A hole in the wall: How children learn without a teacher | Opensource.com

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

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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.


About the author

Rebecca Fernandez - Rebecca Fernandez is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat, leading projects to help the company scale its open culture. She's an Open Organization Ambassador, contributed to The Open Organization book, and maintains the Open Decision Framework. She is interested in the intersection of open source principles and practices, and how they can transform organizations for the better.