Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Letting Children Teach Themselves

There is still much to be done if the world wants to achieve the second goal of the Millennium Development Goals -- universal primary education for all of the world's children -- by 2015. While poor countries have made great strides toward reaching this landmark, inequality of class and gender still limits access to schooling for many children across the globe; girls, children in rural areas, and children from poor families are considerably less likely to receive primary education. Many obstacles stand in the way of ensuring universal education, among them a lack of qualified teachers in the areas that need them most. Frequently, this is because the most troubled areas of nations are places where teachers either cannot or do not want to go.

Education scientist Sugata Mitra recognized this problem. In a recently presented TED talk, he describes a unique and effective potential solution -- allowing children to teach themselves. In 1999, he performed a simple experiment in a New Delhi slum: He installed a computer with high-speed internet in the wall of a building and allowed the local children, who had never before seen a computer, to use it. His findings? In as little as four hours, the children taught themselves how to download applications, record their own music, and create videos. Inspired by the children's ingenuity, Mitra traveled extensively throughout India, Africa, and parts of Europe over the next decade, expanding upon his initial experiment. Enabled by access to computers, groups of students taught themselves English, studied science, and learned how to search for and synthesize information.

Mitra's experiments led him to make important speculations about worldwide education. His theory is that education is, or should be, a self-organizing system in which "learning is an emergent phenomenon." This challenges current ideas of formal education, in which students simply receive knowledge imparted by a teacher. He argues that following this model, within just ten years 1 billion children worldwide could receive the equivalent of primary education with a budget of $180 billion dollars. If that sounds like a lot of money, consider that the United States will spend $663.8 billion on defense for the year 2010 alone.

Of course, the role of a trained, committed teacher in a student's life cannot be replaced by a computer screen. But in the world's most extreme cases of global poverty, Mitra's experiments make clear what curious, engaged children can do to help themselves. As Mitra says himself, "If children have interest, then education happens."

-Elizabeth Newton

SOURCE: UN Millenniums Goals, TED, U.S. Department of Defense