Tag Archives: Sugata Mitra

Why Alabama 4-H Understands the 21st Century Like Nobody’s Business

Alabama 4-H educators are mastering inquiry-based learning methods to provide Alabama young people with the fluid learning environments they will need to succeed in this new globalized economy.

The further I advance into middle age, the more I’m convinced that a few things in life really are simple — not necessarily easy, mind you, but simple in terms of understanding their fundamental nature.

For example, I think a few very gifted and insightful science and tech writers, notably Steven Johnson, have successfully identified the key factors that account for the West’s technological triumph over the past century.   At the heart of all lies a strong commitment to openness.

As Johnson contends, the roots of this openness can be traced to the coffeehouses of the 17th century — boisterous places that provided the ideal environments for sharing ideas.  Something rather remarkable and entirely unexpected followed: The ideas exchanged within those highly fluid environments ended up mating and mutating into new ideas.  Many of these ideas formed the basis for huge strides in scientific innovation which, in turn, secured immense material benefits for billions of human beings over the next 300 years.

Unfortunately, within the last few decades, American education has lost sight of this fundamental insight.

Fortunately for us, a few educational trailblazers, Newcastle University Professor Sugata Mitra and educational speaker, author and adviser Sir Ken Robinson are pointing the way back to them.

I’m proud to report that another group of educators much closer to home are also pointing the way: Alabama Extension 4-H administrator Lamar Nichols and the educators and professionals of Alabama 4-H.

Having spent the last couple of days at their annual priority team meeting, I think it’s highly likely that they will be remembered decades from now as vanguards — people who set the standards for youth educators in the 21st century.

They understand the implications of this emerging information/technological order as few others do.

The world is changing. We all know that.  Digitization is the reason for much, if not most, of these changes.  We know that too.

Yet, contrary to what a lot of people think, it’s not only about adopting iPhones or learning how to tweet.

Technological adoption is only part of what we must do.  At the heart of it all is the critical need to understand the different kind of society that is emerging from all these technological changes.  While it’s partly about technological adoption, it is most of all about learning to think and act in a fundamentally different way.

To put it another way, it’s mostly about how to create optimal learning environments— ecosystems of knowledge in which people are to able share ideas freely and openly and that bear a strong resemblance to those raucous coffeehouses of the 17th century.

Alabama 4-H understands the dire importance of restoring this understanding of the fundamental factors that drive human innovation and progress.   What 4-H educators call inquiry-based learning provides the same thing as 17th century coffeehouses: fluid knowledge environments where ideas can be exchanged freely and with the greatest chance of their mating and mutating into even bigger ideas.

4-H educators understand that creating these kinds of environments among young people will be critical to ensuring that rising generations of young people develop a working knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math — STEM, to use a highly appropriate acronym — factors that will be key to this nation’s global competiveness over the next century.

They’re creating these fluid learning environments to complement what is being taught in the state’s science and math classrooms.

The introductory material presented to each participant set the tone of the meeting:  “For our economic future, it’s not sufficient to target college grads and advanced degree holders for the STEM workforce — our nation’s economic future depends on improving the pipeline into STEM fields for high school grads as well.  As a nation, we need to strengthen the STEM workforce pipeline and in Alabama, we just need to strengthen workforce pipeline — period.”

By addressing this critical need, Alabama 4-H educators, in addition to setting a benchmark for other 4-H youth development professionals, are drawing us closer to a vision of the new model Extension educator of the 21st century.

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Sugata Mitra’s Shattering Discovery and Its Implications for Extension

Virtually all of us in Cooperative Extension know that our 100-year-old outreach model is under the proverbial gun and that something must be done, some strategy or new way of thinking employed, to stave off extinction.

Believe me, after viewing Newcastle University Prof. Sugata Mitra’s 2010 TED lecture, I’m more convinced than ever that this new strategy or way of thinking had better come sooner than later.  Mitra’s remarks not only underscored the hard realities we face as an organization but also filled me with an even grimmer sense of urgency.

A few years ago, Mitra, a world-renowned educational technology expert, came up with an extraordinary idea.

He embedded Internet-accessible computers in remote villages throughout India and ultimately in locations throughout world to see how children with no previous exposure to computers or the Web would react.

The results pointed to something equally as extraordinary: The kids learned from the computers by themselves, with no adult oversight.

Video recordings Mitra shared from one village showed an 8-year-old boy demonstrating to a 6-year-old girl how to browse the Internet.  In another village, children, after only four hours of exposure to the Internet, learned how to record their own music and play it back to themselves, sparking a reaction of awed delight.

All of these experiences, Mitra says, demonstrate the awesome power of collaborative learning.

“Groups of children can learn to use the computer and the Internet on their own, irrespective of who or where they are,” he said.

Buoyed by these initial results, Mitra resolved to push the envelope, to see what other challenges children could overcome using Web 2.0 technology.

In a Hyderabad-based experiment involving children who spoke English with a thick regional accent, he turned over a computer equipped with an English-to-text interface, casually informing the children that he was leaving and that they were on their own.

Initially the computer responded to the children’s thick accents with gibberish, Mitra recalls.

However, upon his return a couple of months later, he discovered that the children had learned to speak in a manner remarkably similar to the neutral British accents the computer was designed to detect.

In what is now called his Kalikkuppam Experiment, Mitra set out to determine whether Tamil-speaking Indian children in a remote village could learn biotechnology on their own, even though all the online instruction was in English.

Two months later, he noted that the children had increased their scores from zero to 30 percent.  After enlisting a volunteer teacher who employed the “granny method” of teaching —merely looking over the children’s shoulders and providing frequent encouragement— Mitra observed that the average score increased to 50, which is “what the posh schools in New Delhi with trained teachers are getting,” he said.

Some of the most remarkable results of all were secured in Turin, Italy, in 2010, only minutes after Mitra walked into a class of Italian-speaking ten-year-old children and wrote the following phrase in English on the chalkboard: “How did dinosaurs die out?”

“The children asked, ‘What?’ I said do it,” Mitra recounted.

The youngsters secured the answer after 15 minutes by typing the English phrase into Google for the Italian translation and then Googling the translated Italian phrase.

Mitra followed this with a somewhat more challenging question in English: “Who was Pythagoras and what did he do?”

Twenty minutes later, right-angled triangles began appearing on the screens.

“It just sent shivers up my spine,” Mitra recalled.

The parallels to Arthur C. Clarke’s monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey are unmistakable.  As a matter of fact, Clarke was an eager follower of Mitra’s efforts before his death, drawing two lessons from them: first, that a teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be, and, second, that if children have interests, education happens.”

For his part, Mitra says these experiments have driven home one critical insight, which he hopes to investigate more closely in the future.

Based on his research, Mitra believes that education, thanks to the advent of Web 2.0, now bears all the hallmarks of a self-organizing system — one in which “learning is an emergent phenomenon.”

He describes a self-organizing system as a structure that appears without explicit intervention from the outside.

Ponder Mitra’s insight for a moment: Education is now a self-organizing structure that appears without explicit intervention from the outside.

Simply put, people, using online resources, are fully capable of learning on their own without human intervention.

Speaking of shivers, if this insight has not yet sent a shiver up your spine, it darn well should.