Learning in the cloud…

‘Where do our families live?’ ‘Where do we go after school?’ ‘Where do we play and do homework?’

Aditya, Diya, Jayesh, Vishaka, Sairaj and the other children with whom I connect weekly via Skype in Granny Cloud sessions, are generating questions, the answer to which is ‘home’. I’ve written before about this Grade 6 class and their school and about the special opportunity I had to meet them in person. This session is a follow-up from last week’s introduction to children’s rights, for which I have googled a Marathi translation, before checking the accuracy with them – मुलांचे हक्क.

Are homes the same everywhere in the world? We look at images of homes, an igloo, a mud hut, a house on the water, a tree house and an underground house (Coober Pedy, Australia) and the children wonder who built these houses, where they are, who lives in them, what materials were used, how they are accessed. Aditya wonders if there is oxygen in the underground house. Atharva asks what would happen if the tree (in which the house is bulit) fell down. Gaurauv asks if I live in an underground house (it’s in Australia, after all) and I take my laptop to the window to show them the garden.

As always, I delight in the fact that the children who once stared blankly back at me from the screen, a strange looking woman talking a foreign language they did not understand, now chat confidently, ask questions, make jokes, think and laugh with me.

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The other group with whom I currently engage is at a government girls high school in urban Delhi, relatively close to the original office from which Sugata Mitra began his Hole in the Wall experiments, a school that has been involved in his experiments ever since.

Anshika, Priya, Shivani and the others choose the song ‘I have a Dream’ to sing for me and I ask what dreams they have. ‘I want to be a politician so that I can reduce poverty’, one girl says confidently.  One girl dreams of being a doctor, another wants to be a soldier to protect her people and a third hopes to teach the poor who don’t have access to education. Nazreen dreams of being a singer but her parents have forbidden it for religious reasons. Nikita dreams of being a famous singer too… so that she can make money and buy her parents a house and help other less fortunate people.

In the middle of one such session recently, I receive an unexpected call from a Skype number that’s been in my contacts for years. I’m incredulous to see Gouri, whom I have not seen for six years, since she engaged in Granny Cloud sessions as a lively teenager, in the rural village of Shirgaon, in Maharashtra.

Gouri has been selected by the BBC as one of 2016’s 100 inspiring women and camera men lurk discreetly in the background for a news piece as she and I re-engage after all this time. We talk about what we’re doing now and what we remember from the old days, in particular a series of interactions in which she and her classmates talked and sang with a group of Grade 6 students at my school in Australia. (I still recall their wonderful reflections from 2010!) This lovely, poised young woman is an impressive ambassador for the Granny Cloud project.

I marvel at the simplicity of an idea that is so powerful in its implementation. I wonder what Jayesh and Digvijay, Anshika and Farheen will be doing six years from now. And I imagine who they might become in the future…

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…

It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen…

“It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen”… This is the crux of Sugata Mitra’s message, whether he is talking about minimally invasive education, self organised learning environments or the School in the Cloud.

It’s very different from traditional approaches to education, but not so far removed from the student centred, inquiry driven learning that takes place at my school.

My colleague Jocelyn, with the task of teaching her spelling group Latin and Greek derivations, decides to let go even more than usual and use the SOLE approach.

She begins with Sugata’s ‘Child Driven Education’ TED talk as an introduction to provoke their thinking. All she does is show the video and ask her eleven/twelve-year-old learners to make observations and connections…

  • You don’t need a teacher to teach you If you want to learn.
  • It’s like a process – we learn from each other just like the kids in India at the hole in the wall.
  • If we do our own exploration, we will learn more skills.
  • If we find out and understand for ourselves where spelling comes from, we are more likely to learn it and remember.
  • We can choose what we want to learn and we learn more when we are passionate about it.
  • When you set your mind to something you can do it.
  • Sometimes we just need someone to look over and tell us we are good.
  • You need curiosity to learn.
  • Kids learn by themselves. If they have an interest they will learn.
  • Learn how kids want to learn and they will learn.

In the next lesson, Joc introduces the ‘big question’ – How have other languages influenced English words?  She explains that in self organised learning environments, learners are free to choose their own groups and to move freely between groups. They will need to present their learning to others in an engaging way at the end.

And then… she lets the learning happen!

Marty forms a group of six and suggests they go through each step of the information process -define, locate, select, organise, present. By the end of the lesson, they have broken the big questions down into three inquiry questions and begun to explore. They will consider many ways to present but only choose later, so that they will be able to see the mode of presentation that suits best.

Raf’s group realises they need some background knowledge as they only know a little about Greek and Latin roots. They immediately start researching and are very excited to find out that the English language has developed over time from so many different sources. They are intrigued to discover the extent to which wars have influenced the language.

Each of the groups decides how they want to approach the learning and every group is different.

Every one of our learning principles underpins this inquiry

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning occurs by acquiring skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to other contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and best takes place through collaboration and interaction.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.

The learners are highly engaged and motivated. The teacher sits back and observes the learning unfold…

Letting learning happen…

Knowing is obsolete.

Teachers may no longer be needed.

Could it be that you don’t need to go to school at all?

If you’ve watched Sugata Mitra’s TED talks, you’ll have heard him deliver these and other similarly provocative statements that challenge the notion of school as most people know it. Wherever his work is mentioned, responses range from highly positive to even more highly critical to quite rude. For every teacher excited by his ideas, there are several who find them insubstantial, objectionable or downright threatening. For me, this is part of the charm!

My favourite line from his ‘School in the Cloud’ TED talk is this:

“It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen”… THIS is the key.

Whether or not you choose to believe that schools will change (or, gasp, become obsolete); whether you believe that teachers are instructors, facilitators, guides or not required at all…

Are you ready to acknowledge that children are able to learn by themselves?

Have you taken steps to release control and encourage your students to take ownership of their learning?

Are you ‘letting learning happen’? 

I’ve followed Sugata’s work since the early days and his ‘hole-in-the-wall’ experiments influenced the thinking of thousands of teachers, by highlighting the possibilities of student driven learning. In the video below, he talks about the current status of the School in the Cloud project, his wish that won the 2013 million dollar TED prize.

I’ve met Sugata in person and enjoyed his tongue in cheek sense of humour and the way he cheerfully pokes fun, so I find his closing words amusing…

What would it be like if we had the kind of world where if you asked a child ‘Do you go to school?’ he says ‘I don’t know’?…well, think about that”.

When I once showed my elderly mother photos of learning in the school at which I work, it didn’t look at all like school to her. I sincerely hope that when my great-grandchildren go to school (if indeed school still exists), it won’t look anything like school today.

For now, I’m excited to be working with teachers and learners in these changing times, exploring inquiry learning, provoking thinking, pushing boundaries, challenging the notion of school as it used to be and ‘letting learning happen‘.

And I’m even more excited to be part of the learning in Sugata’s ‘School in the Cloud’.

I’ve been a member of the ‘granny cloud’ for a number of years, interacting with children in a range of settings in India and, along with the other ‘grannies’ (including people of both genders and all ages!) supporting Suneeta (Research Director of the School in the Cloud) who’s been instrumental in keeping this project alive, breathing life into it during even the most challenging times.

Yesterday marked the opening of the first ‘School in the Cloud’ in India, at a government girls’ school in Delhi, a stone’s throw from the site of the first hole-in-the-wall, and I was there (well, only on the screen), not just observing, but playing an active role.

Schoolinthecloud

As always in these sessions, the children started off a little reticent, quiet, filled with awe… but soon they were chatting and smiling and even singing for me.

It didn’t matter that there were other people in the room – Suneeta, the media, visitors, Sugata and his crew – I was unaware of them as I engaged with the kids.

It didn’t matter that screen-sharing wasn’t working properly. The cloud grannies are used to abandoning plans and improvising.

It didn’t matter that the girls are unfamiliar with Skype and didn’t know where to type their names, when I didn’t quite understand their accents. They will figure it out next time.

It’s been a while since I last interacted with kids in the SOLES and I am really happy to be back. It’s exciting to be part of Sugata’s vision of learning and I’m ready to ‘let learning happen‘…

A surprise meeting with Sugata Mitra…

Almost as soon we meet, Suneeta tells me she has a surprise for me.  I imagine a specially prepared dish or a small gift, perhaps a souvenir of India.

It’s Sugata Mitra. He’s an old friend of hers, family almost, and she has worked closely with him for many years too. He’s in Pune for the day and visiting at her home.

Sugata immediately puts me at ease with his friendliness and banter.  His sense of humor is dry and he cheerfully pokes fun at all and sundry. He and Suneeta have been friends since childhood and during my stay, she shares anecdotes from their past. I don’t generally think about the private lives of people whose work inspires me, so this is fun!

Ever since first encountering the the hole-in-the-wall, I have been fascinated and excited by the project, the further developments and related research into self organised learning environments. In a series of real-life experiments from Delhi to South Africa to Italy, he gave kids access to computers and the internet, producing results that should revolutionize how we think about teaching. It helped me see that if teachers let go of control and allow students to direct their learning, the learning is much more engaging and meaningful. 

We talk about hole-in-the-wall and I learn that it is a company  now, with computers in holes in many places. We talk about SOLES and Sugata tells me more about his work in schools around the world with self-organized learning environments. I tell him about my school and we share anecdotes about teachers who have trouble letting go of control and allowing the students to own their learning. I’m interested to hear that he has seen new open-plan learning spaces being used in old ways and I realise that the reality at my school’s junior campus is far from unique. He confirms that changing practice takes time and is dependent on what people believe about learning, something we often talk about within my PLN. He tells me about his coming extended research, through MIT University in Boston, into how children teach themselves to read. Here’s a link to one of his recent talks on student directed learning.

Over lunch of dahl and rice, spicy fish and chappati, the conversation is relaxed and easy. Although today is the first time we have met, I’m with people who not only share my interests, but have helped shaped my beliefs about learning. I’m in my element.

While I am there, Sugata goes down the street to get his hair cut, something he only does when back in India, and tells me the worst haircut he ever had was just before his meeting with Prince Phillip. I joke that I will search for a photo of the occasion to compare haircuts…

(3rd in a series of reflections on my visit to Pune)

How do we communicate?

After interacting with a group of children at a SOLE  in India via Skype yesterday, I couldn’t help but reflect on the different ways communication can take place. A conversation with Chetan, Akansha, Pravin and the others could have been doomed by the potential obstacles…

  • I had never met this group and it was the first time they interacted with a ‘foreigner’.
  • Our backgrounds are as different as you could possibly imagine.
  • We don’t speak the same language.I know 5 words of Hindi and no Marathi. Their English is very limited.
  • Although we had video, the sound wasn’t working. They could occasionally hear me. I couldn’t hear them at all.
Here’s what we achieved…
  • We communicated for almost an hour by text, hand gestures and smiles.
  • I learned some Hindi words (see above!)
  • I shared pictures of animals and they saw a kangaroo for the first time.
  • They told me their ages and how many people in their families.
  • They asked about my children and I showed them a photo.
  • I learned where Mahbalshour is and next time I will show them Australia on the map.
  • We made faces and laughed.
I love the paradox of being able to use modern communication technology like Skype to interact with people anywhere, but then having to resort to the most basic forms of communication like hand gestures and making faces!
Here’s what I learned from some of my other SOLE experiences:

Does access to technology mean access to education?

Today’s #edchat topic was:

‘How do we ensure those without privilege have equal access to quality education and opportunity?’

Many felt that access to technology was the key. But there were just as many tweets expressing the opinion that providing access to technology is not as important as providing good teachers. I usually agree with the latter and have blogged several times about learning being the driver and technology just the tool. But then I work in a privileged school. I confess that I found my thoughts somewhat confused and I left the #edchat conversation in the middle to process further.

I’m still thinking… Does access to education mean access to technology? Does access to technology mean access to education?

Meanwhile, I’d like to repost the following for those who’re unfamiliar with it, to provoke some further thought. I first posted it in November when this blog had about 12 readers!

Have you heard of the inspirational hole-in-the-wall project ?  Several years ago, a computer scientist, Dr. Sugata Mitra, had an idea. What would happen if he could provide disadvantaged children with free, unlimited access to computers and the internet?  He launched what came to be known as the hole in the wall experiment.

Listen to this fascinating TED talk from 2007 , in which Sugata Mitra talks about the project and asks what else children can teach themselves!