TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra delivered a keynote at the 2015 International Conference & Exposition of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) where he shared his dream of a School in the Cloud. At the conclusion of his talk, the nearly 10,000 attendees rose to give him a prolonged and deserved standing ovation.
What made Mitra’s humble talk so powerful? My sense (as one of those 10,000 attendees) was that his simple, transcendent message of freedom and agency marked a phase shift in how we think about learning, particularly for the young.
Mitra and his colleagues began their “Hole in the Wall” experiments in a New Delhi slum in 1999, leaving a web-enabled computer there and filming children as they interacted with it. The experiments, which inspired the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” showed that children could teach themselves to use a computer and then teach other children how to use it—while upgrading their math and language skills.[i]
Mitra’s experiments birthed a disruptive concept: if children can teach themselves, what’s the future of massively centralized education machinery based on bureaucracy, hierarchy, credentialism and real estate? The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated this discussion as schools around the world grapple with the shockingly sudden plunge into online learning.
A look backward in time may also inform this discussion. John Taylor Gatto is a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year, and author of The Underground History of American Education.[ii] In his book, he cites the forced outputs of the regimented Prussian education system of 1819: obedient miners and factory workers, subservient civil servants and clerks, and uniformity of thought and action.
Perhaps in reaction to its relatively sloppy approach to the War of 1812, America chose to import Prussia’s rigid, structural model of compulsion-based schooling. Now supporting a heavily unionized leviathan helmed by a bloated Department of Education spending over $40 billion per year on K-12 alone,[iii] we have achieved the apex of centralization. At the same time, students in the United States are getting worse at reading, and civil rights organizations have sounded the alarm about a national crisis.[iv] Are we getting our money’s worth?
Mitra thinks that self-organized learning will shape the future of education.[v] In what he calls “minimally invasive education,” he has established seven School in the Cloud locations in the UK and India, with partner learning labs in Columbia, Pakistan and Greece.[vi]
Self-managed education is here to stay. Besides technology, its rapid proliferation will require a critical mass of pioneers with the courage to meet and engage with the inevitable resistance to change.
ii] The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling, John Taylor Gatto, Author’s Special Pre-Production Edition, Oxford Village Press, 2000/2001, p. 132-133.