Sixth Form

Are Sugata Mitra's ideas on education doomed to failure?

By: The Leader @theleaderspeaks
Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 08:11 GMT Jump to Comments

Joe Tibbetts recalls his part in developing the National Curriculum and is depressed by the failure to make education relevant and appropriate.

Sugata Mitra is a 61 year old Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University in the far north east of England.

He is a genuine polymath, so described because of the wide range of disciplines and subjects in which he has made telling interventions. He has won international prizes. He has a PhD in something complicated and is Chief Scientist, Emeritus, at NIIT*. In short Sugata Mitra is an ambulant Brain As Big As A Planet.

Mr Mitra asks difficult questions about the ways in which we do education. He thinks, or so it seems, that learning to spell or do long multiplication, or learning mathematical tables is pretty much a waste of time and certainly nowhere near as important as learning how to best use the technology now available to accomplish these and other, more complex, tasks.

He’s right of course. But being right isn’t enough as we will see.

In 1971 when Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society was published I was at Bretton Hall (later Leeds University) in the first year of a three year teaching degree. In 1971 we were dissatisfied with everything. We were recent victims, as we saw it, of an outdated and largely irrelevant education system. We were particularly dissatisfied with the very thing we had come to study.

Like vampires in a blood bank we fell upon Illich’s ideas, swallowing them in great gulps and cracking open the seal on the second bottle while still draining the contents of the first.

Illich was a visionary who saw and described the limits of what was possible with the education system as construed in 1971. He saw how the system worked and realized it would not serve.

Astonishingly, he also imagined the use of advanced technology to support what he called “learning webs” and the development of massive, technology delivered, peer matching learning networks. (In 1971! Go on! Be astonished!)

Many, perhaps most, of my year at Bretton Hall took exception to an education system that teaches students between the ages of 10 and 25 to work alone, building a personal portfolio. A system which grades educational achievement through exams that test memory for retention of facts and requires the examined to work alone and without reference to any of the easily accessible sources of information and knowledge.

We took exception to this system because it is a useless and silly way to educate people. It misses the point of education and wastes the potential of individuals and mankind. It also produces useless and silly graduates who need to be re-trained at enormous cost and with a great waste of time to make them useful to society and their employers once they have left higher education.

In 1971 we KNEW that creativity and team work and a wider understanding of the interconnectedness of everything educational would deliver what solo effort, examined in silence and isolation, rarely if ever did.

I passed my teaching practice, abandoned my relentless pursuit of sex, beer and pies and with a huge sigh of relief quit teaching forever. I was too interested in education to accept the politics of compromise that characterized teaching in 1971 and still does today.

Almost exactly 20 years later, working as a consultant to the Design Council, I helped develop the National Curriculum. Well sort of. 

In the early 1990s The Design Council was asked to make a contribution to the thinking that would feed into the National Curriculum. Someone clever had recognised that design education had much to offer other arenas of education especially when it came to (yes, you guessed it) creativity, team working and collaboration.

The Education and Research Director at the Design Council, Moira Fraser-Steele, another brain of stellar dimensions, had all the understanding necessary to make a really worthwhile contribution. She also had a remarkable and sometimes hilarious ability to mangle ideas at the point that she converted them into words.

And so we worked together on the National Curriculum submission. She did the thinking and I did the writing. As we worked I found that rampant priapism had not prevented me from absorbing something of what Ivan Illich and my tutors had been trying to teach me.

“Joe”, Moira would shout with a laugh, “that’s exactly what I was trying to say. How on earth did you know.” I didn’t have the courage to tell her that there was little or nothing new in what we were writing, that I had, literally, heard it all before. I feared then what I now know. We were wasting our time.

Another 20 years flew past, the journey through the education of my own children providing horrible proof, if proof is needed, that all is still as it was in the bad old days of education.

Now I hear Sugata Mitra calling for a new approach to education and a terrible depression has settled upon me. His ideas on education and the importance of collaboration, group work, the power of technology and so on are wonderful and wonderfully well expressed and add some new, 21st century, insights to the 20th century envisioning I have twice before been briefly party to.

He is right. His mantra “we don’t need to improve schools, we need to reinvent them for our times, our requirements and our future” stated with elegant supporting arguments in an article in The Observer (16.06.13) is so obviously right it shouldn't need saying.

But it does need saying because the stupidity and short-sighted self-interest of politicians combined with the laziness and cowardice of many who work in education is a powerful and deadly brake upon change. As Ivan Illich and Moira Fraser Steele and I know all too well. 

* NIIT is a global talent development company, listed on the Indian and Bombay Stock Exchanges. The company offers learning and knowledge solutions (consultancy, education and training and all that stuff) to people and organisations and peoples around the world.

The Leader is written by one of the Information Daily editorial team. Not always the same one. No prizes for trying to guess which one it was this time.

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