Friday, April 18, 2014

Are teachers obsolete? Yes, if we keep teaching (and testing) the way we do.

Sugata Mitra's research over the past decade or so, from his early 'hole in the wall' experiment, has given us pause for reflection.  He has demonstrated that students crave learning, and left largely to their own devices they can and do learn on their own. In fact, the desire to learn, the need to create, the quest to find answers to problems--all are qualities that define what it means to be human.

In his 'school in the cloud' approach, Mitra maintains that the Internet must be integrated into pedagogy, and he largely removes the teacher from the active process of learning.  The teacher is responsible to organize students into small groups, to appoint a monitor to make sure they are on task, to arrange for an 'Internet Granny' to provide motivation, and to make the students curious--to give them a 'big question' and then let them work in small groups to find creative answers using the Internet.  However, traditional schooling, as Sir Ken Robinson has demonstrated, usually kills not fosters creativity.  Indeed, many schools actively strive to ban the Internet from the classroom, not embrace it as Mitra recommends.

So why do we still cling to such a traditional and obsolete view of education?  Mitra argues that our current educational system is a by-product of the British Empire, and the need to 'educate' people in the colonies to serve the empire's huge bureaucracy.  People were viewed primarily as 'human computers', and in order to function as cogs in the bureaucratic machinery they needed certain skills.  They needed to be able read, write, do calculations, and follow orders without question.  So the system of education was designed for this purpose, and it was highly successful.  So successful, that even though the empire has long since faded, and the nature of the Internet has transformed how we communicate, work and even think, our system of education is still fundamentally unchanged in its ultimate aim.

Compare the photograph of the workplace in the heyday of the empire, from Mitra's plenary at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate.  What do you see here?

Here is a room full of individuals, working individually and performing menial tasks.  All of these hardworking workers went through an educational system designed to produce individuals who could perform such tasks, unquestioningly.  The method of assessment was the ultimate driving force for the way teachers taught -- people were tested individually, in standardized assessment, so they had to be taught to work on their own, and meet minimal standards of the necessary literacies - reading, writing and arithmetic.  Compare this to the picture Mitra used to show how students are currently tested in India at the end of school--what kind of skills are being tested (and therefore taught in schools) here?  

Here is a picture of the way we test students in learning English.  Do you see any of the influences that Mitra suggests are persistent from the roots of education in the colonial days of the British Empire?
In real life, do we speak English in isolation?  Do we fill in the gaps, and write grammar perfect responses to real life situations?  Do we even write on paper any more?  Do we listen to a person in audio only, and take notes?  Do we read on paper and find answers to multiple choice questions?  

Is the picture of office workers above the reality of the workplace today, or are modern working practice more akin to the essence of Mitra's 'hole in the wall' experiment -- working in collaboration, finding creative solutions to difficult to problems, pushing ourselves to keep learning throughout our lives?  Is our system of education preparing students for obsolescence, rather than current working practices. Which picture below matches the way we test (and therefore teach)?

Mitra has a simple solution to overhaul the education system.  In tests, allow the students to work in groups and use the Internet.  This would be a very simple administrative step to take, but in taking this bold move the entire system of education would be transformed.  Mitra argues that trying to integrate the Internet into pedagogy from the bottom up is a valiant effort many teachers attempt, but all such attempts are doomed to fail without the system of assessment changing to reflect what is happening in real life.   I can't help but agree with him on this fundamental principle. 







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