On Saturday 5th of April at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, Sugata Mitra delivered a plenary session that proved to be acclaimed and vilified at the same time. I was in the room at the time, and witnessed a large proportion of the room rise to their feet at the climax of his talk. After the hubbub had died down, discussion immediately began and dissenting voices began to appear. The debate hasn’t stopped yet and it continues on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and on Wednesday 9th of April, on #ELTchat.
In this look at what has become one of the most contentious issues in our field for a long time, I will first summarise what was discussed in the #ELTchat, before looking at some of the other issues have been brought up by bloggers in the aftermath his talk.
According to Wikipedia “His work demonstrated that groups of children, irrespectively of who or where they are, can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own with public computers in open spaces such as roads and playgrounds, even without knowing English.” Many people have their doubts about his claims, including me, I feel I should point out before you read on!
If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend you watch Mitra’s plenary here, and watch his follow up interview here before you go on. You could also read Graham Stanley’s excellent summary of his talk and Lizzie Pinard’s too, written during the talk.
A sense of the size of the backlash can be detected in this tweet by @LeaSobocan:
|@LeaSobocan||No, I’m just feeling a bit Sugata Mitra’d out. Actually I think some of his ideas are not too bad. Don’t kill me #ELTchat|
There was a sense that a lot of what was being said by Mitra was not that revolutionary:
|@Ashowski||@marisa_c @wiktor_k it really struck a chord with me! I enjoy TBL in the classroom so this seemed like extension of that #eltchat|
|@Shaunwilden||@theteacherjames @LeaSobocan yeah me too, i think the idea of asking questions, setting projects soto speak is not really that new #ELTchat|
|@LouiseRobertson||#ELTchat Montessori has been doing this for years #sole|
Some people questioned whether it was feasible to expect students to learn without a teacher present:
|@LeaSobocan||@natibrandi But not without a teacher, otherwise they just off and play videogames. #ELTchat|
|@ChristineMulla||Do you think the children would be able to put their learning into practice? (eg molecular biology) #ELTchat|
|@Wiktor_K||@LouiseRobertson …or, unfortunately, watch all the cat videos there are. A computer does not a learning make, imho. #ELTChat|
But some suggested that he was onto something:
|@HanaTicha||What struck me was the implication that T’s presence can actually hinder learning. I can’t say I disagree totally #eltchat|
|@NinaEnglishBrno||My view is that SM suggests learning environment where the teacher only facilitates learning and becomes a supportive coach #eltchat|
The role of the teacher now as presented by Mitra…
|@Laila_Khairat||At school, teachers are much more than vehicles of knowledge. Socialization is a key element. That can’t be learnt online. #eltchat|
|@Shaunwilden||@natibrandi @NinaEnglishBrno but how are we redefining? A good teacher has always assumed many roles in the classroom #ELTchat|
|@LeaSobocan||@Shaunwilden @EdLaur The role of the teacher needs to be updated, sure, but not to “granny” #eltchat|
|@theteacherjames||And it seems to me that Grannies are just mediocre teachers. I can encourage, but I can do other things too. #eltchat|
|@NinaEnglishBrno||Task-based, individualized, self-organized, connected, goal-oriented ed. I see my role in here: guide, facilitator, mentor, friend. #eltchat|
And in the future…
|@Marisa_C||Another thought is that what SM visualises is so far into the future that lots of other jobs will be obsolete- even doctors #eltchat|
|@Ven_VVE||@HanaTicha @Marisa_C scary what we’re doing to ourselves. Sometimes think making ourselves obsolete thru tech. advances. #eltchat|
|@Shaunwilden||@Ven_VVE its not about obsolescence its adapting & making use of whatever enhances learning, good teachers have always done that #ELTchat|
|@HadaLitim||There’s a difference between saying we don’t need Ts and we live in places where we need to cope in the absence of Ts #eltchat|
|@Marisa_C||My own feeling is that he is expressing a prediction – when or how this will happen not clear or certain – could be 1000 yrs #ELTchat|
There were questions regarding the lack of research and evidence for his claims
|@mary28sou||His scientific method seems to lack a control group (children who didn’t learn well on their own with a computer). #eltchat|
|@Ven_VVE||Any research on how parents/guardians see this? Would they send children to school in cloud? #eltchat|
|@harrisonmike||@natibrandi @theteacherjames @Shaunwilden @LeaSobocan it’s very anecdotal research though, isn’t it? #eltchat|
And the kind of learning that took place:
|@LeaSobocan||@muranava @Shaunwilden @ChristineMulla So how deep was the learning then I wonder. #eltchat|
|@dreadnought001||@theteacherjames #eltchat SM’s eg of kids learning molecular biology seemed just like memorisation, didn’t seem like learning|
|@harrisonmike||@theteacherjames or are they just reciting Wikipedia? #eltchat|
|@Marisa_C||And who will then produce the experts, the doctors, the scientists – will they qualify themselves? #eltchat or pass some tests?|
And a word of warning…
|@naomishema||Do you all remember the “Lord of the flies” book? The kids didn’t do so well on their own as I recall. #eltchat|
Perhaps what was most surprising about this chat was how it didn’t reflect the polarised opinions that his talk created in the online ELT community. While there were disagreements, thankfully it stayed very polite and collaborative, which is to #ELTchat’s credit I think! But as someone who is, as I mentioned, very sceptical about what Mitra is claiming and fearful of the result of its possible implementation, I was surprised at the lack of support his ideas had during the chat. I expected stronger advocates to be present, arguing his case, but it felt like nearly everyone had doubts about what he was claiming.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that that is just a reflection of the people who were present on the day and I’m sure there are people who would have argued more vociferously in his favour at a different time. But I think part of this is a result of the discussion that sprung up after the original plenary, and the numerous blog posts may just have placed some doubts in the minds of those who were originally persuaded by Mitra’s ideas. As many people have commented, he’s a brilliant and charismatic speaker, and it’s easy to be wowed the first time you hear him. I know I was. We mustn’t, however, let this get in the way of a deeper, critical analysis of his thesis and the bloggers listed at the bottom of this page managed to do exactly that.
|@LeaSobocan||Okay, signing off, thanks for a thought-provoking #eltchat I feel we only scratched the surface on this one.|
And just like Lea Sobocan, at the end of the #ELTchat I felt there were more questions to answer, so I’ve been reading through as many articles and blog posts as I can in order to compile a list of questions which I think Mitra needs to address. If you’d like to read the 25 questions I compiled, click here to read them below this #ELTchat summary on my blog.
Image taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @cerirhiannon, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/