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How one man revolutionized teaching by trusting kids to teach themselves.

It's time we shrink the gap between learning and knowing.

Imagine a classroom with 20 children, four computers, and no teacher. Under those circumstances, do you think the children could teach themselves?

This was educational technology professor Sugata Mitra's theory when he decided to put a computer on the side of a public wall in Delhi, India, 18 years ago.

At the time, he was working in the city for a computer software developer training company. His workplace sat next to a slum. He wondered how the children he saw there everyday would learn to work with tech in the modern age.

Mitra's regular work with computers allowed him to set up one with a basic search engine on a wall near his company's office.

The children, who had never seen a computer before, without any guidance began to learn new things and even teach themselves using the device.

Image via TEDGlobal 2010.

After this first "hole in the wall" experiment, Mitra decided to take his research a step further. He set up more computers in rural areas of India to see if this self-learning trend was ubiquitous, each time asking local children to solve a problem or address a question.

Relying only on each other and the computer as a guide, the children could always come up with the correct answer.

Mitra had discovered a new way of teaching that could revolutionize education as we know it.

He calls it a Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE). The idea is simple: give small groups of students computers and let them solve problems by working together. Teachers then facilitate with positive reinforcement.

The process works like this:

1) Students are given a big question or are challenged to think on their own. 2) Students choose their own groups and can change groups at any time. 3) Students can move around freely, speak to each other and share ideas. 4) Students can explore in any direction that they choose. 5) Groups are expected to present what they have learned at the end of the session.

Mitra believes it's the collaborative nature of the experiment that sparks learning. A child plus a computer alone does not equal brilliance.

He equates it to the swarm intelligence in animals. "It’s like when ants are carrying a large piece of food," Mitra explains. "We ask, 'How does any one of them know whether to push or pull? Who’s managing the show?' And the answer is: nobody."

An ant on its own can't move that food, but a group can move it 100 times over. Mitra believes the same theory applies to humans and learning.

In 2013, Mitra won the first ever $1 million TED prize for his SOLE research. He used the money to set up SOLE labs in England and India.

SOLE lab in Greenfield, U.K. Image via School in the Cloud.

The response from the children who used them was overwhelmingly positive. They loved teaching themselves with encouragement from facilitators rather than instructions. Just like with the "hole in the wall" experiments, when working together, they almost always came up with correct answers to problems.

The SOLE labs in India proved something else: Children in areas where educators are scarce can learn almost anything using only the internet.

There are now five SOLEs established in poorer areas of India. If teachers/facilitators have a problem or question, they can ask others who are utilizing the system around the world via the School in the Cloud community.

There's also a web of virtual teachers called the Granny Cloud who act as online encouragers to students if needed.

Image via School in the Cloud.

While this method of learning may help children thrive in our technology-based world, it does not set up kids for success in today's classrooms.

Educators believe letting children use computers on exams means they're not actually learning, but Mitra is working to change that.

He believes that with answers available just one click away on the internet, children no longer need to learn by memorization. He suggests schools should be teaching children how to find answers (which is what they'd be doing in the real world) rather than having them remember the answers.

In order for the SOLE concept to spread, the entire school testing system would need to change. Mitra says it's like solving any other problem in a SOLE — the answer will become clear with heads together and time.

Mitra has noticed, however, that schools are becoming more and more accepting of the School in the Cloud concept.

Image via School in the Cloud.

To Mitra's surprise and delight, tens of thousands of SOLEs have popped up all over the world independently of his work, all self-organizing under local hubs. Mitra says people often poke fun at him saying, "You mean you didn’t know the idea of the SOLE would self-organize?”

He believes the educational system as a whole will continue to bend in this direction, with or without his help. This progression could be a vast improvement on the current education system because it's actually teaching children how to navigate the world as it currently exists  — almost predominantly online. Today, it's all about finding answers to problems quickly and efficiently — shouldn't that then be our schools' primary mission?

Just because a system's been in place for hundreds of years doesn't mean we need to treat it with such reverence. It's time our teaching methods caught up with technology — in the cloud.


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