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OR ‘When an IATEFL plenary pushed people’s buttons in a major way’

Saturday 4 April 2014 saw the last day of the IATEFL Annual Conference in Harrogate. As is customary with plenary talks at this conference, an annual occasion when 2000-odd English language teachers descend on a city in the UK for just under a week, this one at the end of the IATEFL week promised to provoke thought and divide opinion.

Unusually, this year I did not actually make it to any of the plenaries in person, instead favouring the option of catching up with them later as part of the British Council’s IATEFL Harrogate Online coverage. This was perhaps the best choice in this instance, since it was almost impossible to miss the storm of comments on Twitter and Facebook following Sugata Mitra’s speech on the School in the cloud.

I first became aware of Mitra’s work through a report on the BBC of work that he had initiated in the north of the UK, aggrandising a project in which groups of school children were given questions and access to the internet as something called Self-Organising Learning Environments. You can read about that here, here, and here. He won a $1 million prize from TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) for a talk in which he promoted this idea that learning should become much more child-centred and child-driven. This followed on from an initial project he did where he inserted a computer with internet access into the wall in a New Dehli slum. He was surprised to find that the children living there managed to, not only turn on the computer, but to browse and download games, and then upon a return visit by Mitra, to request a faster processor and a better mouse.

Now, so far, so good, I suppose. I’m definitely not against granting access to information to any group of people, whatever their age or background. I’m not wildly surprised that the result is experiential learning – the children learnt how to use the computer by using it.

An aside, but isn’t this the way a lot of things are learnt, especially by children? Is it that surprising or revolutionary?

Fast forward to this week, 2014. Mitra is one of the invited plenary speakers at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate. He has an hour to talk about his work to date, and his plans for the future. He suggests that teachers’ roles will change, perhaps they will even become redundant or obsolete. He shows a video of new ‘schools’ (although, they’re not schools, according to Mitra) where there are computer terminals surrounded by comfortable chairs. He shows images and videos of children huddled round the monitor, granted they’re working on something, but they are interacting with a device, with a screen.

He says all of this in front of an audience of teachers. Of course he couches his terms in appealing, tweet-able language. And an audience of teachers applauds.

Here is where I have a huge problem.

Anyone can, at least potentially, learn from anything. But I strongly feel that the richest learning experience comes from social interaction. Perhaps these children are interacting with each other as they work on finding out things using the computer, but the focus is not on each other, but on a machine. There is not, in my opinion, a real interaction; there isn’t socialisation. And this is where I see the focus of what I do: I am not only a teacher. The people who come into my classroom are not ‘empty vessels’ to be filled with knowledge. Language isn’t even really something that can really be learnt in measurable chunks. You can’t learn English just by interacting with a device.

So, what actually is a teacher? What do they do? There is actually a poem by Taylor Mali that really sums up how I feel about my role as a teacher. It’s not something that anyone is ever going to deride in front of me. And it’s not something that is going to be reduced to being able to look things up on the internet.

And that’s even before we get on to the fact that the ‘learning’ I see being demonstrated by students in these SOLEs, which appears to be more like reciting what they have read on the internet. And it doesn’t even address the fact that what is on the internet is not necessarily reliable.

Nope, I’d much rather keep my faith in teachers and schools.


Sugata Mitra: The future of learning

Sugata Mitra interview at IATEFL