Tag Archives: TED

On Emergent Learning and Robots

“Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be.” -Arthur C. Clarke

Got this quote from a lovely TED Talk from the mind of Sugata Mitra, education researcher.  It’s a quote that makes a scary kind of point, one which resonates throughout the Talk and leads to what I deem Professor Mitra’s final conclusion: “Education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”  (Actually, I believe the Professor would properly call this a hypothesis, not a conclusion.)

What all this implies is that, in an age of robot instructors, teaching is even less technical, even less well-defined, than we already perceived it to be.  Professor Mitra’s advocacy of the “Granny Method” – teaching through encouragement, even if the instructor doesn’t necessarily understand the subject matter – points this up, with weight behind it; the Granny Method works.  I’ve seen it – in my own life and in the classroom, I’ve seen countless examples of people encouraging and driving education who have no idea exactly what the child they’re pushing to excel is supposed to be doing.

Does that mean a content expert isn’t a significant boon to a child’s learning?  Not remotely.  But in a 1:1 education environmentthat expert does not have to be in the room.  Children these days can easily have a face-to-face conversation with Dr. Michio Kaku, if they want to (and the good Doctor is available; tricky, he’s popular).  All it takes is Skype and a moment of his time.  (To make this very clear: this is something which would take place only/most likely in my wildest dreams, but it’s way more possible in 2013 than it might have been in, say, 1995.)

It should also be noted that, even after hearing Professor Mitra’s stories about the (seemingly) miraculous results of his Hole in the Wall experiments, I remain unconvinced that these results imply that teachers are unnecessary.  Recall that throughout his TED Talk, Professor Mitra makes regular reference to students teaching each other.  Not only is this an amazing outcome of the experiment – and a fantastic opportunity for these children to witness and reflect on their own learning – but it’s proof of the effectiveness of teaching, of being there to encourage learning.  Such proof is only enhanced by Professor Mitra’s anecdotes about the “Granny Cloud”.

I come away from this experience reflecting on the degree to which my culture’s general perception of teachers – the pointdextery stereotype, the ever-correcting, bespectacled arbiter of content, the veritable robot at the head of the line of desks – is fundamentally off-target.  We should be aiming for teachers who embody the Granny Cloud – or Grandaddy Cloud, or Ungendered Encouraging Older Person Cloud, if you prefer – always encouraging, always challenging, always praising effort and learning – things which people of all generations and all levels of tech-comfort can certainly recognize and appreciate.

In closing, I wanted to post a link to this post, a product of a blogger who is in no way my geekier, less education-focused alter-ego.  It treats on technology’s nature as a human product – not the terrifying force which will replace us; our tool, not our successor – as long as we know how to use it, and how to keep it in perspective.