Tuesday, 17 November 2015

School's out!

I've just caught up with a fascinating interview on BBC Radio 3 as part of the Free Thinking Festival. Prof. Sugata Mitra thinks schools are obsolete and that teachers should be replaced by a friendly - but not necessarily knowledgeable - adult who simple asks the children questions about what they're doing, or else expresses enthusiasm and admiration for whatever they've discovered. In other words children should teach themselves, in small groups, using a computer and merely report what they're doing to a grown-up. Testing, rote learning, exams etc. are all out, cloud learning - the 'granny' cloud - is in.

As I listened I realised I had, in a small way, tried something similar many years ago. It was pre-computer, so it was based on that old-fashioned commodity, the book. At the start of each new topic or at the beginning of a new course I'd put all the books I could find on the subject in a big box and the pupils would spend a few lessons simply reading them, choosing whichever they preferred, not writing anything, just... well, reading. And, without realising it, learning.

Horrible idea! Ofsted (not to mention most Headteachers) would hate it. But the kids liked it. There were all sorts of books for them to choose from, ranging from the simplest primary school picture book to 'A' level and undergraduate texts. They could  go from one to the other and back again at will. And then, when we started the course proper, they were ready. Without knowing it they'd have prepared a framework for their future learning. And enjoyed doing so.

Prof. Mitra also claims exams have outlived their usefulness. They're part of a 'just-in-case' philosophy of education that's outdated now we're able to carry 'the entire human consciousness in our pockets' (his words). It all seems so pie-in-the-sky when written down like this, yet so obvious and inevitable when explained by Professor Mitra. And he's no ivory-tower academic, either. Much of his thinking was based on an experiment he carried out in Delhi, the results of which inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire.

After more than twenty years teaching, I have a rather ambivalent approach to education. There seems little doubt that what most schools do, most of the time, is wasteful and inefficient. At worst, it  leads to a fear and loathing of learning; at best, it seems no more than a means to an end. And the pressures the system heaps up on our children are enormous.

Most of what we know about the brain and how people learn has only been discovered in the last ten to fifteen years. Very little of that knowledge has filtered down to classrooms. And - like it or not - technology has changed everything. Except the underlying principles of what goes on in English school classrooms. Ideas like Prof Mitra's might just give us a tantalising glimpse of the future.  Catch the interview on BBC iPlayer here while you can.

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