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Knowing is obsolete.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‘…

Face to Face

Guest post by Jackie Barrow who has been involved in the SOLE and SOME project for over three years. During that time she has interacted with different groups of children in a variety of locations in India.

My relationship with Khelghar Palakneeti, a charity run after school provision for the children of the Lakshminagar slum of Pune, began well over a year ago. Their unwavering commitment to the SOLE project is what makes it work so well. For one hour a week, the children are permitted to use the office computer in order to connect with me. No, of course it doesn’t always run smoothly! There are all the usual frustrations; poor connections, no sound, no video, no children, no staff, monsoon rains, holidays and festivals at both ends meaning we’re not around. But when sessions don’t or can’t take place for any reason, we let each other know. This continuity has allowed me to build a real relationship with the children and staff.

An opportunity…

Back in April a film crew from the BBC’s Technology Website came to film me Skyping my group at Khelghar and talking about my involvement in the SOLE and SOME project. Following on from this, the BBC’s One Show, a magazine style programme, proposed a trip to Pune to meet and film with my group of children. I am sure you can imagine how thrilled I was. This was an opportunity not to be missed.

I had no reservations about the trip itself but I did have reservations about the filming. I was worried that the cameras would be intrusive and alter the nature of my interaction with the children. We were to visit the slum where the children live and meet with their families. I thought maybe this would seem somewhat voyeuristic and that the slum dwellers might resent our presence.

However, I need not have worried. The two young men who made up the film crew had both visited India before and were as excited as I was about the project. They quickly became favourites with both the staff and the children and although they and the cameras were ever present, none of us felt inhibited by their presence. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did! Not when I was reading stories, teaching felting or just chatting with the children, but I found the ‘interviews’ more difficult and the constant need to try to articulate how I was feeling.

How was I feeling? Well, just completely overwhelmed by the scale of the problems they are faced with and by the fantastic work going on at Khelghar. I will leave you to read more about Khelghar Palakneeti, but let me tell you how inspiring women like Shubhada Joshi and her team of staff and volunteers are. Some have themselves grown up in the slums of Pune but have managed not only get a basic education but to go on to higher education. Not content with just improving their own lives and prospects, they work to support children and their families, helping them see that education is a way out of the trap of poverty. I felt very proud to be associated with these women and to play my own, very small, part in their project.

Meeting the children…

So how was it, meeting the children? I must confess that I began to feel quite nervous. What were they expecting? Would I prove to be a disappointment, this so-called ‘granny’ from England? I learnt later from Suneeta that they were nervous too! Would they be able to understand me? Would they know what to say? But nerves were soon forgotten on both sides. I had decided to just carry on from the Skype session the week before, when we had been talking about the 2012 London Olympics. Within minutes we were on our hands and knees, sorting and matching pairs of cards. I followed this with a story they knew, Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham but instead of just reading it, we acted it out. Their level of participation far outstripped what I had hoped for. I had a second session with the children a couple of days later, a practical activity, teaching them how to make felt. The plan was to make some bunting with the word Khelghar. So we set to with wool, water and soap to create and decorate our felt. Once again, the children threw themselves into the session and although we didn’t quite achieve the finished article at the time, they have shown it to me today, three weeks later, over Skype. Fantastic!

This second session took place in the slum. Khelghar has two small buildings there where they hold classes for groups of girls and younger children. I thought that entering the slum might feel quite intimidating. The piles of rubbish being picked over by birds, cats and people, and the volley of barking from the thin, scabby looking dogs, is hardly welcoming. However, once again, I need not have worried. Whether it was the presence of the cameras, or the respect with which Suneeta Kulkarni and the staff and volunteers from Khelghar, are held within this community, I am not sure. We were greeted with friendly curiosity. People waved, called out greetings and warned us of holes, puddles and mopeds. It was wonderful to see how Suneeta was greeted by the children of the slums of Pune, one little girl rushing down the hill all smiles to throw her arms around Suneeta Tai. Children walked with us up the steep, treacherous lanes between the dwellings.

Homes tend to be a single room, sometimes with a foundation of stone or brick, generally finished with wood or corrugated iron. They house the cooking equipment, sometimes the moped, a small shrine, some clothes storage and a large wooden family bed with a thin mattress. There is no running water inside, though an unreliable electricity supply is delivered across a tangle of wires. The people are construction workers, often the women too. The mother of one of my regulars, a woman of 36, is ill and waiting for her husband to be paid before she can collect her medicine. She has spent the last twenty years carrying bags of sand and cement on building sites. She would be beautiful if she were not so thin and drawn. She is determined that her son will finish his education and have opportunities that she and her husband have not had. In an interview with him earlier, he told us that he wants to be a car mechanic, which is certainly achievable.

So what the BBC’s One Show viewers will make of my experience, I’m not too sure. I hope that the films will not only give a true idea of the vision of Professor Sugata Mitra but will do justice to the efforts of all those who make such a difference to the lives of children on a daily basis. As for me, well I count myself extremely lucky to have had this opportunity and hope very much that I can use it to further support the work of the project. And of course, I will always have a particular interest in the work of Khelghar Palakneeti and in the futures of the children I have met there.

Related posts:

Play House

Opening New Vistas

Teacher as learner

Conversations about life…

I’m proud to say that I can now cross the road by myself. That’s no mean feat in Indian cities where crossing a road means negotiating your way through more cars, buses, auto rickshaws, dogs, bicycles, scooters, fruit-carts and people than you usually see in a week. (not to mention the occasional elephant.)

Every time I step out of the door in Pune, it’s a learning experience! I’ve been here four days and it feels like four weeks because of the variety and intensity of experiences. The highlight has been finally meeting Suneeta, who I first connected with online through the SOLE project.

She has shown me so many sides of Pune. She has introduced me to all sorts of interesting people, some of whose stories I will share in future posts. I’ve seen an experimental play at Pune University as well as music and dance performances at Symbiosis College.  At the other extreme, I have visited a SOLE at Yeoli village and met the group at Khelgar,  where kids from a local slum gather after school to learn through play.

I’ve ventured out into the city, both on foot and by auto-rickshaw, usually with Suneeta’s son Anand as my cheerful guide, sharing his colourful stories and helping me cross the roads.  He needs constant reminders to slow down so that I can absorb everything around me… unfamiliar and now-familiar sights, smells and sounds.

Best of all, Suneeta and I have had endless conversations about education, culture, language and religion, about disability, poverty, inequity and making a difference, about theatre, books, food and saris… conversations about life.

I can’t wait to come back.

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A tiny piece of education…

Once upon a time long ago, when I was 12, I sat in a classroom and copied from the board. I remember comparing different countries in terms of flags, capital cities and places of interest.  I learned history from a textbook which presented one perspective as if it were the truth.

Fast forward to 2011. Year 6 students at my school have just started a unit on social inequities. They will explore the kinds of action that can possibly make a difference. They will hear from primary sources at our coming social justice conference about issues such as poverty, gender inequality, refugees and access to education. They will choose their areas of interest for further independent inquiry.

As a PYP school, our approach encourages learners to engage with big ideas, to develop global awareness and to be caring, responsible citizens of the world. It’s a long way from copying off the board, studying superficial differences between countries or receiving a distorted view of history… to powerful learning like this.

A different piece…

The above was written on the plane on my way to India, where I am on a short visit to Pune. It’s my first face to face meeting with my friend Suneeta Kulkarni, who works (among other things!) with the SOLES and SOMES.  I have visited a local school, attended by very poor children from slums and I’ve been to the village of Yeoli to meet the rural kids with whom I will interact via Skype when I am back home. I’m constantly faced with reminders that my privileged school represents only a tiny piece of what comprises education in our world.

My blog series on learning in different contexts is a small attempt at creating awareness of other realities. If you’re involved in or have thoughts about education (or lack thereof) in a different context, would you like to share your piece via a guest post at this blog?

Let’s try to increase awareness among educators around the globe that ‘our reality’ is just a very tiny piece of the whole.

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