A Response to Mitra Part 2: Classroom Pedagogy

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:

“A child being taught the history of Vikings in England says to me: “We could have found out all that in five minutes if we ever needed to.””

“Beating children into submission will not solve the problem of educational disengagement”

“One of the teachers who works with me said to her class of nine-year-olds: “There is something called electromagnetic radiation that we can't see, can you figure out what it is?” The children huddle around a few computers, talking, running around and looking for clues. In about 40 minutes, they figure out the basics of electromagnetism and start relating it to mobile signals. This is called a self-organised learning environment, a Sole. In a Sole, children work in self-organised groups of four or five clustered around an internet connected computer. They can talk, change group, move around, look at other groups' work and so on.”

“We need people who can think like children.”

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.


Hattie, J.A.C. (2009) Visible Learning. Routledge: London.

Mitra, S. (2013) Advent of Google means we must rethink our approach to education. Available from:http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/jun/15/schools-teaching-curriculum-education-google#start-of-comments (accessed 18.06.13)

Old, A. (2008) Group work. Available from: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/group-work/ (accessed 23.06.13)

Willingham, D. (2009) Why don't students like school. Jossey-Bass: San-Fransisco.


19 Comments on “A Response to Mitra Part 2: Classroom Pedagogy”

  1. cunningfox says:

    Another objection to the ‘You can always look it up’ argument is that without prior knowledge you are completely unable to judge between reliable and unreliable sources. If I don’t know about the Vikings before I google, for instance, I will not know whether a website that tells me that they used longships is more reliable than one that tells me they rode motorbikes.

    Moreover, this means that I have no alternative but to trust any source that tells me that it is reliable, because I have no independent means of verifying it. In other words, avoidance of learning facts makes me much more passive and much less powerful. Replace the Vikings with a political manifesto, and you start to see how dangerous – and anti-democratic – ideas such as Mitra’s are.

  2. I neither agree nor disagree with you. Classrooms need both types of learning. The teacher is the expert, but they can deliver their expertise in short bursts, appropriate to the problem the children are solving. The teacher moves around the groups of learners and assesses their current level of knowledge, through looking at the work they are producing/ discussing, and then moving them forward/deeper.

    For example – how does our memory work? Most children will produce an approximation of The Multi-store model of memory, without knowing the model beforehand. They use their real life experience to ascertain that some things are forgotten quickly and others remain for longer. This leads them to look at the difference between the processing of these memories, and a realisation that repetition increases retention. It is then the role of the expert to throw up some problems with their linear model, by asking them why some things although only experienced once, seem to remain vivid e.g. being able to recall where they were and what they were doing on the day Amy Winehouse died. This leads to an exploration of emotion and its role in memory recall, and therefore highlights flaws in the MSM – not all memories are equal. And so the process goes on. The learning is active, group based and involves discovery of knowledge through the use of skills (asking the right questions – evaluation). The students are not going to arrive at the Working Memory model by themselves. I completely agree, but equally, standing at the front of the class and explaining the articulatory loop or the visuo-spatial sketchpad and expecting them to grasp the significance of this model in understanding dyslexia for example, is not going to work either.

    I learn by asking questions and answering them, usually with another question, which leads to further exploration and deepens my knowledge and more importantly the significance in application of this knowledge.

    My job is to get the children to ask the right questions and understand the answer is rarely the end, and, even more importantly, get them to ask the questions because they are interested in the answer, rather than because I told them to. I won’t always be there, but there will always need to learn.

  3. kaizenteacher says:

    I’m not convinced by the ‘you can look it up argument’ , either. Obviously you can look it up and we all do look things up and the internet is great when you want to look things up. However, having to do this means you can’t participate in a discussion until you’ve researched.. ‘Hold on everybody, give me ten minutes to read up on this and then I’ll tell you what I think about the Vikings’.

    Of course, we then need to decide WHAT we are going to include on the Curriculum. The Vikings? The Visigoths?

  4. Phil H says:

    Three things:
    1) I know Willingham is a bit of a god to certain commentators out there, but really? This? “People’s minds are not especially suited to thinking…” Allow me to pose a fairly trivial question: compared to what? Noticed any rocks that are better at thinking than people lately? Bureaucracies? A researcher who comes up with that kind of generalisation doesn’t inspire much confidence.

    2) I haven’t read Hattie, so can’t comment intelligently, but on the top review on it’s Amazon page, I find this: “Did you know that students learn almost twice as well if they share a computer than if they have one each?” Apparently not everything in Hattie is inimical to Mitra’s proposals.

    3) “Finally it seems rather strange that Mitra has chosen to advocate a child centered and skills heavy pedagogy using examples that highlight individuals who overwhelmingly lack for subject knowledge…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.”
    This just sounds like the Wikipedia argument to me. Remember when Wikipedia started, a lot of people were very dubious because the model so obviously allows for inaccurate information to be inserted? That’s still the case; inaccurate information still gets inserted; and yet Wikipedia is probably the most useful resource on the planet. This concentration on “misconceptions” and possible learning of wrong facts means that you end up allowing an improperly imagined perfect to be the enemy of the good. (NB I don’t think that “expert explanations” are perfect by any means.)

    • 1) I think I have covered this point below

      2) Whether this lends credibility to Mitra or not depends on what meta-analysis the quote is referring to – with Hattie’s analysis you can have a method that is twice as good as another but still lie outside what Hattie considers to be the ‘zone of desired effects’.

      3) I agree that expert explanations are not always very good but I’m afraid that I always tell students to avoid Wikipedia, not because I am unduly worried about its reliability, but because most students who read Wikipedia can’t explain to me what afterwards what they had learnt from it. Until Wikipedia can check for understanding and adapt its explanations to individual learners as quickly as a good teacher I don’t think it is a useful resource for the majority of school children.

  5. Lisa says:

    I think you forget one basic thing: Sugata Mitra is trying to answer the thornier question of how to educate children in locations where teachers won’t go, such as the deepest slums of India. SOLEs may be the only viable solution, and certainly better than no schooling.

    You’ve also made a fundamental assumption that you have not cited or proven – that children don’t like to learn. (“Learning can be hard work and who actually likes hard work?”) Most people will expend extraordinary effort toward accomplishing a goal that drives them. Children are no different. With SOLEs, children are driven by their own curiosity, which in fact they do possess and they do let drive them. And they can’t help but develop knowledge – not just skills – along the way.

    I don’t know you, but citing an example like “People’s minds are not especially suited to thinking…” places you in the British upper class, I am guessing. The one that still at its heart believes in a slow-witted and stubborn peasantry. Does your cultural frame of reference makes it difficult to consider SOLEs objectively? Does the problem of educating poor children in remote locations via a “granny cloud” seem pointless to you? Do you have better answers to Dr. Mitra’s real challenge?

    • I’ll respond to your second point first. I completely agree that people will work hard to achieve goals but I think, especially when it comes to learning, it is the goal that is enjoyable not the hard work – I’ve yet to meet a anybody who feels great about being really stuck. I’ll also agree that children can be curious – however they are often not curious about what we want them to learn when we want them to learn it which has practical ramifications for all sorts of group work.

      Moving on I think I was quite clear that my response was aimed at one particular article by Sugata Mitra and the context of this article was not education of the poor in India. That said I may try and look into his work overseas at another time. Finally, not that it matters really but you guessed wrong, I am from a working class background.

  6. I think it is nonsense to say that people’s minds are not suited to thinking,. Try STOPPING thinking.

  7. Firstly I’d like to thank you all for taking the time to comment on my blog.

    A note about the Willingham quote about “minds not being especially suited to thinking” – as I understand it he is saying that the minds ability to ‘think’ is pretty poor compared with its ability to do other things that we don’t ever have to really think about – for example converting electrical pulses into images or remembering the way home from work.

    Willingham does a far better job of explaining these things in his book – it is a very good read and one that I’d thoroughly recommend.

    • kaizenteacher says:

      Ah, I see what you mean now. That makes quite a difference. Have you read Donald Clark on Mitra?

    • Phil H says:

      If you’re going to read Willingham, you could at least read him properly. I’ve now got a copy, and while I’m not overly impressed – his treatment of “thinking” seems very slapdash, I can’t find anywhere where he actually defines it – it remains easy to see that you and many of your blogger mates are making some pretty disastrous errors when reading him.

      Here’s a key quote, which he puts in a nice box at the bottom of p. 19 of my edition: “Factual knowledge must precede skill.” Often quoted by OldAndrew.

      But let’s look at the very next sentence: “The implication is that facts must be taught, ideally in the context of skills, and ideally beginning in preschool and even before.”
      (I disagree with the word “taught” – facts must be learned; it doesn’t matter whether they’re taught or not – but that’s a minor point.)

      In the context of skills. In the context of skills. And what is it that Mitra is suggesting? Getting students to learn facts in the context of developing skills. Whereas you say: “traditional pedagogy” – teacher talk, right? What skills is the child doing when sitting listening to the teacher?

      Look, I understand that nothing I’ve written above is a knock-down argument. But I’ve been reading education commentary/blogs for a while now, and the bizarre cleaving to Willingham is uncritical and very unconvincing, because it’s not deep. It’s all soundbites and quotes out of context.

  8. anon says:

    ““There is something called electromagnetic radiation that we can’t see, can you figure out what it is?”

    Did someone seriously say that? Wow. As you point out, the question itself is wrong, so the children are bound to come up with wrong responses. It would be interesting to show that question to a cross-section of adults, including some primary teachers, and see if they realise why it’s nonsense.

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