Teachwell | Mitra Myths – Slum children with No English?
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Mitra Myths - Slum children with No English?


Sugata Mitra was much discussed by the Twitterati yesterday.The Guardian article is here.The TES article earlier this week is here. Tom Bennett’s critique is here.


For some it was the confirmation they needed that self-directed learning is real and superior. For others he is a charlatan whose research is deeply flawed and does not stand up to scrutiny.


One of the most interesting aspects of the Guardian article was that it did interview one of the children who took part in the original Hole in the Wall experiment. He is now a Yale PhD student – amazing success for a project you’d think.


Arun Chavan’s testimony is interesting (all the more so as it was ignored by those enthusing about children teaching themselves). The following is what he had to say about his experience.


Later, I get hold of Chavan to ask him about the impact of the hole-in-the-wall project on his educational achievement, and there’s a pause while he thinks about how to answer. “I’ve been asked this before and I’m always really uncomfortable with the idea of this as a hole-in-the-wall to Yale kind of story,” he says. “I feel like some of the most important influences I had were the people I had the opportunity to meet. It opened up my mind to a lot of things.”


It’s not a magic bullet, then? “No, technology is not a magic bullet. I wouldn’t be the only person saying it. But then, when it comes to something as complex as education, nothing is magic.


From the horses mouth.


I then came across a TEDBlog interview with Chavan here. Here’s the crux of the matter. Mitra never looked into the backgrounds of these children or investigated them in any way. But he has categorically stated that the children were from the slums. Chavan’s testimony in that article does not seem to suggest this was really the case. Look at his answer to the following Q & A  in the TEDBlog interview.


What were your first thoughts when the street-side computer appeared in your community? 


I was a kid then, studying in the sixth grade. I had never handled a computer before. I thought it was great to have those computers lying around to play with. I don’t remember being afraid to use them. I think we figured out soon enough that restarting the computer fixes almost every problem!


The hole in the wall computers had been placed  near slums not in them. Chavan may have been poor but that doesn’t mean he didn’t attend school. Chavan goes on to state that his father wrote and directed plays.


I really doubt even in India that a playwright lives in slums and well they write plays so are literate… which I am guessing would have benefitted his child.


Thing is, in India, as in many places, people with different levels of income may still live cheek by jowl. Just because you put the computer in an area where there are slums nearby does not mean only those particular children would have accessed them.


Chavan’s testimony in both articles does state that he feels he learnt to use the computer from scratch – fair enough. But these were not the illiterate slum children that Mitra makes them out to be. Here’s another one of Chavan’s answers in the TEDBlog:


Are you still in contact with the kids you studied with using the “Hole in the Wall” computer? 


Unfortunately, I am not in contact with many of my friends from that time. Some of us went to different cities to attend college after high school. Most of those who stayed back attended vocational training programs and are working now.


Education in India is not a free affair – many costs have to be paid even for state schools. It is not even in the same league as the UK in terms of children from lower SES having the same opportunities as their peers. While Mitra emphasises the areas where children from slums could use the computers they were placed in villages. Villages in India do not contain a poverty ridden population anymore than they do in England.


Does this mean none of the children who took part were from the slums. No of course I imagine some were but the idea that it was poor illiterate slum children learning to surf the internet from scratch is far from the truth in at least some of the cases. The children were in school and had been in primary too.


Children did learn how to use a computer. Indeed Chavan states in the TEDBlog interview that this is what he takes away from it all but it is just this. It did not have a wider impact on his learning.


In the Guardian article Mitra states how he wanted to innovate further still in light of the hole in the wall project so:


“I set myself an impossible target: can Tamil-speaking 12-year-old children in a south Indian village teach themselves biotechnology in English on their own?”


He has gone into more detail in a different Guardian article here. Impressively they did. Another victory for self learning by children using the internet!! They even learnt it in a language they did not know and obviously taught themselves English through the internet (at least that is the impression that is given).


Slight problem here – the children were in a village not a slum and were not tested prior to using this technology. There is more than just a small chance they would have been attending school.


The best bit? They may have been Tamil speakers but what Mitra has conveniently omitted is that India has a three language policy.


It has done since it became independent, as a compromise solution to the need for a national language, as well as preserving local languages. Not everyone was happy about having to learn Hindi as many had learnt English as their second language up to that point. So the three languages policy was born – all children who attend school learn Hindi, English and their local language.


One of the areas that had wanted English was… drum rolls please… Tamil Nadur. So it seems that for quite a long time now people in that part of the India have been learning English at school, as their second language. Good chance their parents, grandparents, etc have too. They may even have grown up with books in different languages.


It is still impressive if they learnt and understood the basics of biotechnology but please let us not pretend that they taught themselves English as part of this process.


There are many reasons to doubt Mitra’s research, this is just the tip of the iceberg. To say that it should be adopted in classrooms is a throwback to the 1970s.


If there is one thing that does need to change in our education system – it is the attitude that any idea that a teacher likes can and should be implemented in the classroom because they are the teacher and a ‘professional’. Being professional is a state of mind not a quality that one possesses regardless of ones actions.

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