Is SOLE The Answer?

A curious article turned up on HuffPost recently, written by a man named Sugata Mitra. The man advances a thesis about education that sounds awfully familiar, though it pretends to be brand, spanking new. In fact, it is “Summerhill” on steroids — or computers, which amounts to the same thing in this case. And A.S. Neill’s Summerhill  is as old as the hills. Mitra stresses creativity and turning kids loose with computers to become self-learners, which is precisely what Neill proposed (without computers) in the early 1900s. After a brief history lesson in which he claims that the traditional educational system came out of Victorian England where it was designed to turn out factory workers (wrong!), Mitra tells us that

But what got us here, won’t get us there. Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.

For one thing, phrases like “outdated pedagogy” beg the question, which is precisely whether or not traditional teaching methods can be effective. The answer, contrary to Mr. Mitra, is that they can —  they have been and they continue to be. And the Victorian educational system that he claims was designed to turn out factory workers produced people like Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill. Furthermore, it is not clear to me that students today are not rewarded for “imagination or resourcefulness,” and, heaven knows, they are asked to memorize very little. Mr. Mitra’s claims are rife with errors.

The main issue here, aside from the fact that Mr. Mitra is actually selling a package he designed himself and which he calls “Self Organized Learning Environments,” or “SOLE” (a bit of a conflict of interest there!), is that he reduces education to “salient points” which is another word for “information.” It is clear that the internet is full of more information than one can assimilate in a lifetime — even if they spent all of the time sitting down staring at the screen. And that is the key: assimilation. Education is a complicated process that takes information and translates it into action by means of thought. And it is precisely thought that is missing in Mitra’s equation. One cannot teach young people how to think by sitting them down in front of a computer, and education is more about thinking than it is about the information they may or may not download from the computer.  Information is merely a means to an end.

One is reminded of Mary Shelly’s monster in Frankenstein who is supposed to have learned to read by staring at a newspaper day after day: it is absurd. There needs to be interaction, give and take. In a word, there needs to be a teacher to ask key questions and guide the students through the impossibly confused jumble of information on the internet to that information that is relevant — another key word. How does one determine unguided what is and what is not relevant by simply staring at a computer screen? Answer: you can’t. Relevance and the ability to assimilate information require interaction with teachers.

To be sure, we live in an electronic age and it makes sense to incorporate electronic equipment, such as computers, into the curriculum. But as Jane Healy has shown, excessive reliance on these gadgets can actually stunt the growth of the left-hemisphere of the child’s brain thereby making future learning nearly impossible. What is required is a selective use of electronic toys and a lively imagination on the part of the gifted teacher to draw young people from the frantic rapid-fire world of electronic toys into the world of words and ideas where real learning takes place. And let’s not burn the books quite yet. SOLE is not the answer: good teaching is the answer, and teachers are precisely the ones who would be shoved aside by Mr. Mitra’s plan — known as “the bad plan.”

9 thoughts on “Is SOLE The Answer?

  1. This is great! I agree with you. I think there’s a connection to Jean Anyon’s research on class systems being reinforced in schools, so I can see where Mitra is coming from, but I don’t think he has the right solution. Ridiculous! It is also very deterministic. Computers aren’t going to “save” education.

  2. Hugh, well done sir. Technology is a powerful tool, but it is a tool. For example, if you record all your important phone numbers and click on one and it dials, guess what happens – you eventually forget the number. So, you still have to think and know how to learn. If we don’t watch out we will teach people how to find the answer, not understand it. Then we will be like the aliens in the Star Trek episode “The Cage” and not know how things work. Good post, BTG

  3. Betty Edwards points out in her “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” books, that a few people ‘the natural artists’ figure out how to draw without help, where others have to be taught in the same way that people are taught to read. She points out that a few would learn to read without help, and they would be described as having a talent for reading – but we can all be taught…

    The masses are losing their math skills due to calculators; they’re losing their sense of direction and navigational skills thanks to the convenience of GPS, and computers – wow, they give us information at the touch of a few keys, but there’s nothing as sweet as a book held in one’s hand and a gifted teacher pointing out the nuances that might otherwise be overlooked. A computer should never replace the teachers who often become mentors as well.

  4. Hmmm….I am not sure where I stand on this issue. The computer is obviously a tool for learning but what I like most about it is that it can connect us to gifted teachers and mentors or fascinating lectures, marvellous music, and museum collections. Imagine being a rural student on a small Pacific Island but with access to the world through the internet? The tutorials or information you access through the computer may be the difference between a scholarship to study at medical school or life of as a labourer. Imagine too that you have access to books on line which you would never be able to hold ,or have, in real life because of cost. At some stage guidance or the development of a desire to learn and think must be established with the help of people in one’s immediate environment but ,sometimes ,this can be achieved as early as the kindergarten stage of education. Sadly, the world is very short of gifted teachers. I would rather a child of mine had access to our mutual friend Z at Playamart than an average art teacher or, worse, no art education at all.

    • I agree that electronic toys can be an excellent supplement to the classroom. I would argue that they can not replace the teacher, and we should not rely too much on them. They do not engage enough of the brain and actually weaken the left hemisphere..

      • Interestingly, when we had our earthquakes and were deprived for a short period of our cell phones and computers, I think we all realised how hopelessly reliant we had become on our technology. It was not a happy feeling.

  5. Still relevant is Theodore Roszak’s The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking (1986; 1994), a well-written deconstruction of the myth that computers can do our thinking for us.

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