Category Archives: Educational Thinkers

Prof Sugata Mitra’s Experiments: “Hole-in-the-Wall” to SOLE Self Organized Learning Environment.

Dr. Sugata Mitra, physicist, cognitive researcher and pedagogue is certainly one of the most intelligent and original thinkers I have come across. In fact, many years ago, when he was doing his post-doc in Vienna, I had the pleasure of getting lessons from him on calculus! Now professor at the University of Newcastle, it’s indeed great to see him today speak at TED Lectures, at the UN General Assembly, CNN etc…. I have been sending links about his stories to friends saying: “I know this guy”.

Dr. Mitra became famous with a curious socio-pedagogic ‘experiment’ in New Delhi (when he was technology head of NIIT – one of the big five e-training institutes of the world). I’ll never forget the chills that ran down my spine when I first saw the public space experiment in Delhi . It was one of those moments, when I felt we were entering a new age.

The story started with Mitra’s digging a hole in a wall which separated his office from an area of  neighbouring ‘slums’, inserting a computer with its screen and touchpad turned towards the slums, and attaching a high speed internet to  it. I don’t know how he came across the idea.

The appropriation of the computer and the Internet by thousands of illiterate children – all without any supervision – delivered unanticipated evidence about the high intelligence and capacity of illiterate children to acquire substantial computer skills and other knowledge without the help of teachers. It became somewhat of a sensation in the area. Wolfensohn, the then director of the World Bank went to see it personally. A media hype started to build up. Soon the experiment was replicated in scores of other urban public spaces and villages around India and in a number of other countries like South Africa.  They all delivered the same message: children have an uncanny ability and drive to learn to use the computer for learning – all by themselves. The pedagogic model was dubbed by Mitra as ‚Minimally Invasive Education’ (Mitra 2000). The immense disparities existing in India’s school system, and the magnitude of the challenge of educating the children of its over 600 000 villages was the backdrop of this research project (Mitra and Dangwal 2010).

The experimental setting popularly known as the ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ later became the inspirational story for the oscar winning movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

The pedagogic notion behind the models of such self-organized learning has become known as ‘emergent learning systems’ or ‘discovery based learning systems’ in contrast to the traditional ‘prescriptive learning systems’. It sees the transition of learning from tutor-led approach to co-construction and co-evolution of knowledge between tutors and learners, and especially between learners and learners.

SOLE – Self Organised Learning Environment

Based on the knowledge gained by this experiment, Mitra started experimenting with a new kind of learning space which he calls “SOLE – a Self-Organised Learning Environment”. A SOLE is a typical example of a ‘social space’ of learning. It usually comprises several computers with Internet access arranged in clusters to facilitate peer interaction. It is placed within a room that is publicly visible – allowing ‘unobtrusive supervision’ from outside. It can accommodate around 30 children, usually 4 at each computer. Children work in clusters creating a circular arrangement that further facilitates interaction in a larger group. Activities include surfing the Internet, following up on a classroom assignment, or simply going to where their interests lead them. Evidence shows that given free access children display high self-motivation to learn effectively and creatively, often succeeding in coming up with ‘extraordinary skills’ in finding answers to questions beyond their grade level. The ideal group size seems to be 4-6. Mixed age and gender groups were observed to work better (Mitra 2010; Mitra, Kulkarni 2010).

Here are some links:

Here is his latest TED lecture “The Child Driven Education”, where he speaks about ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ and his new experiments on SOLEs (2010).  Stunning!!

Same video on TED. Here you’ll find more links, transcript etc.

Here he speaks about ‘A Day in the School of the Future’

Here he speaks about the future of universities…he thinks there will be no more undergraduate courses offered at universities of the future…

Two papers:                                                                                                                                      Mitra, S. (2000). Minimally Invasive Education for mass computer literacy. Presented at the CRIDALA 2000 conference, Hong Kong. Accessed online on 01.07.11 at

Mitra, S. and Kulkarni, S. (2010). Access and Quality in Self Organized Learning Environments Formal Education: Quality Issues, British Journal of Educational Psychology. Wiley Online Library. Accessed online on 01.07.11 at <>

The Khan Academy – A whole new way of teaching and learning

Last month, Salman Khan presented the THE KHAN ACADEMY at TED Talks – probably the most exciting techno-pedagogic educational service created in the last decades. Every minute of this lecture is exciting for those interested in education. Bill Gates, who has been pouring in money into this project, personally came on stage to ask questions at the end. Mr Gates, in fact, did KA with his kids and thinks it’s „unbelieveable“.

I think the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit organization with the mission of providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere – will become a major force in revolutionizing the classroom in terms of learning, teaching, students interaction, assessment and also space.

Back in 2004, Sal, as he is called, still a hedge fund analyst – was asked by his cousins to give them lessons in maths. First he used Yahoo’s Doodle notepad then started to put videos on youtube. They were so appealing, that his cousins preferred the virtual cousin to the physical one. The response from other viewers was so overwhelming, that Salman started devoting himself entirely to this ‚social cause’, which was „strange“ for him as a hedge fund analyst. 2009 he quit his job and started creating hundreds of online tutorials. All free. Today 1 million students watch KA every month.

The 2200 pre-college mathematics and physics videos on the website offer basic arithmetic to calculus. I would say, the real power of the service is not the technology, it is the awesome ability of Salman to inspire kids and adults around the world watching them. One said: „first time i got a smile while while doing a derivative“, or the parents of a child with autism wrote their child who had „failed to learn maths through any other means started to get the decimals…and the dreaded fractions….” or another viewer said he  „gets a natural high and a good mood fort he entire the day“.

KA is about ‘self paced learning; teachers becomingmoderators/facilitators’; creating strong interactions between students and innumerable ways of creating new learning and teaching models using these building blocks.

Thanks to the new team of software engineers, a number of features were added to the platform which helps students to conduct self assessments; or ways that help teachers to track the learning patterns and jump in if help is necessary. With KA, teachers would “intervene only when a student is stuck.” One surprising knowledge gained by these tracking methods was that the seeminly ‚slow learners’ show the ability to become ‚gifted learners’ within a matter of weeks – they may be slow at certain times/certain topics, but once they ‘get it’, they can race ahead.

Promising results of tests have triggered off a discussion in the USA about using the KA  as a basic building block for all schools in the country.

The Khan Academy has started moving into fields outside maths and physics, creating videos on history, the sciences, finances and venture capital. But mathematics is not history. Things may get complicated with value based issues – hopefully they are aware about the cultural and political sensitivities in education.

Salman Khan, father from Bangladesh (Barisal) and mother from India (Calcutta), was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He went to MIT and Harvard Business school.


TED lecture of Salman Khan March 2011 (20 min)

On Wikipedia;                                                                                                                                        On TED Lectures (March 2011);

An example of Salman’s videos on “Statistics”

Dan Pink’s new message – What motivates us at work place?

Here is an interview and a RSA episode which illustrate Dan Pink’s core message published in his new book „Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us“ (his last one was „ A Whole New Mind“). If there is any truth in what Mr. Pink, the former speech writer of Al Gore says, then we’ll seriously need to rethink our notions about motivation at workplace. And applying these to our educational institutions will be an interesting exercise. Let me know your thoughts.

Pink’s message in a nutshell: Our traditional understanding of motivation is – if you reward what you want then you’ll get more of it,  if you punish what you don’t want, there will be less of it. This ‚carrot and the stick’ model is greatly succesful to motivate people doing routine tasks, but miserable for motivating people to do creative, conceptual tasks.

The first Video (PBS News) shows a rather remarkable experiment – Two groups of people were chosen to find creative solutions to a certain assignment. One group was offered money proportional to their time taken to come up with the solution, and the other group got no money for solving the problem. The first group took double the time than those who received no money!

… and here is a RSA visualization”

The moral of the story: Large rewards lead to poor performance. Creative work needs more human and less material incentives. Rewarding the top performers is good for mechanical tasks and bad for even rudimentary cognitive skills. This defies the laws of ‚behavioural physics’. But beware, this doesn’t mean less money will make us more creative!                                                                                                    Now, what are these non-material incentives?

The new law of motivation physics discovered by Dan in the age of knowledge economy is: First, get the money issue from the table – people need to be paid enough, so that they don’t have to think about money. Second, acknowledge the three driving forces for creativity at workplace  1) Autonomy, 2) Mastery and 3) Purpose

1) Autonomy: Atlassian, an Australian IT company has introduced a day of ‚free work’ at regular intervals, where employees can do whatever they want to do and whoever they want to do it with. However, they have to report what they have done at the end of the 24 hours. This experiment unleashed  great enthusiasm and creative energy, and much to the employers delight, a whole array of new products. Autonomy is about ‚self directed engagement’. This is something creative people are obviously pretty hungy about.

2) Mastery: We have an intrinsic need to get better at stuff.  It can be in playing musical instruments, painting pictures, making jewellery, cooking great food etc. In fact, a whole new (multi-billion dollar) industry known as ‚open source’ has sprung up around this human trait.  „A strange economic behaviour of  people to go home after work and do things for free for someone else and not for the employer“(D.Pink). Is the driving force behind this that what makes us tick ? In any case, this cannot be motivated by material incentives.

3) Purpose: More and more people seem to need a transcendent purpose at work (I guess for life in general). And apparently, more and more companies are animating themselves by being more ‚purpose oriented’ than ‚profit oriented’. Human beings are ‚purpose maximizers not profit maximizers’ (D. Pink)

And here is a summary of Pink’s three points on what ‚drives’ employees:

a) we want to be self directed;                                                                                                      b) we care about mastery very, very deeply;                                                                              c)  and if we start treating people like people with a need to fulfill a purpose and not like horses and get past the ideology of carrot and stick … then we can make our organizations better off and maybe even make the world a better place.

…we won’t discuss the dangers of new subtle forms of exploitation here…but I think Dan Pink has some points here that are very significant for educational planners. The three points are in themselves nothing new, but if they have some validity at workplaces, as Pinks has shown by embedding them in the new context of workplace requirements of the future, then they are of significant relevance to our educational institutions as well. Then, we’ll have to ask ourselves: how do we respond to the needs of students in ‚autonomous, self-directed’ learning ? How do we give them the opportunity to exercise ‚mastery’? How do we create an atmosphere of ‘purpose’?

This is a call for teachers and parents to be open about understanding the incentives that DRIVE our STUDENTS, and be be ready for surprises, rather than impose our industrial age assumptions still deeply ingrained in our institutional genes.

Here is a video with Dan Pink at a Texas Senate Hearing on Education!

Here is another speech i found on TED:

… and this is his website

Sir Ken Robinson – Good workers or creative thinkers? (Visuals + Videos)

Here are two lectures of Ken Robinson on TED and and a wonderful visualization of his message on RSA. Transcripts of his TED lectures you’ll find on the TED website in a box on the right. (For more on Robinson’s core ideas see my post on Dec 25, 2010 on his notion of the ‘Element’.)                                                                         Robinson is probably the most fabled educationalist today. Millions of clicks on his TED lectures suggest this. His key message on this first lecture: We don’t get the best out of our people because “… we’ve been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers.”…and what’s worse “we are educating people out of their creativity” (Quotes:TED Website). This is probably the key problem of our educational systems and the key challenge in the age of knowledge economy. Ken starts his first lecture by talking about the future. We don’t really have a clue about how the world is going to be in 5 years, yet we have to educate children for it…

This was his first appearance on TED in 2006 in Monterry, California.

…and this was his second appearance on TED in 2010:

… and this is a RSA visualization of his theories: “Changing Education Paradigms” (very entertaining!)

…and if you are interested in more, here are more links to his website, blog etc.

John Biggs: “Constructive Alignment” (Theory + Video)

John Biggs has been hugely influential as an educational psychologist. His notion of ‚constructive alignment’ has become an pillar in pedagogic theory. Watch this award winning 20 min film about the core ideas of Briggs put forward in a classroom setting in rather a unique way.

“Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding”
Claus Brabrand and Jacob Andersen
19 minute award-winning short-film (DVD) about Constructive Alignment.
( )
Aarhus University Press, University of Aarhus, Denmark, 2006.

His theory in a nutshell:

Leaving behind the good student/bad student; good teacher/bad teacher model, Biggs presents a practical approach about about how all teachers can achieve an ‚intended learning outcome’. „In 1976, Swedish researchers Ference Marton and Roger Saljö demonstrated that students learn not what teachers think they should learn, but what students perceive the task to demand of them.“ (John Biggs Website). It implies knowledge is created less by teacher’s transmission but more by construction through learner’s activity. It’s not what the teacher does but what the learner does is of more importance when it comes to understanding the teaching/learning system.

About assessment it says that exams are only one sort of assessment, they don’t assess how well you can use the topic to inform their behaviour. In constructive alignment, the assessment task is how well can students apply given principles. The most important learning outcomes are: bringing about a) different behaviour and  about b) making informed decisions.

…And teaching is about weaving a constructive web of learning where students are activated to develop higher level cognitive processes – climbing through the 5 cognitive levels of the ‚SOLO Taxonomy’; it’s about shifting students from the mode of ‚surface learning’ to ‚deep learning’.

…more to follow at a later post. Here is his book: Teaching for Quality Learning at University” (Biggs, Tang 1999/2007. MacGraw Hill, NY)

..and he is a prolific writer of travelogues and novels!!

Sir Ken Robinson – His concept of the ‘Element’

Well, since I have nothing better to do on Christmas Day, than be sick and spend it in my bed, I thought I would flip through some of Ken Robinson’s (website) videos to get inspiration for an article I’m working on. Ken Robinson is a leading British educationalist living in LA since a decade. He consults Fortune 500 companies, governments and educational institutions. In 1998, he led a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK Government. ‘All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education’ (The Robinson Report, 1999).

The man has a wry, British humor; he is entertaining and has a special way of bringing his message across. I heard him first speak at TED, and was quite touched by this words. Let me try to summarize the things I found out about his ideas…

Many people (I dare to say ‘most’ people) leave their schools without having an idea about what their real creative abilities are. Ken starts with this paradox: most children believe they are highly creative , and most grown ups believe they are not. What happened in-between? His first book was about this problem:  Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (Wiley/Capstone):

His second book is called The Elements – How finding your passion changes everything. 40 years of experience is compressed in this book. His core philosophy, I think, is this: “The element is the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. When people arrive at the element, they feel most themselves and most inspired and achieve at their highest levels.“ Also… „The Element shows the vital need to enhance creativity and innovation by thinking differently about human resources and imagination. It is also an essential strategy for transforming education, business, and communities to meet the challenges of living and succeeding in the twenty-first century.“ (taken from Ken’s Website)

His understanding of human resources (great lecture at LA Public Library): It’s a dormant potential that lies somewhere deep inside. If you cannot create the right „conditions“, it will never be tapped. He correlates the environmental crisis with the impending human resources crisis – the roots of both crisis, he believes, go back to the same intellectual, cultural and social movement of the industrial revolution. The roots of our educational systems also go back to that period of time. Schools were ‚fordist’ models of production – children going in at one end and coming out of the other end ‚qualified’ for doing xyz. This linear assumption is today getting replaced by a more non-linear, organic evolution of individuals. While in the industrial age educational institutions fulfilled the ‚demand’ of the labour market, today, it’s more about individuals who can create new ‚potentials’ in the marketplace. There was no demand for the theory of relativity (or the ipad?).

On the one hand, he believes if people can connect themselves with their own talents, it changes his/her relationship with the environment. That involves a different approach to one’s life in general. On the other hand he speaks about the environment that can foster this connection between human beings and their inner creative centres. At this point, he speaks about the city (i was happy to hear him say this, as I’m looking for more support for my theory of ‚educational urbanism’. Cities as a whole can help to create this atmosphere that helps us to connect with our individual and maybe collective creative centres).

To sum up, here are a few positions of Ken:

1. Everybody is creative; creativity can be taught. 2. “Creativity is having regional ideas that have value(Ken’s definition of creativity!)”. 3. Create more balance between science and art subjects (students enjoy arts even if they are good in the sciences, or the other way round). 4. We need a diversity of talents (The Italian Renaissance was not built up with maths only) 5. Physical environments tell you ‘how’ you have to behave: change them so that people can see things differently, not do things the same way. 6. ‘Subject’ aren’t a very good idea. ‘chemistry’ is an interrelated set of relationships, concepts, modes of analysis, certain areas of exploration and focus…but it’s not a separate ‘subject’. (Probably he’s heading here for ‘project oriented’ lerning?) 7. Organisations are not functional machines, they are more like (breathing) organisms: with individuals that have values, motivations, aspirations (or lack of aspirations) and they are in relationships. They reciprocate with their environments – good organisations are those that help to enrich the environment they depend upon. 8. About educational ssessment: assessment is important, but applying a regime of standardization narrows down the scope of potentials of learning. Standardization can help to diagnose a situation, it cannot be the purpose of education. 9. …and finally we must find a way to ‘individualize’ our educational system (more to these points in later posts).

And this is what I’ll take into my Christmas musings:                                                   What are the conditions where human talent can flourish??

(The above mentioned points were taken from Sir Ken Robinson’s web site and the lecture he gave at the LA Public Library in 2010: ” A new view of human capacity)