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The Grandmother Method

By Patrick Farenga

How a Hole in the Wall Became a school in the Cloud

“What would children do with a computer that is made freely available to them in their village?”

So wondered Sugata Mitra, who in 1999 was working in New Delhi, India, as a science director for an education technology company when he decided to put this thought into action. He placed a personal computer with an Internet connection into a hole in the wall that bordered his office from the slum, and hid a video camera to record what happened.

Children asked him what he was doing while he was installing the computer. Mitra replied, “I don’t know,” and left them to figure it out on their own.

Children Don’t Need Adults to Learn…

Mitra was surprised by what he observed: Without any adult guidance, the children learned how to use the computer and, in doing so, they showed each other how to surf the Internet, read English (the most common language used online), and developed their interpersonal and analytical skills. Mitra realized that what he was observing was not what most educators would expect to happen if a group of children were left alone with a computer. This experience also made him wonder just how far learning could progress before a formal classroom teacher would be needed. He named this type of learning “minimally invasive education”—that is, a “pedagogical method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher.”

When Mitra shared his initial research and posited that a teacher was not necessary for learning to occur among children, his work was greeted with skepticism. So he kept upping the ante and refining his experiments to control for the objections, and his results remained the same. One of his major breakthroughs occurred when Mitra posed this question: “Can Tamil-speaking 12-year-olds learn the biotech of DNA replication by themselves on a street-side computer in English?”

Sure enough, the children learned this advanced material on their own, albeit slowly; they demonstrated 30 percent comprehension on a test of the complex material.

…But Encouragement From Grannies Helps

Mitra decided at this point to see if adult support could improve the children’s comprehension, so he enlisted a young woman to work with this group. He chose her because she had no prior knowledge of the subject matter the children were endeavoring to learn, and he urged her not to use classroom techniques when the children asked for help. Instead, he advised her to use “the method of the grandmother,” which entails providing admiration and encouragement for the children’s efforts, but not direct instruction. The children’s comprehension scores on the test increased significantly after this addition.

Mitra’s next project, the Granny Cloud, grew out of the hole-in-the-wall experiments. While contemplating the “method of the grandmother,” Mitra asked some Indian children how they would use Skype, and they said they wanted British grandmothers to read fairytales to them. Mitra then appealed to the British public for help.

The Guardian reports that he quickly got 200 volunteers. “Many are retired teachers, who are now regularly on Skype teaching children in the slums,” said Mitra. “The children are forming relationships with them, and the teachers, many of whom were upset at the thought of having finished their careers, have realized they’re more important than ever.”

The Granny Cloud led to further refinements that Mitra refers to as Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) and the School in the Cloud. Mitra was awarded a milliondollar TED prize to further his work in 2013.

Mitra Disrupts Education

Mitra’s work has been criticized on the grounds that he worked with rural children to whom computer technology was new and enticing. Critics have posited that students more familiar with computers, who are already jaded and sated with the modern technology around them, would not respond with the same intrinsic motivation and excitement as the children in the village squares in India did.

Mitra is showing that this is not the case. He’s using the TED prize money to make the School in the Cloud a hub for grannies to support their students and for people to create SOLEs wherever possible. A SOLE is an environment that “can exist anywhere there is a computer, Internet connection, and students who are ready to learn,” according to the School in the Cloud’s website, which describes the environments in greater detail:

Within a SOLE students are given the freedom to learn collaboratively using the Internet. An educator poses a Big Question and students form small groups to find an answer. During a SOLE session students are free to move around and share information or to change groups at any time; towards the end of a session they have the opportunity to share what they learned with the whole group. SOLE sessions are characterized by discovery, sharing, spontaneity and limited teacher intervention.

Mitra is careful to distinguish self-directed learning from SOLEs, as the latter requires an educator to pose the question and the group to work on it, whereas the former requires learners to pose their own questions and use their individual initiatives to learn the answers, but the two approaches mix well. SOLEs currently exist in India and the United Kingdom, and many more are being proposed and created. Some SOLEs are located within conventional schools, while others are operated in local community spaces.

In fact, SOLEs are open to the public. Anyone is welcome to join the School in the Cloud and create a SOLE by downloading a free toolkit.

One of the most striking points Mitra makes about his experiment is how schools can be reconstructed into more social, welcoming institutions. If, as Mitra has claimed in a number of venues, “groups of children, with access to the Internet, can learn almost anything by themselves,” then the very nature of compulsory schooling—which is based on the assumption that children won’t learn anything important unless adults are heavily involved—is turned on its head. In fact, so is the very nature of learning. Mitra claims there could be “a future in which ‘knowing’ may be obsolete,” because the answer to any question is available on demand, online.

Psychologist and noodle expert Peter Gray, Ph.D., has written that Mitra’s work is better matched to the natural learning abilities of children than conventional schooling, since it leverages children’s innate curiosity, enables them freedom to play with technology (an activity that helps them become skilled at using it), and, most importantly, allows the natural sociability of children to facilitate the circulation of knowledge and skills to other children. Dr. Gray cites other research supporting Mitra’s point that “children learn more together than alone…the segregation of children by age in schools prevents the diversity of pre-existing skills and knowledge that seems to be a key to self-directed learning from others.”

Though Mitra is using technology to disrupt education, he is careful to make sure that we understand that the children—and not computers or support staff—are creating and sharing knowledge.

As Dr. Gray writes, based on Mitra’s research, “We don’t need one laptop per child. Children learn more when they share a computer and learn from one another.”