Too many iPads…

In a shift from laptops to iPads, for more mobility, easier use, fewer maintenance issues and lower cost, all our students now bring their own devices. I know it’s a luxury and I am always conscious of how students in less fortunate contexts could benefit from a small fraction of the resources we have at our fingertips.

Yesterday we had an informal visit from Sugata Mitra, educational researcher, proponent of minimally invasive education, creator of the School in the Cloud, dreamer, provocateur…

The Year 5 children tell Sugata they are currently learning about energy. He throws them the inevitable ‘big question’, his signature approach to self organised learning. ‘I’ll give you 20 minutes to find out what you can, in any way you like, about dynamic equilibrium.’

Due to limited space on the whiteboard, the two words appear one below the other and some children ask whether it’s a phrase. He gives his standard response ‘I have no idea’… encouraging students to figure things out for themselves.

Interestingly, the children initially stay in their own seats and investigate on their individual devices. No-one has told them not to move or converse. In fact Sugata spent some time before the question chatting with them about how often and why they move seats.

There is so little talk or collaboration at first that we wonder if they are inhibited by the group of teachers observing in the room or the presence of the eminent stranger.

Eventually, with a bit of encouragement, they begin to move around and interact,  the noise level goes up and the learning is closer to what Sugata calls the ‘edge of chaos‘ as they share their discoveries and develop their understanding collaboratively.

There are too many iPads,‘ Sugata says.

‘Limiting the number of devices ensures that the children move naturally into groups to share and discuss their findings and questions.’

We hadn’t really considered the possibility that 1:1 access could be a disadvantage in some learning situations…

22 thoughts on “Too many iPads…

  1. Self organizing systems is a fascinating topic. Love to see these ideas becoming more mainstream in education. Mitra is right, the neighbour interactions in a system need diversity of the individuals, but they also need a sense of redundancy in the system. Less is more. Trying to occasion a group to work like a complex system is a worthwhile but difficult task!

    Click to access Complexity%20in%20the%20Classroom.pdf

    Great book on where the term “the edge of chaos” came from:

    For more books about complexity, emergence, and self organizing systems:


  2. What did those children actually learn and understand about dynamic equilibrium, though? What could they tell you at the time? Just after? A day later? A week later? Now? If their research led to misconceptions, were they corrected (and how?) or left for a future teacher to deal with?


  3. Also, did they have the prior learning and background knowledge to make sense of what they read/learned about dynamic equilibrium in the lesson? Did they understand the vocabulary they will have encountered when reading definitions of the phrase? Even the most basic explanation presumes that the Year 5 reader has quite a lot of background knowledge. Or were the lesson objectives more about developing learning skills like reseach, collaboration etc?


  4. It would seem to me that the kids were learning about energy, the staff were learning about using ipads and the two converged at Sugata Mitra. The kids were invited to investigate dynamic equilibrium, and I assume they did so.
    The blogpost was about “too many ipads” which for the staff seems to have been a great learning outcome.

    Paul and michaelo3…

    You seem to suggest that there should have been a spcecific learning outcome for this 20 minute exercise and you also seem to be very concerned that there might not have been evidence of learning duing this short period. There is no indication of any of this in the blogpost.

    If you are not Ofsted inspector’s then I feel you may have missed the plot a little. This was an informal visit by Sugata Mitra in which a number of staff were present. The main focus was probably Sugata Mitra.

    The issue of too many ipads was for me an interesting one.

    If one had an anally retentative approach to monitoring progress, a downer on Sugata Mitra, a downer on ipads, or you make your living these days by regurgitating the same old Progressive ideas have ruined the country message then I can see you might be worried about exactly what they learnt about dynamic equilibrium. I could teach a basic understanding in 5 minutes especially if the kids had already researched the meaning and discussed it for 20 minutes or more after which the was some class discussion. This is year 5 after all and as you suggest you have no idea what the purpose of the exercise was.

    Lighten up guys, there really is more to life than specific learning outcomes and direct instruction.

    I thought the post was interesting and some of the comments also. Thank you


    1. While the issue of too many iPads is, indeed, something for consideration. I do not, as a Physics teacher, consider the task of researching dynamic equilibrium to be in any way sensible to make this point.

      The concept is well beyond the accessibility of students in Year 5 (primary?), which is essentially demonstrated by the concept that they had no idea whether dynamic equilibrium represented individual words or a complete phrase. I certainly don’t accept the idea that one could teach a basic understanding of the concept to students who are very unlikely to have come across where the term applies in either physics or chemistry and certainly not in a timespan that included 20 minutes of research and 5 minutes of teacher explanation.

      To demonstrate the value of limiting resources such as iPads, which I fully accept may be an effective method of improving collaboration, I would have thought it much better to present a question where internet research would be accessible to the students at this level. I would hazard that there may be other reasons for silence while the students are completing this task – chief among them being that they are finding resources that they do not comprehend and are thus not sharing ideas because none of them are able to find any that they feel confident sharing. Is the encouragement that gets them to move around the affirmation by adults that information they have stumbled across is relevant and correct?

      I do fully support the aim of the exercise, but simply don’t feel that this task is an effective and reliable demonstration, or at the very least it is one where the topic chosen is a very strange one.

      Best Wishes.


  5. Well done Ed and well done bt0058.
    Tech is what tech does, Just because everyone has a pen does not mean everyone has to write. The initial problem with a one2one approach is that everyone will have that tech at their disposal, and inevitably each will reach for it when an engaging question is asked.
    We have a school-wide roll-out of chromebooks here in the UK, and in November 2012, Google’s Tom May, then their CEO Education and technologist came over to our school in the UK, and were amazed to see groups of children working with books and chromebooks and phones and iPads all of a heap. In the right kind of investigative curriculum, there will be no one right answer. Indeed at times, in order to find out what is real, hi-technology might needed to be switched off.


  6. Loved this post Edna, interesting discussion in the comments as well. In this day and age with so much information available to (almost) everyone, it’s not so much on WHAT we teach but more about WHO we teach and HOW.


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