Is it just me or is Sugata Mitra an irresponsible charlatan?

Knowledge comes by eyes always open and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I first saw physicist, Sugata Mitra speak about his Hole in the Wall experiments in India I was astonished. Not only was he as  self-deprecatingly warm and funny as Sir Ken Robinson on a major charm offensive, the content of what he was saying blew any of SKR’s woolly rhetoric out of the water. Basically, his claim was, is, that children can teach themselves anything. All they need is access to the internet and teachers to stay the heck away and they’ll outlearn anyone in a classroom.

Here he is in full on TED mode:

I got so excited, I wrote this. My naivety is embarrassing but then, I’d been taken in by one of the best. The first clue I had that all might not be rosy in the Self Organising garden was from Daisy Christodoulou. In response to my question about how she squared ED Hirsch Jr’s views on why students “can’t just look it up” with Mitra’s claims, she said this:

Of course this experiment is very inspiring, and if the choice is between no education and the ‘Hole in the Wall’, then the latter is clearly better than nothing. But the sample sizes here are tiny, the control groups not really controls (being an ‘elite urban private school’ doesn’t mean that the school offers a great education) and the time scale short. The findings from the schools in north-east England are not explained in statistical detail in the paper I read – perhaps they can be found somewhere else? Also, the attempt at a theoretical framework is really quite flimsy – “A study with connected cellular automata by Mitra and Kumar (2006) shows that presented with a ‘vision of the future’, a self-organising system will retain this image as a fractal and reproduce it periodically. The human brain is a connected system of neurons and will, presumably, behave similarly. In other words, the introduction (intervention) of an image to a neural network will cause it to retain and reproduce this image periodically. It is tempting, albeit speculatively, to link this effect with human learning.”

Mitra is right on one thing – this conclusion is entirely speculative and as far as I know has no other evidence to back it up. As they are presented, Mitra’s conclusions contradict many other similar experiments and most modern neuroscience. As that is the case, I would like to see a lot more trials like this, with greater sample sizes and more reliable controls, before I could be convinced. And I would like to see this evidence buttressed by a reliable and testable theory of how the brain learns.

All very reasonable. So I went looking for anything that might buttress Mitra’s assertions and, much to my chagrin, found nothing. Nada. Not a sausage.

This was something of a disappointment because I really wanted Mitra’s claims to be true. But, as Carl Sagan famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And Mitra’s ‘evidence’ was very ordinary indeed. In fact, most of the evidence I did happen upon rather seemed to dispute my preferences. In 2013, Donald Clark suggested 7 reasons for doubt. Later that year he visited the site of a failed Hole in the Wall and spoke to a headteacher who said, “I wouldn’t take it if you offered it to me for free.” This year Clark offered a further 10 reasons why SOLE is “not even wrong”.

Added to that, my own attempts to replicate his ideas with my own students turned out to be a disaster. Sure some of them loved crowding around an iPad instead of doing any work, but they really weren’t learning anything of value. What they did discover on the internet they didn’t understand.

Obviously my fumbling attempts mean nothing. We can argue that away by pointing out what a feeble-minded lackwit I am, but what of Mitra’s own research? Has he been able to substantiate any of his more outlandish claims? Tom Bennett wrote in the TES about why Mitra’s claim that pupils can teach themselves seven (SEVEN YEARS!) years ahead of their ages just don’t add up.

First, Mitra’s research is based on just 23 students and as such is statistically meaningless. As Tom says in characteristically forthright fashion,

You’ll forgive me for not being particularly impressed by hand-picked students taking part in a test where they’re made to feel special, given a thin slice of a syllabus to work on, and then tested for that exact piece of syllabus…and then scaling up that work into a magic GCSE grade. Give me a page of quantum physics to memorise, then ask me about it. Can I have a PhD?

Bennett also points out that Mitra’s research has never been published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal. Make of that what you will.

Meanwhile, Mitra has gone from strength to strength. He was awarded a $1 million TED grant to build classrooms in the cloud and is even now spreading his potentially pestilential wares at education conferences near and far. Here are a few of the things he’s been saying:

It’s fashionable to say the education system is broken. It’s not broken at all. The Victorian system, which is the model of education used practically everywhere in the world, does exactly what it was designed to do. Which is to have an elite class who will run the show, assisted by an army of clerks for whom a curriculum was designed and who were mass-produced to do their jobs.

So, it’s not broken, but what it is producing are people who are not needed. You know, an average boy from an average school in a poorer area would go out for a job interview, and the employer says, ‘What can you do well?’ And he’ll say, ‘I have good handwriting, my grammar’s excellent, I can spell properly and I can do arithmetic in my mind.’

Well, if I was the boss I would think: I don’t care about your handwriting, everything’s done on computers. Grammar is not particularly important, we deal with the Chinese and the Americans who don’t bother about grammar at all, as long as it makes sense. Spelling is corrected by the computer and you don’t need to know anything about arithmetic. In fact the less arithmetic you do in your head the better.

The Guardian, 2nd August 2015

The Chinese and the Americans “don’t bother about grammar at all”. Children don’t need to know how to spell, and the less mental arithmetic they can do the better. Really?  He goes on to say that GCSEs are unimportant because all they reveal is that, “You’re able to work hard, to fit into the system properly.” These are good things, no? No: “…increasingly inside the modern world, particularly the IT industry, these are not considered as very good traits at all. What you want are people who don’t care about how they dress, don’t care about how they talk, would like to think of things from different angles. These are the guys who do well.” Are they really?

What’s more frightening, that a professor of education technology is a true believer in the lowest common denominator for all, or that he’s just saying it for effect? Charitably, I’m going to assume that Mitra actually believes this stuff and wasn’t just high on shrooms. That being the case, I don’t even know where to start! If he’s genuine, he even more dangerous.

My real beef with Mitra is that he swans around saying things like this:

… knowing is obsolete. People often think I’m saying that knowledge is obsolete, which I’m not. I’m saying putting knowledge in your head – that’s obsolete, because you can know anything when you need to know it via the internet.

This takes us all the way back to Hirsh who, in this article, makes the following point:

There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively. To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge actually hinders children from learning to learn. Yes, the Internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information—to absorb it, to add to our knowledge—we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research.

Now, maybe you don’t like Hirsch because the Tories think he’s a stand-up guy or some such. Or maybe you’re prepared to discount his views because you’re not a fan of core knowledge? Well, what about professor Kieran Egan, a self-confessed sympathiser with progressive ideals? In, Getting it Wrong from the Beginning he argues that a lack of emphasis on knowledge has deprived children of

…developing those resources that come along with a wide and immediate access to some of the world’s greatest poetry and prose.That [children] know where to go to find such poetry and prose perpetuates the absurdity that this is the same as knowing something. Knowledge does not exist in books or in computer files. They contain only codes that require a living mind to bring them back to life as knowledge. Knowledge only exists as a function of living tissue. (p. 68)

How can we take seriously a man who says, “Knowing is an obsolete idea from a time when it was not possible to access or acquire knowledge at a moment of need. The idea of knowing assumes that the brain must be “primed” in advance for circumstances that may require knowledge. Just in case.” How did he know to say that? Did he have to look it up before he spoke or had he ‘primed’ his brain, just in case a journalist was interested in interviewing him?

Mitra’s utilitarian conception is a very narrow, impoverished view of what education can or should be. Do we really only want to equip children the minimum they need to tap in a search request into Google? I’m with AE Housman: “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use”, or, as Tom Bennett has argued,

We learn because learning itself is beautiful and valuable. We learn because we value the types of human being who have learned; people who are aware of their history, of how the world works, of how numbers interact, and how words can sparkle. As an extrinsic aim, we can also value such people as being able to make informed decisions in a democratic forum; true citizenship is only enabled by informed autonomous agent.

And then Mitra says things which are just plain daft: “So, we can safely deduce that if x per cent of what is taught (just in case it is useful or beautiful) is actually used by a learner, then 100 times x per cent is either left unused in the learner’s brain or is mercifully forgotten.” Does he think there’s a limit to stuff we can store in our brains? If he does, he’s wrong. For all practical purposes our ability to store information is limitless. We have room to spare to store every item of information we will ever encounter and will never come close to filling up our minds. Let’s say we do learn some things we never use, so what? Our ability to retrieve may well decay, but not our ability to store.

Until reading his latest TES article I might have felt content to dismiss him as  either a hypocrite or a philistine, but I’m increasingly convinced that he is, in fact, a dangerous crank spreading irresponsible untruths.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe Mitra isn’t a charlatan and I’ve just not understood the power and beauty of his guesses about how best to teach children. But this is the real kicker: if I’m wrong, we’ll turn out children who can spell, and do mental arithmetic. We’ll share some of the most culturally rich ideas and produce children who don’t just know how to look things up, but that know what to look up and have the wit and background to make sense of what they look up.  If Mitra’s wrong we’ll produce a generation of kids who can’t spell, who’ve learned that mental arithmetic is worthless and will be reduced to the very narrowest curriculum; that which they find directly relevant during the formative years. They’ll leave knowing nothing except that someone somewhere does know stuff and that it’s there’s for the asking. Except it isn’t. The stuff in our heads is what we think with. And the less we know the less we can think about. All these pathetic victims will have to look forward to in employment is some mythical IT company where no one gives a shit about how ignorant you are.

Good look with that!

28 Responses to Is it just me or is Sugata Mitra an irresponsible charlatan?

  1. David Terron says:

    Excellent. Am using this when anyone starts waffling on about SOLE at staff INSETs! Amazed that TES won’t accept comment son the article. Did they KNOW he was going to be ripped apart by people who actually, you know…teach?

  2. kategladstone says:

    Re: ” Tom Bennett wrote in the TES about why Mitra’s claim that pupils can teach themselves seven (SEVEN YEARS!) years ahead of their ages just don’t add up.” — The link which that sentence incorporates doesn’t work. Please mend it.

  3. 4c3d says:

    Re “experts” in education challenging new ideas. Sometimes you haven’t got to listen to the man with a chain saw tell you that you need a chainsaw to cut down trees and use your axe anyway.

    As for using the internet to learn things there is a set of skills you need but perhaps learning these is the way you learn to use the internet to learn things! This list was compiled using the internet to reach out and collaborate with others.
    7 e-learning skills:

    Any debate about learning has to be a good thing surely. We just have to just stop looking for the magic bullet and reflect objectively without bias when we come across new ideas.

    • David Didau says:

      “As for using the internet to learn things there is a set of skills you need but perhaps learning these is the way you learn to use the internet to learn things!”

      Read the Hirsch article I link to.

  4. Julia Carroll says:

    If everyone is just looking things up on the Internet, who is creating the knowledge on the Internet? Have I missed something?

  5. Tim K says:

    In an ideal world I’d like a blend of formally taught core knowledge and freedom to explore that which is of interest to the students.

    No doubt the types of people who read this blog won’t be fans (maybe unfair!) but Alfie Kohn writes very persuasively about what it means to be educated. There are things all must know to be able to participate in society. We need to be able to read fluently, communicate via speech and writing and understand basic mathematical concepts as a minimum.

    However after that there will be a huge divergence in our views of what, beyond these essentials, is important and what isn’t. Too often in the ongoing debates I find people pushing what they enjoy as being vital. Personally I’m always appalled at the lack of basic knowledge of the world people have. I don’t see the point micro-analysing the works of long dead authors, or calculating the internal angles of 2d shapes, when there are still people leaving school who can’t name a single country in Africa, for example. Or even know that Africa is composed of countries.

    That a free-for-all SOLE would not work we can agree on. But I think it would be a massive shame if a resource as staggering as the internet could not be used to liberate students from the shackles of a one size fits all curriculum for at least some of their time in school. I’d be very happy if schools introduced a General Studies type course where children were able just to investigate something they were interested in. No end of year exam but perhaps just a write up of what they’d been looking at.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Tim, what you say is sound. I absolutely agree on the importance and power of the internet. After all, without it you would not be reading my words. You’re also right that too many children are appallingly ignorant of basic facts about the world. I think, cautiously, I agree with you about our obsession with analysis – broad general knowledge would probably be much more useful. I even find some of Kohn’s writing persuasive (although I struggle with a lot of it too.)

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Abena says:

      Tim – you most closely echo my thoughts from all of this. However, a part of me wonders if after so many decades of ‘things not really changing’ it takes polar attitudes like this to shake the decision-makers out of their stupor. Perhaps to get to the utopia you describe, we need someone pulling beyond that goal, meaning if they get 10% of their wish, it’ll be enough of a leap out of the industry-like system our education has become. Just a thought.

    • Just wondering why it is that kids are leaving school unable to name a single country in Africa (plus countless other similar facts of the world) when every one of them has been taught that stuff, right? What makes us remember such things is when we are exposed to them in some relevant, useful context. Teaching is not the transmission of knowledge, is it? Isn’t it more about creating opportunities and conditions for meaningful exploration of questions that matter? I’m not a 100% buyer of Mitra either, but his premise, that we start with questions that kids care about, regardless of age, resonates.

      Thanks for pushing the conversation.

  6. “The stuff in our heads is what we think with.” I may be being cynical here but there are a lot of people who would rather we didn’t think… Interestingly I have been hearing a lot about this guy lately, so much for posting, lots of goodness to think about here… now if I could just remember what it was I was thinking about…

    • ah yes… I think this narrative that children learn by osmosis fits very nicely into some peoples thinking that anyone can teach / teachers are not needed. Of course this is poppycock and we need to remind people good teachers make a massive difference to the quality of students learning.

  7. Fiona Banham says:

    I would love to present him with a cohort of deaf students and see how his theory is blown out of the water. Without human interaction how can we learn language? Without a sound language base how can we internalise that is put in front of us? All this talk of IT taking the place of human interaction is irritating but would his ideas have been out there without it?
    IT has its place but is not the answer for everything.
    Just like to add I have watched many a student copy and paste information from the net but when you ask them to explain the content they are not always able 🙂

  8. Lottie says:

    I know a North East primary school which has been part of the grand disaster, sorry, experiment and SOLE is nothing more than a glorified hour’s research time. I mean research in the loosest possible way.

    Anyone who works in a primary school will know that letting children find out information, via the internet, about completely vague & tangential ( to their interests & collective knowledge) questions is just asking for guesswork, low level thinking skills and understanding and poor behaviour. The majority of them do not yet have the capacity to sift and select information from such an enormous source or effectively synthesize it with prior experiences into meaningful conclusions. An hour of wasted time or a lovely, long break time – depends on whether one is the educator or the child.

    I know of another primary school, which has also been trialling SOLE, but when they detailed how they were ‘learning’ it sounded just like a standard AFL session eg Ask the children to use the internet to find out what they know about Viking festivals. Not a grand, open and challenging question of the sort Sugata espoused to us in our briefing.

    Knowledge and understanding beget knowledge and understanding. I find it so ironic that someone who has obviously benefitted from a lifetime of acquiring knowledge, understanding and skills ‘wishes’ to deprive children of this experience.

    • David Didau says:

      Is this the Carl Jarvis empire?

      • Lottie says:

        No, just another state school, and its neighbour, being seduced by poor science.

        I can see why you might have drawn that conclusion though. I’m sure I read an article by Daisy C where she questioned some of Ofsted staff’s ‘love affair ‘ with everything progressive, shiny and new. Reminded me of EOS……

  9. Wendy says:

    I have two grandsons in school The school district has decided that every child needs to have a I-pad. All lessons and homework are done online. The rate the schools are going there will be no need for teachers. All things are being taught on the computer. This is why our children can’t spell, read or write. I do believe some of Mr. Mitra’s ideas are good. Especially in areas where there are no teachers. Out in the bush or back hills at least learning something is better than nothing.

  10. 4c3d says:

    Does our ability to learn come from being able to pay attention or the things we learn and therefore the things we know?

  11. Angela McFarlane says:

    Great piece. A lot of this analysis could also be applied to the bizarre claims and eventual failure of the One Laptop Per Child project. Giving kids technology and walking away does not equal an education.

  12. Hot damn that’s a breath of fresh air.

    I’ve just been listening to Mitr’as interview on Radio 4’s “The Educators” and well…he needed someone grounded, determined and informed to challenge him meaningfully on methodology, conclusion’s and his well rehearsed patter. And this piece is a kind of wrestling to the ground while the rest of the team piles on head on collisio of a rugby tackle.

    Thanks for writing the piece. The stuff in our heads is what we think with. It informs our ablity to understand, and how quickly, slowly and effectively we learn. It informs how well, or badly we comprehend what we read. How well or badly we do the work of sorting and sifting information. How well or badly we make learning choices, and how accuarate our assessmnt of our own expertise and errors are.

    It’s the weft and weave of the fabric of critical thinking.

    I think Mitra’s narrative is pretty damaging stuff. And, potentially more damaging for some students from poorer economic backgrounds when you look at the research.

  13. […] date).   Sugata Mitra in the blue corner being squared up to by the tag team of Tom Bennett and David Didau in the red.   I know Professor Mitra as a student on his Master’s Level module at Newcastle […]

  14. […] Knowledge comes by eyes always open and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power. Ralph Waldo Emerson When I first saw physicist, Sugata Mitra speak about his Hole in the Wall experiments in India I was astonished. Not only was he as self-deprecatingly warm and funny as Sir Ken Robinson on a  […]

  15. Francis says:

    Just a paper in a startup journal, that might have missed the general gaze

  16. […] Didua, D. (2015) Is it just me or is Sugata Mitra an irresponsible charlatan? Available at: […]

  17. […] NB – Having reviewed the evidence, I am now thoroughly convinced I was wrong about all this. Instead, try reading Is it just me or is Sugata Mitra an irresponsible charlatan?  […]

  18. Jared says:

    Thanks for posting this Dave. I saw his TED talk recently and I was equally as intrigued and wondered what had happened with his research since 2005. The fact that there was nothing else or none was really jumping on it were alarm bells.

    Having said that, i did take away some things which I thought were useful and tried them out with enough success to warrant keeping on trying it out. That is, students who retained the knowledge did it off the back off some pretty decent collaboration and effective oral language skills, through shared use of an internet connected device. In other words, it was the problem solving and talking out ideas together that aided long term memory. Which I think is backed up by neuroscience, though I haven’t got a reference to back that claim up off hand. Access to the internet was not the most important thing. Implications being we need less one on one devices in our classrooms and greater opportunities and explicit teaching of oral language skills. I think we can use student’s adeptness with technology to our own advantage as teachers- they can do more than what we think, so let them, but in my experience so far, the right questions and provocations are definitely needed to get deep learning happening. This is just my developing thinking on this at the moment.

  19. […] of the future. Maybe the tradition curriculum of school subjects has had its day, as tech guru, Sugata Mitra claims. Maybe all we have to do is teach kids how to use Google and they will magically teach […]

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