at the end of the year. Students could add to it for coming years and keep the same portfolio through all their years of schooling. Edutopia has a great list of free student portfolio sites that you can use in your classroom.