A hole in the wall: How children learn without a teacher

Image credits: Dietmar Down Under
submit to reddit
(7 votes)

Sugata Mitra began with a question: “What would happen if I cut a hole in the wall that separates my New Delhi office building from a neighboring slum... and embedded a computer for children to access?”

What he found led him into over a decade of research on how groups of children, when left with a computer, can teach themselves just about anything.

This Frontline report gives a short version of the story, and Mitra's TED talk provides a more in-depth look. In one village, the children clearly have a good grasp of the English language; in others they teach themselves two hundred words along the way. Remarkably, neither group seems to have great difficulty with the language barrier.

Mitra calls his aproach "Minimally Invasive Education." He believes there are several keys to the children's success in self-education:

  • Freedom from unwanted adult guidance or imposition of a curriculum

  • Figuring out the technology in groups with other children

  • Technology that is interesting and challenging

As I watched these videos, I thought how similar this was to how most programmers I've known first learned to code. I figured out GWBasic one summer: just a bored preteen messing around with a computer and a manual. Several years later, I was figuring out HTML and CSS the same way. I can hardly remember another time in my school years when I was more engaged in learning something.

I also thought back to when my parents dropped off my younger brother and me at a “day” camp in Brazil, neglecting to mention until they started pulling luggage out of the trunk that they'd be back in several weeks. At that point, my Portuguese was limited to understanding a handful of common phrases and familiar words in streams of conversation. But children manage to communicate even when they have no common language, and Brazilian children may just be the most friendly people on the planet. The experience looked much like the children directing other children (often wrongly) in the Hole in the Wall videos, with my many new friends insisting that they alone knew what I was trying to tell everyone... until at last up would rise a collective, “Ahhhh! Uma galihna!” or “Oh, voleibol.”

While the story makes great material for therapy sessions, I have to admit that we had a great time and somehow spoke functional Portuguese by the time my parents returned. Though I studied Spanish for far more years in the classroom, I never spoke it as easily. (My brother also managed to pick up a good bit of capoeira, which remains an impressive party trick many years later.)

From the children at the “Hole in the Wall” to my own self-directed learning experiences, there is a fourth theme that emerges: Mitra's model may be the best way to learn anything compelling enough that even when a child is frustrated and has hit a wall, yet can't help but be drawn back to figure it out.

Have you experienced Minimally Invasive Education? Are there ways to bring this type of motivating, self-directed, collaborative learning into classrooms everywhere? Is it being done already? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Creative Commons License


Tim's picture

I think if everyone was self-taught people would only learn what they want. more subculture. more division. more ignorance. if someone decides what is the basics to know, you can form a culture. otherwise people are seperated and have no common ground. you cant build a society on ignorance, gotta educate so people can relate

Hephaestus's picture

Perhaps they would ignore organized religion and believe that faries make the flowers grow instead. Oh wait that is organized religion ...

Face book is the perfect example of where education is going. People joining groups that interest them and learning how to share ... and please dont mention farmville because there is always bad with the good.

Gi's picture

requirements and rewards is what rules the motivation.

it does not matter which way person gains the knowledge and competences - self thought or at Super Duper University.

Yet universities and academics exactly like priests will defend organized/controlled ways.

Tim's picture

then again, on the flip side, education by word-of-mouth would take off. formal language would become less formal, not learned in the classroom, but still used by the common people - learning informally by using it. it would change culture a lot to switch to a "learn what you want" style

rbnFrn's picture

There is a natural tendence for the human to approach what they are really good at, at the subconscious level.

This means _free_ learning - free _culture_ - cultural exchange - civilization _progress_.

There is no Single way of thinking, and thus there should be no single way of teaching.

P.S. Note that underlined words are highly related.


honeymak's picture
Open Enthusiast

people do learn 'new' things quickly when they are young
because they already knew the 'old' in daily living

that 's the way to utilize what human brain is capable of
schooling should be inspiring activity and place to be having tendency to be answered the seemingly un-answered questions

but schools already failed that

Muvaffak Gozaydin's picture

I thought the subject was education without teacher but with technology. But it seems subject is different.
One statement is very interesting with which I agree.

My granddaughter is always reject what I say.
She likes to do whatever she wants.

I believe time has come to change
whole classical education at school by teachers.
Teachers are so so expensive ( although their salary is very small ) due to system, we cannot raise good teachers at enough number.
Let us have "learning experts "

Wedding photographers Surrey's picture

I completely agree with what Tim says

Todd I. Stark's picture

In environments where information is freely available, teachers are no longer needed to expose people to information.

But if that's all teachers were doing, they weren't really teachers they were just information facilitators.

Teachers structure the learning process for their students, recognize when people aren't getting it, and make changes to encourage learning. It is possible for people to do that themselves with the appropriate metacognitive skills and motivation, but it is a fairly small segment of modern populations that acquires these skills and motivation themselves just by having information available.

We are fundamentally social beings, most of us need other people at some point in order to learn how to learn.

Learning doesn't absolutely require a formally designated teacher, there are many successful auto-didacts whose best learning takes place outside of formal schooling. However those are people who do somewhere acquire the metacognitive skills to evaluate their own knowledge and abilities and who find their own teachers when they need them.

Jiraaya's picture

Schools fail because of only one reason. They fail to induce free thinking. For example "Osmosis is the movement of water molecules across a selectively-permeable membrane down a water potential gradient" would be given a pass where as "Water moves from a place where there it is avl to where it is not thro somthing" gets one big kick. Dont get your correctness meter high saying that it is physically wrong, conceptually wrong or somthin like that. You and i both know that the second sentence captures the essence. schools must teach essence, details get added by themselves.

Jiraaya's picture

Schools fail because of only one reason. They fail to induce free thinking. For example "Osmosis is the movement of water molecules across a selectively-permeable membrane down a water potential gradient" would be given a pass where as "Water moves from a place where there it is avl to where it is not thro somthing" gets one big kick. Dont get your correctness meter high saying that it is physically wrong, conceptually wrong or somthin like that. You and i both know that the second sentence captures the essence. schools must teach essence, details get added by themselves.

Todd I. Stark's picture

@Jiraaya: Interesting point. I think it's true that making ideas readily available to people from their current understanding is a critical factor in teaching. So your example of using simpler language to present technical ideas by imagery or by generallization rather than just throwing jargon at people who don't know the concepts yet is something I definitely relate to.

I'll add that I don't think that's enough to have learning of new concepts, in the language of logic, I think it is neccessary but not sufficient.

The other important part is starting with a student's existing incorrect understanding and reshaping it by giving them a different perspective on the topic. Scientific concepts for example are not intuitive in general, often then are quite counter-intuitive. So the key to learning them is not imparting an essence through simple language but finding out how people are thinking about them and helping them think about them differently.

I think that should be done by paying heed to your principle of presenting things according to their current understanding. But at some point, their mind needs to change the way it thinks about the topic, not just add more simple intuitive ways of thinking about it on top of their current incorrect understanding.

So recognizing when the student is getting it "conceptually wrong" is really very fundamental to learning, at least in technical subjects like math and science. We can learn to reason abstractly with the wrong concepts, filling in the details ourselves, but then we get the wrong results, which don't correspond to the evidence we get from reality. "Free thinking" which is so important and powerful for making new combinations and variations of ideas [when we have knowledge] degrades into superstition when we build it on top of ignorance and intuitive "essence" instead of accurate understanding of ideas.

Apologies if I misunderstood your comment, the idea that people can become literate in science and math by piling up simple essences just doesn't resonate at all with my own life experience or the research I've seen on learning. We have to create new ways of thinking of things to learn new concepts, whether we learn to do it ourselves or guided by teachers.

Jiraaya's picture

@Todd Firstly i apologize for the statement that not encouraging free thinking is the "only" thing schools get wrong and your points on making them see things from a new perspective are really points to consider. My point is this, in most of the schools, learning process goes like this. First, the teacher presents a concept, mostly read out of a text book or multi media presentations (which for some reason many people think is the silver bullet to make people understand) and most of the times there are quizzes etc. Its missing what i feel is the core component in learning, "questioning". Learning process i feel should be more on the following lines, First, the teacher presents to context and asks a question, there by planting an idea in the child's mind. Second comes understanding what the lines in which the child is thinking and gradually presenting the idea in its simpler terms. Then again comes questioning ( adding more context ). Learning like software development should be iterative and incremental. Thats what i feel. Thats the point i tried to make when i said that essence should be first and details next.

PS: i found that you are a software professional as well by visiting ur blog,so i found it appropriate to allude to software dev ;)

Todd I. Stark's picture

@Jiraaya: Thanks for the followup, it sounds like we agree more than I first thought. Strongly agree that being free to ask good questions is critical to learning.

Alex :)'s picture

Everybody is Designed to hook into each other's Energies and complete Channels in their Circuitry and thus influence or be influenced by others in this great Cosmic Play we are all a part of :)
So, we in a sense have chosen our evolutionary paths this lifetime by choosing our Human Design and when we act according to our Unique Type's Strategy we will Live Out the Beautiful Amazing True Essence of Who We All Are and could potentially have the Highest Expressions of Human Potential Come about when we let our Strategy be our guidance! And in a sense that is what this method of education is making a possibility faster :)
Another Cool Method is Waldorf, which also recognizes people have different Temperaments and they interact in a specific way for success.


Colonel Panik's picture

Our children will learn in spite of all our efforts to teach them.

We stepped off the plane and into a culture that did not speak
our native tongue. Our daughters, 3 and 6, were at home in
their "new" language in just a few weeks. The kids aquired
the needed skills from the local kids, automagically.

There are some awesome videos of very young children
repairing OLPC computers in extreme Third-World conditions.

Do we need teachers? Of course.
Do we need unstructured time and situations for the children
to find out the wonders of this world? Of course.

The comments on this post were great, lets have more like this!