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How Sugata Mitra Annoyed English Teachers (& why I care)

shocked face What is the role of good teaching? Why does learning sometimes happen on its own? Is there something children cannot learn independently? These were some questions brought about by Saturday’s morning plenary talk at IATEFL – an international English language teachers’ conference. For foreign language learners, the debate which ensued can be quite inspiring. Let’s dive in, but be warned: strong opinions will follow.

1. So this is what happened first

Sugata Mitra won the TED Prize in 2013. His work and research involved children figuring things out seemingly without assistance – only by using computers built into walls and provided to them, and by relying on one another for help and guidance.
His TED talk, in which he accepts the TED Prize and outlines his TED wish, can be seen below:

2. And this is what happened today

Sugata was this Saturday’s plenary speaker at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate. He walked into a room full of English language teachers and delivered this talk. It’s worth watching the whole hour – this is, in many ways, an update on Sugata’s project which started with the 2013 TED Prize.


3. Which made a lot of English teachers very angry

Clearly, when you ask about how learning can improve – and try to discuss the future of education – you’re becoming very unpopular. (Click images to enlarge. I took the liberty and censored sensitive information)


[EDIT: The critique has since moved beyond tweets and onto several blogs. Great stuff. I won’t find the time to post all the opposing views here but I’m keen for you to point them out to us in the comments below. Check out Mura Nava’s post on his blog, and Phillip Kerr’s analysis of the forces behind EdTech – just for starters.]

4. What language learners can learn from Sugata Mitra (a subjective list)

  • Some things can be learned without teachers.
  • Your mates, peers and friends can teach you something.
  • By speaking, arguing and observing others, you can learn.
  • You don’t need a teacher 100% of the time.
  • You don’t need a syllabus 100% of the time.
  • Good content and good peer network can only get you so far…
  • …And somebody’s admiration, or just a few good questions, can get you a bit further…
  • …but we still don’t know if this is enough to learn a language.

5. What language teachers can learn from Sugata Mitra (a subjective list)

  • Don’t ignore the internet in your teaching.
  • Prepare students for dealing with real problems, not for taking tests.
  • Don’t expect all learning to involve teachers.
  • Accept that things will be learned, used and misused outside the classroom.
  • Recognize that there is some potential in teacherless, independent work on learners’ part.
  • Don’t shy away from big questions.

6. Why I Believe That Sugata Mitra + Annoyed English Teachers = Result

This guy went all around the world with his projects. He spoke to hundreds of children, volunteers, teachers and researchers. He asked questions. He built stuff. He followed up on his project – his TED wish is now becoming a reality, one school after another.
There are still more questions than answers, but he inspired many people to look beyond “things as they’ve always been.” He’s not firing teachers, he’s not replacing schools forever. Sugata Mitra is finding things out, and asking questions.
If that annoys anyone, I’m glad. What’s the purpose of coming to a meeting if you’re not prepared to have your mind changed? What’s the point of sitting through a talk if you’re expecting to hear that the lessons you’re teaching are just fine, that the course books you’re publishing are doing a great job – that nothing will change at all? I can’t believe people come to conferences expecting this.
Questionable research? Go and find your own answers, then spread the word. Political sales pitch to get more tech in class? Figure out an open-source way to achieve the same results.
I’m hoping for the Annoyed English Teachers to engage with the questions posed by all of IATEFL this year. There’s plenty to be engaged with.
I’m just hoping for more than a few angry tweets. But actually, even those are a good start.

(photo credit: duncan c via Compfight)


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13 Responsesso far.

  1. Sandy Millin says:

    Thank you for writing that Viktor. I’ve been surprised at the vehemence with which people have fought against his ideas. I really like points 4 and 5, which summarise points I’ve been trying to frame in my mind since I saw the talk. I’m also pleased that this plenary has generated so much debate – that’s exactly the point of a plenary.

  2. Thanks for this, Sandy – it’s super-early stages, which I suppose could explain some of the unrest that this has caused. Interesting times indeed!

  3. Loïc Malsch says:

    Very good post Wiktor with very interesting questions. I like your 2 subjective lists and totally agree with your points. Things must be discussed and looked at different angles if we want to improve teaching (which is true in any field). I may suggest you to have a look at http://www.blabloo.com which is a collaborative project for language learners and MFL teachers. In the line of having usual classes completed by peer learning out of the classroom. I’ll be glad to have your expert feedback on this as we are still on beta phase. Congrats for the blog!

  4. Loïc – I’m leaving your comment on here, but with a kind request to submit any links for review via email. I haven’t time to police every comment here, and it’s easier for me to delete comments which look like adverts. Blabloo looks cool and I’ll take a look whenever I can.

  5. Andy Hockley says:

    I think you’ve cherry picked there Wiktor. I don’t think (some) teachers were upset because they don;t like having their views challenged. To put it another way there seems to be a continuum of views on this subject which range from “Sugata Mitra has solved the problem of education and has really found out what makes learning work” to “Sugata Mitra is a terrible person who wants to get rid of teachers”. The truth, clearly, lies somewhere along that continuum, but not at either end.

    A lot of his talk was really fascinating (and whatever you think of his views, he is fantastic speaker), and I think the stuff about kids collaborating and becoming engaged and being motivated and involved with their own learning is of course more than valid (and not necessarily new either). His criticism of exams is also very well taken.

    But, at the other end, the suggestion that removing teachers from the equation and replacing them with a bunch of volunteer grannies in the cloud, is, I suggest, not only misguided but positively dangerous in a world in which we have politicians and business leaders who would be only too happy to pick up on arguments such as that one and act upon them. It’s a neo-liberal, austerity wet dream.

    But suggesting that the people who got upset (and let’s also remember that he got a standing ovation, so we’re talking about a speech that very much divided the room, and launched a genuine discussion, so it was very useful anyway) did so because they don;t like to talk about how kids learn or want to bury their heads in the sand, is if I may be honest, genuinely offensive.

  6. richardjuckes says:

    Thank you for posting so quickly on this. I watched the recording of @ELTjam’s talk yesterday afternoon – http://www.eltjam.com/eltjam-iatefl-2014-on-what-edtech-means-for-elt/ – which for me helped to explain where some of the rhetoric was coming come, because it really did seem unnecessarily harshly worded. Perhaps the outpouring of emotion can now lead to some kind of positive engagement.

  7. Andy – I agree with most of the above, especially the cherry-picking. Everything said, blogged and tweeted so far about this issue is just a spotlight on part of the whole story – that includes the blog post above.
    I was wondering for a long while about the seriousness of the threat of teachers being removed and replaced by computers. Sugata Mitra seems to think this will happen (as he himself admitted during the post-talk interview) – I’m really not sure about this.

  8. The ELTjam guys really delivered on IATEFL, didn’t they? 🙂

  9. Ramon Thomas says:

    After meeting Professor Sugata Mitra in South Africa I am confident he does not claim to have solved the problem of education. Teachers should be upset at what he has discovered because most of them are only doing a good job at maintaining the status quo. This is a direct challenge to the most over-hyped position in society.

    IF and when parents take responsibility for their children’s education, instead of outsourcing it as they have been coerced by forced compulsory school, will we see a change in the right direction. Learning’s the answer, what’s the question.

  10. Ramon, I’m not sure that’s a fair thing to say about teachers – certainly not the ones who were at the conference I’m referring to – most of them are brilliant at pushing the envelope and changing their industry for the better!
    But you’re spot-on with the focus on the learning, as well as the teaching process.

  11. Andy Hockley says:

    Hi Wiktor. I agree that everyone approaches this speech with their own biases (well, that we all do that all the time). But I do think there were some very balanced blog posts (from Graham Stanley and the Secret DOS in particular). Posts which actually didn;t take one side or the other but highlighted some of the really valid and valuable stuff, and also questioned, thoughtfully, some of the more outlandish claims

  12. Andy Hockley says:

    Where do you live Ramon? I know of no country in the world where teachers are the most over-hyped position in society. Teachers are, for the most part, incredibly caring and hard working, trying desperately to do the best they can for their students, while dealing with the constrictions of a difficult (at best) system. yet they are also blamed for all the shortcomings of that system. (not dissimlar to nurses, say).

    I’d love to come and live somewhere where teachers are actually accorded a bit of respect. And “over hyped”? Wow. That sounds like a utopia.

  13. Thank you for this neat overview of Sugata Mitra’s arguments, Wiktor. I’m a bit late to the game, but you can find my commentary at http://sciencebin.wordpress.com/article/edtech-and-minimally-invasive-education-the-sole-way-forward/