A hole in the wall as science and public policy

By: Gary Stager
District Administration, May 2004
(archive)

A funny thing happened to me while in India (besides losing my luggage, teaching for three days on three hours sleep, and confronting an elephant in traffic). While speaking at a conference, I encountered another educator whose work blew my mind. Such an experience is a rarity at the dozen or so educational conferences I attend each year across America.

Dr. Sugata Mitra, a physicist from Indian think-tank NIIT, embodies the best features of a scientist, educator, tinkerer and dreamer. His social conscience led him to invent a novel approach to learning technology. The scientist in him designed controlled experiments to explain the remarkable phenomena he observed.

India is a populace nation with staggering poverty and majority illiteracy. Politics, religion and tradition conspire to create millions of poor people and slums unfit for the stray dogs who compete for food. Wealth and great poverty coexist side by side like two nations with diplomatic relations.One boy who uses the kiosk defined the Internet as, “That with which you can do anything.”

Mitra’s own campus was separated from the “other India” by a wall. He often sensed that the poor children watched his research community with the cell phones attached to their ears and funny bags hanging from their bodies disappear into a mysterious fortress.

“Hole in the wall”

Mitra inserted a PC monitor into the wall behind a pane of glass and alongside a touch screen. The computer had a high-speed Internet connection and was on nearly all of the time. No other intervention occurred. Before long, this “hole in the wall” attracted children from the community and a great educational experiment had begun.

A video camera trained on the children using the kiosk and computerized logs of what was done on the computer create a record of the children’s activities. Within a short period of time, children who speak one of India’s thousand languages other than English and who had never received any instruction in technology use were surfing the Web. More over, groups of children played online games and painted pictures with MS Paint. After being shown MP3 software, some children even managed to find music in Hindi to play.

The success of the first “Hole in the Wall” inspired Mitra to replicate the experience with kiosks across the economic, cultural and geographic diversity of India. Children in every case were able to demonstrate what we might call computer literacy without any curriculum, formal teaching or adult intervention. The “Hole in the Wall” children discovered and taught each other amazing things. Young children stand on the shoulders of others and direct the action. The hundreds of shortcuts often left on a kiosk computer offered evidence of such expertise. Mitra found that kiosk users managed to learn hundreds of English words and used their native language to describe computer functions. Most users were 6 to 12 years old. Adults did not make any attempt to use the kiosk.

Self-Service Education

Dr. Mitra describes his learning theory as minimally invasive education – a hypothesis that even in totally unfamiliar situations, children in groups will learn on their own with little or no input from others, provided the learning environment induces an adequate level of curiosity. Like in minimally invasive surgery there should be no more expert intervention than absolutely necessary.

This work proves that when provided with access to a computer in a social context, all children will become computer literate with or without a traditional teacher. Mitra’s careful experiments confirm the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. Most of all, “The Hole in the Wall,” offers a glimmer of hope for concerned global citizens who do not know where to begin in increasing educational opportunity in the developing world. The “Hole in the Wall” project is a testament to the competency and capacity of children to construct their own knowledge in a community of practice. Internet access can connect children to each other and the 21st century.

Does your school really need that computer literacy class? Can your teachers celebrate the technological fluency of your students and build upon it in the design of richer tasks and more imaginative curricula? American schools are blessed with advantages most of the world cannot even ponder. The “Hole in the Wall” project demands that we do better by our students and do our part to change the world.

Gary Stager is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine Univ.

The second Ask Me Anything session was held on May 12th. You may watch a recording of that session here for a limited time.

If video isn’t your thing, you may download the audio for the Ask Me Anything 2 session.

The first Ask Me Anything session on April 28th was well-attended by educators from around the world. You may watch a recording of that session here for a limited time.

Download audio of the April 28th Gary Stager Ask Me Anything session.

Here are some magazine articles I wrote about teachers who made a difference in my life.

  1. Me and Mr. Jones (about a 7th grade computing teacher who made me feel powerful)
  2. “Social” Studies (about the two gentlemen responsible for my social activism)
  3. Walking Among Giants (about a late great singer & my junior high music teacher)
  4. A School Story (about collaboration with my high school jazz teacher)

My most recent TED Talk for a high school audience, Care Less, also tells the tale of key mentors in my life.

So, if I were asked to design a program for pre-service teachers, these books would be my starting place.

The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith

Making Learning Whole by David Perkins

The Children’s Machine by Seymour Papert

A Schoolmaster of the Great City by Angelo Patri

She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Herb Kohl

And What Do YOU Mean by Learning by Seymour Sarason?

The Long Haul by Myles Horton

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation by Lella Gandini, George Forman, and Carolyn Edwards

In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization by Deborah Meier

What to Look for in a Classroom by Alfie Kohn

A Fresh Look at Writing by Donald Graves

Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope by Jonathan Kozol

The Big Picture: Education is Everybody’s Business by Dennis Littky and Samantha Grabelle

A reluctant choice between these books to make sure “math” is covered.