This past weekend I heard the perfect “TED Radio Hour” episode for back to school time. Entitled “Unstoppable Learning,” the program highlighted four TED (Technology, Entertainment, & Design) talks by four individuals who have made significant discoveries about learning, each from different perspectives. University of Newcastle Professor Sugata Mitra explored questions about what children can learn on their own and what that implies for schools. Science writer Annie Murphy Paul summarized the evidence of learning that goes on in the womb. U of C, Berkeley Professor Alison Gopnik spoke about new research pointing to the remarkable complexity of babies’ thinking and learning. Long-time educator Rita Pierson discussed the critical role of relationships if children are to experience school in a positive way.
While all of the talks are fascinating and represent a highly stimulating way to spend an hour, Mitra’s talk ultimately connected them all. He first described his “hole in the wall” project in which students in disparate remote and impoverished villages in India were given a computer that was literally stuck somewhere in a wall in their villages. None of the students had had any prior computer experience. What he discovered was that no matter what language the students spoke, within 9 months the children -- working collaboratively but without adult intervention -- demonstrated the same mastery of computer use as an average office secretary in the West. Everywhere he repeated this experiment, both in India and abroad, the results were the same. Amazingly, all the students had to teach themselves enough English to navigate operating systems and programs that were not in their native languages.
Mitra then wanted to test the limits of such “self-organized” learning amongst children and so designed what he thought was an absurd goal: to see if 12 year old non-English speaking children could teach themselves, by using English materials and clustering around a roadside computer, the fundamentals of the biotechnology of DNA replication. Again, what he found was surprising. After two months, most groups claimed to have understood nothing, yet when questioned about how long it had taken them to come to that conclusion, one girl’s comments were typical of all experimental groups. She told Mitra that the group hadn't yet given up but that “aside from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes disease, we haven’t understood anything else.”
In the intervening years, Mitra has begun organizing new kinds of schools. He calls them SOLES (self-organized learning environments). Yet what Mitra has learned is that student learning in SOLES is greatly enhanced by human-to-human connection and the encouragement of teachers. Encouragement, he maintains, seems to be the key to taking natural learning further.
As we begin the 2014-15 school year, it is exciting to know that two of the great strengths of Country School teachers -- connection and encouragement -- have been validated by studies as having a transformative impact on children’s learning. These are but two of the powerful traits and skills our teachers possess that will lead to your child’s transformation in the months ahead. Welcome back to school!
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