Reinventing education for the 21st century, Let kids study what they want and have full access to the internet for research

In the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Sugata Mitra (a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK) conducted experiments in which he gave children in India access to computers. Without any instruction, they were able to teach themselves a surprising variety of things, from DNA replication to English.

Wired describes how Juárez Correa (a teacher in Mexico) aplied Sugata Mitra’s methods. Juárez Correa happened on an emerging educational philosophy, one that applies the logic of the digital age to the classroom. That logic is inexorable: Access to a world of infinite information has changed how we communicate, process information, and think. Decentralized systems have proven to be more productive and agile than rigid, top-down ones. Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.

In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.

Onstage at TED2013, Sugata Mitra makes his bold TED Prize wish: Help me design the School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children can explore and learn from each other — using resources and mentoring from the cloud. Hear his inspiring vision for Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE), and learn more at tedprize.org.

A charismatic and convincing proselytizer, Mitra has become a darling in the tech world. In early 2013 he won a $1 million grant from TED, the global ideas conference, to pursue his work. He’s now in the process of establishing seven “schools in the cloud,” five in India and two in the UK. In India, most of his schools are single-room buildings. There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: “The children are completely in charge.”

Mitra argues that the information revolution has enabled a style of learning that wasn’t possible before. The exterior of his schools will be mostly glass, so outsiders can peer in. Inside, students will gather in groups around computers and research topics that interest them.

Mexico Result

In September 2012, Mexico’s national achievement exam results were posted. Most of the classes had done marginally better this year—but Paloma’s grade was another story. The previous year, 45 percent had essentially failed the math section, and 31 percent had failed Spanish. This time only 7 percent failed math and 3.5 percent failed Spanish. And while none had posted an Excellent score before, 63 percent were now in that category in math.

The language scores were very high. Even the lowest was well above the national average. Then he noticed the math scores. The top score in Juárez Correa’s class was 921. Zavala Hernandez looked over at the top score in the state: It was 921. When he saw the next box over, the hairs on his arms stood up. The top score in the entire country was also 921.

Paloma received the highest math score in the country, but the other students weren’t far behind. Ten got math scores that placed them in the 99.99th percentile. Three of them placed at the same high level in Spanish. The results attracted a quick burst of official and media attention in Mexico, most of which focused on Paloma. She was flown to Mexico City to appear on a popular TV show and received a variety of gifts, from a laptop to a bicycle.

Juárez Correa himself got almost no recognition, despite the fact that nearly half of his class had performed at a world- class level and that even the lowest performers had markedly improved.

The kids were excited. They talked about being doctors, teachers, and politicians.

Juárez Correa had mixed feelings about the test. His students had succeeded because he had employed a new teaching method, one better suited to the way children learn. It was a model that emphasized group work, competition, creativity, and a student-led environment. So it was ironic that the kids had distinguished themselves because of a conventional multiple-choice test. “These exams are like limits for the teachers,” he says. “They test what you know, not what you can do, and I am more interested in what my students can do.”

Like Juárez Correa, many education innovators are succeeding outside the mainstream.

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