Why We DO Need Teachers

Dr. Sugata Mitra

Dr. Sugata Mitra (Photo credit: SAIatCalU)

Last week on June 26, I shared some ideas from NPR’s TED Radio Hour’s program “Unstoppable Education.” Dr. Sugata Mitra‘s fascinating “Hole in the Wall” experiments suggested that children, even those from deprived environments, were astonishingly good at teaching themselves how to use computers to acquire complex knowledge. As I listened, I found myself wondering if my teaching job is superfluous. After hearing enlightening talks from Annie Murphy Paul and Rita Pierson, I was relieved when Dr. Mitra returned to close the program and explained why teachers are necessary. As he presented his ideas, I wanted to cheer, and my canine co-pilot may have actually had her adorable ears singed by a hearty “D@#$ straight!”

(You can hear this portion of the program…the 10 minutes and change will allow you to finish the Clean Desk Project that we started last week…by clicking here.)

Emile Renouf - The Helping Hand (1881)

Emile Renouf – The Helping Hand (1881) (Photo credit: vmarinelli)

The young students in Dr. Mitra’s experiment finally hit a wall in their progress, and he was looking for someone to help them continue their learning. There was no teacher trained in biology available, so he coaxed a  friendly young accountant with no science background to assist. He advised her to use the “Method of the Grandmother,” which consisted of being present and offering warm encouragement, something like “Whoa, how did you do that?” After the cheerleading “teacher” joined the children, their scores jumped 50% and equaled those of students attending an elite private school in New Delhi. Dr. Mitra uttered these magic words:

“Encouragement seems to be the key.”

Yes, yes, and triple-yes.

Dr. Mitra went on to explain how we have constructed a system of punishment and examinations that are perceived as threats, shutting down the parts of the brain that are essential for learning. He continued, “We take our children, we shut their brains down, and then we say ‘Perform.'” He explains how that system evolved out of necessity. Now, however, Dr. Mitra declares:

“We need to shift that balance from threat to pleasure.

be little

be little (Photo credit: Leonard John Matthews)

Stop the car! He said it! He said that pleasure enhances learning…he’s practically singing our theme song. It sure sounds to me like his vision of creating “a school in the cloud” and providing every child with a computer is consistent with our themes of owning something of value, meeting an achievable challenge, and belonging to a group.

If we want to add pleasure, and the particular pleasure offered by encouragement, to our teaching, what should we do? To quote the little girl to whom Dr. Sitra posed a similar question, “Get on with it.”


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