You can have places where you cannot build a school. More commonly you can have schools in places where good teachers do not want to go. So what do you do? You still have children there who need and want to learn. That is the issue that Sugata Mitra is trying to solve with his latest experiment, the Granny Cloud.
He is building on the Hole In The Wall learning experiment, where children autonomously access an 'ATM' computer on the streets of India and South America and, with their peers, learn through the activities and experiences in front of them. Not just that, but given most of the content they are accessing on the web is in English, they're also having to learn English. All this without a teacher, without a school building in sight.
On one trip to see how the Hole In The Wall experiment was working he asked a girl to take on the role of the grandmother, standing in the background and applauding the self-directed learning going on with the "My goodness, I couldn't have done that" empathy that all our grandmothers, or grannies, take on.
The Granny Cloud was born. This is a group of grandmothers all over the UK who log on once a week to Skype with youngsters in India, and take on that appraising role that all grannies do so well, to tell stories, to stimulate fresh ideas and new ways of looking at the same old things. Mitra hopes to see a 25% increase in attainment thanks to this coaching/feedback mechanism.
This type of 'learning from the extremes' is working in schools in the UK now, too. By splitting up into groups of four, children answer 'impossible' questions simply through going to find out. For example, "Where does language come from?". In the video above you can see how the answers reached - without the aid of a teacher - are just as 'correct' as those that might have been 'delivered' by a teacher, but reached through some other mechanic, something other than the way we've traditionally thought children learn. It also throws into question the assumption that we always need a specialist teacher in front of kids in order that they learn.
When I was talking with Sudhir Ghodke at The Education Project last year, captured in the video below, he made a terrifying point: that in India there are not even enough bodies, skilled teachers or otherwise, to put in front of a growing child population, for the notion of traditional schooling to work at all. It's understandible in a country holding 25% of the world's under-25s, or 135m new people entering the workforce:
The Hole In The Wall was a product that benefitted those who had access to it. The Granny Cloud, or at least the findings of this experiment in reinforcing self-directed learning from outside the classroom, offer us a set of techniques and approaches that can be used wherever you are in the world. You might need Skype to harness the British Grannies themselves, but adults can change their approach to learning and teaching and have just as profound an impact: again, it's about getting out of the way of learning as much as possible.
Thanks to Peter Hirst from Every1speaks for bringing the Granny Cloud to my attention in the comments to my post, If you truly want to engage pupils, relinquish the reins and give them the chance to learn by doing.
Sugata Mitra joins me this March at the Naace Annual Strategic Conference in Reading.