A Response to Mitra Part 2: Classroom PedagogyPosted: June 23, 2013
The aim of this series of posts is to review and respond to Sugata Mitra's vision for education as outlined in his article published in the 16th June 2013 edition of the Observer. Although I have quoted liberally from the article I would urge interested parties to read it in its entirety before progressing any further here.
This second selection of quotes are related to classroom pedagogy:
In my last post I concluded that Sugata Mitra considers employability to be the main purpose of education and is in favour of a curriculum that overwhelmingly focuses on skills rather than knowledge. Mitra's considerations seen driven by his faith in technology and over optimism about how the modern workplace is organised. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Mitra's preferred classroom pedagogy is similar to the child centered methods favoured by progressive educators. This pedagogy is partly based on the suggestion that student disengagement is caused by teachers explaining thier subject to a class and we really ought to stop doing it. The reasoning here seems to be that children a) find teachers boring and group work fun and b) learn more efficiently using technology in groups. This reasoning seems contradictory to Willingham's (2009) conclusions about learning, pleasure and effort:
“People's minds are not especially suited to thinking; thinking is slow, effortful and uncertain”
“If they (students) lack the appropriate background knowledge, the question you pose will quickly be judged as “boring”.”
Far from advocating the removal of teachers as a solution to boredom Willingham suggests that teachers merely respect their students cognitive limits:
“If students lack the background knowledge to engage with a problem, save it for another time when they have that knowledge”
“The solution to working memory overloads is straightforward: slow the pace, and use memory aids such as writing on the blackboard that save students from keeping too much information in working memory.”
If we accept Willingham's suggestions then it seems premature to avoid exposing children to traditional pedagogy on the basis of whether they like it or not; learning can be hard work and who actually likes hard work? It also seems doubtful that children acquire knowledge efficiently by working in groups, in my experience children prefer group work because it allows more opportunity for avoiding work than when they are asked to listen to the teacher. Personal anecdotes aside Andrew Old (2008) has provided a number of reasons why group work should be rejected in most subjects. Old's comments about using group work to instill the virtues of collaboration in school children seem particularly poignant given Mitra's aims of education:
“If you want to learn how to cooperate effectively with others, then the last place you’d start is in a group of teenagers being made to do school work. This is like saying the best way to learn how to make pork sausages is by being imprisoned in a pig farm with a half-dozen rabbis. Putting together people who are neither experienced at doing something, or particularly inclined to want to do it, is not how you learn to do that something. Of course, it would be useful for a surly teenager to practice teamwork skills. Letting him or her join a team of adults who already know how to work in a team would be a great educational experience. Forcing them into a group of other surly teenagers and letting them fight it out amongst themselves over who is to blame for getting nothing done is less constructive.”
Opposition to Mitra's pedagogical vision isn't confined to some teachers. The well respected educational researcher John Hattie (2009) concluded that Direct Instruction had a far higher effect size on learning (d = 0.59) than Inquiry-based teaching (d = 0.31) and Problem-based learning (d = 0.15). Web-based learning fares little better (d = 0.18) meaning that three teaching methods advocated by Mitra fall well outside Hattie's 'zone of desired effects' in the classroom (d = >0.4).
Finally I am bewildered that Mitra has chosen to advocate a child centered and skills heavy pedagogy using examples that highlight individuals who overwhelmingly lack for subject knowledge. The teacher who said “There is something called electromagnetic radiation that we can't see, can you figure out what it is?” passed on an obvious misconception about electromagnetic radiation while the child who claimed that they could find out about the history of the Vikings in England in 'five minutes' is merely demonstrating their ignorance of approximately 250 years of history. I contend that less misconceptions would be passed on and that children would be more aware of just how much they have to learn if they listened to an expert explaining thier subject instead of joining their equally ignorant peers to find out about it on the Internet.