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BARBICAN LIFE


alive. He is giving of himself. Others can learn the constituent parts of his skill, but the will to do it comes from knowing what it feels like to be at the receiving end. In teaching and learning, emotional transparency matters. As he moves about his class, this person is teaching his subject, and letting his love of that subject show. His heart is exposed. That, I believe, is the glue which makes information stick. Teaching, I told myself, checking that the onions had softened properly, matters a great deal. Before Charlie sees this and accuses me of ‘romanticism’, I had better provide some more academic back up: In 2004/5 Professor Sugata Mitra conducted an experiment in a Tsunami- flattened village in Tamil Nadu, India. This is what he did: He took a computer, made it immobile, uploaded some material in English, and left it, for a group of 12 year old Tamil speaking children to learn from, completely unsupervised. The material was about how the development of congenital disease was related to a malfunction in DNA replication – not really an easy subject. His intention was to prove that there are some barriers that children will not be able to overcome by themselves. The children having been left alone, looked at th


is material


every day, and when he came back two months later, scored 30% in the post exposure test, (they learned enough English by themselves !) and at the end of a further two months, this score was improved to 50% by the introduction into the equation of what Mitra symbolically calls a ‘grandmother’ –a young woman who follows the children doing the work, encourages their efforts, makes noises of praise along the lines of ‘oh, aren’t you clever, I could never have done this in my time’ etc. This became the inspiration for the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, apparently. The author saw Mitra’s work and took heart – he based his text on this professor’s findings. I must say I was astounded and somewhat taken aback – does this mean that we are seeing the end of teaching?


A ‘thought experiment’ by Mitra in another article makes proposals


on how a teacher doesn’t have to physically go to the slums in Hyderabad, to teach these children effectively – five retired teachers in Gateshead are, he claims, doing this already, by Skype. In his paper in the Journal of Emerging Technologies in Web Intelligence this man, somewhat preposterously at a first glance, says that most of the things a teacher does, can be done remotely – all you need is a good projector and all the technical conditions for a superb, continuous Skype connection.


Does he mean to say that there is no point in adults knowing their stuff and teaching the content of something face to face? We teach so much more by being there physically, most importantly, our attitudes and values. Let Mitra march on, in his academic ivory tower, I thought – look at him in ten year’s time and see where he has got to. I checked my meatballs, and looked at my son’s ‘book bag pile’ – a muddled collection of homework, paperbacks, a magazine, paper aeroplanes and dirty games kit.


Soaking the washing up, I picked up the free magazine First Eleven which is usually left in my son’s school pigeonhole, and sat down with it for a ten minute break – a mistake I found – I was thwarted in my ambition to ignore this man for ten years. In his short article in that magazine Mitra gives his vision of the future of learning and teaching – and at least in one important respect, I found that we agreed. Because children will be able to extract information from the ether, ‘teachers will need to change into


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admiring adults that pose some fundamental questions to learners.’ Excuse me, Professor – is this not the job description of a mother? ‘And she will step back, as learning emerges’ he concludes. Well, yes, you have to really. That is called giving your child a bit of space, and a chance to get ‘bored’. Then maybe Charlie starts enthusing about a photograph of the Giant’s Causeway, and there, before your very eyes, starts an extended geology lesson…. Mitra needed to add that whether from the ether, or hard copy, children will still need to read Steinbeck and Carson, if they are to learn about the world in which they


Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum ,2007. (Source: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2007)


Professor Sugata Mitra


will be citizens. I read the rest of his paper. On the whole, perhaps not as mad as I thought, Professor, and not putting anybody out of a job, just yet: ah yes, and thank you for the mental ‘stretch’. That is always appreciated.


But where in all this, I wondered, (switching off the cooker) is the importance of a good hearty tomato sauce? I shall have to work it into the ‘mind map’ one day soon.


For the record – a picture of Sreela Banerjee’s Charlie


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