Prof. Sugata Mitra, the Anti-Teacher Teachers and the Minimally Invasive Revolution

Professor Sugata Mitra is one of the great spokespeople for the strange movement in education that is hostile to the very notion of teaching. Education is good. Learning is fantastic, especially when it involves individuals and small groups pursuing their own interests, preferably searching for information on the internet. Teaching, though, is something we need to be very, very wary of. Unless we are very, very careful to adopt a minimal, low-key, hands-off approach to the gerund that begins with “t” and includes the word “each,” we will be guilty of indoctrination.

Sugata Mitra’s hole in the wall project provides an inspiring image for the anti-teacher teachers: a teacherless space in which children learn on their own (surfing the web). Of course there is still a need for teachers to set this space up and to supervise what takes place there, but this will be “minimally invasive teaching”. Mitra’s term is interesting. It implies that all teaching is “invasive” – a word full of negative connotations. Teaching is prima facie bad. The best that can be hoped for in teaching is to keep that badness to a minimum.

Now, the anti-teacher teacher doesn’t want to organise anything that smacks of an old-fashioned moral education. However, what sometimes seems to go unnoticed is that this movement spreads a moral message that is at least as powerful as the message once proclaimed by maximally invasive teachers speaking as if from a pulpit. The message goes out to the students that as far as our notions of the Good are concerned, there really is nothing to get very worked up about. For instance, Mitra wants to make rational thinking one of the three planks of primary education (the others being reading comprehension and information search skills). Now one could get quite passionate about the Age of Reason and start to think of oneself as a descendent of Descartes, obliged to carry on the unfinished project of the Enlightenment, sweeping away once and for all the remnants of the Dark Ages (horoscopes, theism, all forms of fetishism, etc., etc.) and (after reading Henri de Saint-Simon) perhaps arguing that henceforth all shirts should have the buttons up the back. Clearly, that would not count as minimally invasive. To keep things suitably minimal the teacher would have to appear neutral, letting the students find their own set of values. Some might turn to anarchism, others to scientology, and yet others to Buddhism. The minimally rationalist teacher will doubtless prompt the students to defend their chosen value systems, but will avoid creating the impression that more educated members of the society believe that some value systems are better than others lest the minimally invasive outdoctrination slip back into nasty old indoctrination.

In this way, students receive a very specific and utterly unambiguous moral education. They get the message that there is nothing to get excited about. There is certainly nothing to fight for or die for. We have our personal beliefs, but we shouldn’t get too worked up about them because as far as society is concerned there is absolutely no way to prove that one ethical framework is any better than another. The overriding principles are: Relax, take it easy, live and let live.

Although the anti-teacher teachers present their approach as something of a revolution, the fundamental moral message that ends up being passed on to students fits in very nicely with the sort of moral inertia cultivated by television. The form of TV broadcasting (irrespective of any particular content) creates the perfect impression that nothing really matters. When every story shown on television can be interrupted to run an advert for toilet cleaner, everyone gets the message.

In fact, because of TV and other influences in the world beyond school, the attack on teaching has come a bit too late. As invasions go, it is all rather futile. There is nothing much left to invade. The defences were breached decades ago, at least in the West, and it was because of this that critics like Neil Postman wrote nice books back then with titles like “Entertaining Ourselves to Death.” Are there any teachers left on this side of the axis who believe that they could actually begin to preach a moral code without seeing the students rock back in their chairs, yawn, look down at their watches and then look out the window?

Nietzsche said: “Behold I show you the Last Men.” These are (to update the description slightly) basically happy people for whom there is nothing to strive for any longer, apart from perhaps more things that will make life more comfortable, more entertaining, more pleasant – people for whom history has effectively ended, for whom the all-important contentment is perceived to be within reach – people who no longer say: “It was mediocre,” but, “It was OK” – people who want to accept themselves as they are, to be at peace – people who would seek out a therapist if they felt they were starting to feel disgust for something – people for whom the desert is only attractive as something seen from a jeep or from the back of a camel led by a tour guide – people for whom the idea of going out into the desert alone for forty days and forty nights in the hope of catching a glimpse of something utterly higher and other than the chatter of the town ceases to be comprehensible. Why would anyone do such a thing?

After reading about the anti-pedagogic pedagogues, I am tempted to say: “Behold, I show you the Last Teachers.”

Sugata Mitra’s Outdoctrination – a Critique

Indoctrination at schoolAccording to Professor Sugata Mitra, outdoctrination is what should counteract the dreaded indoctrination. It involves what Sugata Mitra calls a “minimally invasive” form of education. A school (it could be an old-fashioned maximally invasive school) sets aside some space and time for a “self-organising learning environment” (SOLE). The crucial tools in the room are PCs connected to the internet – enough PCs for the students to use them in small groups. The students are given the freedom to surf the web to pursue their educational interests. The outdoctrination then occurs when students find information and opinions or value judgments that conflict with those they have acquired during their earlier indoctrination. Inevitably doubts emerge about the truth of what they had previously been led to believe, and so the liberating process of outdoctrination begins.

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Note: We are moving all our material about Sugata Mitra, Sir Ken Robinson and the edtech digital revolution to our newer website dedicated solely to that topic. To visit the site and continue reading this post, click the link below.


Sugata Mitra, indoctrination and outdoctrination

Just Another Hole in the Wall

ImageFans of Professor Sugata Mitra (professor of educational technology at Newcastle University (UK) – see his unmissable talk on the hole-in-the-wall experiments if the name is unknown to you) will doubtless object to the allusion to the Pink Floyd song, hinting at a parallel between holes and bricks, and casting a negative light on the former, but I want to argue that there is a certain continuity between the Floydian bricks and Sugata Mitra’s holes.

At first sight Sugata Mitra might seem like a bit of a revolutionary, arguing for a break with the dark night of the present in the name of some glowing new educational dawn. The appearance is deceptive. If we step back a bit and recall the character of our economic context, we might see how his approach services the new economy in a way that bears a striking parallel to the way the older schools churned out the bricks in the walls of the previous economic order.

What are these two economic orders? Let’s call the older one Fordist (named after Henry Ford) and the newer one post-Fordist.

A Fordist economy is all about mass production, aiming to produce the same thing for everyone in the mass market as efficiently as possible. Standardisation was the key – a feature highlighted by the phrase attributed by Henry Ford in relation to his Model T automobile: “You can have any colour you want as long as it’s black.” Fordism belongs to an age that wanted to see society as a whole become rationalised (either through the self-correcting mechanisms of markets dominated by the likes of Henry Ford, or by the sort of central planning seen on the other side of the Iron Curtain.) It was a time that still thought of itself as the Age of Reason.

The shift to post-Fordism occurs when it ceases to be viable (for one reason or another) to view society as a single mass market that can be serviced by massive centralised modes of production. Instead, companies begin creating a plethora of smaller niche markets, servicing them from smaller centres of production, with a lot of the work being contracted out to other firms as and when it is needed. Standardisation and predictability are replaced by the values of specialisation and flexibility. An important factor making this possible is the emergence of computing. Another factor is the space available publicly for advertising. Niche markets are created through advertising, and that occurs primarily through the media. Every new product needs an elaborately constructed and intensively promoted image, and the culture of the image becomes more of a force in society than the old ideas about rationalisation (even though behind the scenes the same old forms of rationalisation are being put to use).

The Fordist and post-Fordist epochs require different kinds of workers, and so they also require different kinds of schools. The old schools that Pink Floyd were singing about were perfect educational factories producing workers ready to take their place on the huge assembly lines in a world that was expected to provide stability and security.

Post-Fordism requires schools that stop emphasising the value of standardisation – the idea that one-size fits all – encouraging instead an acceptance of fragmentation and change, and an appreciation of plurality. Rather than make students sit in uniform lines (creating the impression of a potentially infinite mass), students need to be encouraged to think of themselves as individuals willing and able to join any number of small groups that will form and disintegrate according to changing circumstances. Because the post-Fordist office is digital, the new classrooms need to be equally digital. Because the post-Fordist economy relies on a burgeoning of ideas for new products, new services and new ways of promoting them, schools need to emphasise creativity and initiative, rather than the regurgitation of old knowledge. Furthermore, because the post-Fordist world is one in which business is primary, school must avoid anything that might politicise young people. The post-Fordist epoch is marked by the end of ideology and the corresponding school is one that avoids championing any ideals beyond those of business, while promoting tolerance in such a way that students grow up acknowledging hundreds of different perspectives but believing that nothing can really be said to be True beyond the realm of science.

Although Sugata Mitra, in his hole in the wall talks, has not (as far as I know) spun out a whole theory about how education and schooling can be reorganised, it seems clear that the initial steps he has highlighted would lead in practice very nicely towards fitting children faultlessly into a post-Fordist economy. Sugata Mitra emphasises allowing children to learn what they want to learn. Of course, in practice schools would have to do what they can to sustain some of this child-centredness while introducing the kind of systemic constraints that young people are going to have to cope with in later life. The systematisation will doubtless be kept to a minimum, and I am suggesting that the resulting form of schooling might be very similar to the post-Fordist model described above.

So what’s wrong if there happens to be a nice fit between hole-in-the-wall schooling and the new economy? There’s only something wrong if you feel that schooling should be about more than either preparing children for economic life or just letting them do what they want to do. What might that “more” be?

To answer that question I want to suggest that we don’t reject Sugata Mitra’s starting point, but that we take it far more seriously than he does himself. Sugata prefers to talk in terms of allowing children to do what they want, but the popularity of his approach is surely a function of how it gels with our concern for the freedom of the individual and our interest (in education especially) in seeing people develop their individuality. Let me suggest that if we take this concern with the individual seriously we will see the need to go beyond the terms of the debate as Sugata Mitra frames them into areas currently seen as taboo.

As far as education is concerned, taking the freedom of the individual seriously involves trying to think through how people gradually realise their freedom (“realise” in the sense of actualise – make real) – how people develop the full breadth of their individuality.  When following that line of thought it can become clear that school is not a necessary evil but a vital arena in which young people can start to express themselves as free individuals. From there we start to imagine how the school could embody the ideals of a free society so that it cultivates those ideals and prepares young people to take a full and active role in a free society. For instance, if we think that a fuller notion of freedom and individuality requires the development of a critical intellect, we might then see the need to maintain a culture in schools where ideas are taken seriously and debated, rather than being neutralised. The free individual needs the community in which debate can take place and in which the results of the debate matter. We might even begin to see the importance of creating opportunities for political participation, enabling students to participate in the decision-making processes of the school, accompanying that with opportunities to learn about the history, the theory and the practice of a lively democracy, helping to shape the life of the school in the process. We might even come to think that it is worth promoting the idea that such participation is at least as important as doing business, or at least raising that as an issue to be debated so that an informed consensus can emerge.

None of this requires abandoning the concerns of Sugata Mitra. Students can be given ample opportunities to explore the latest technology, and work on their chosen projects. But if we are serious about the freedom of the individual, surely we see the need for much more than Professor Mitra leaves us with. Surely we want something more than just another hole in the wall.

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For further discussion of Sugata Mitra, see the post below on our other blog (where our discussions of edtech fluffiness have been moved):

Sugata Mitra and the doctrine of outdoctrination in education

Sugata Mitra and the Trojan Horse of education

The blog now devoted to a critique of the edtech, pseudo-revolutionary hype is: digitalcounterrevolution.co.uk

Angelopoulos & Camus on the Eloquence of Silence

Theodoros Angelopoulos silenceThe Greek film director Theodoros Angelopoulos is dead. On the TV the cameras pan across the crowd waiting outside a church in Athens. The presenters, not knowing when exactly the funeral service will begin, need to keep talking.

One of the presenters recalls a comment made by the Japanese film director Kourosawa. He said something to the effect that Angelopoulos had a rare talent for filming silence.

The adverts start. I can’t bear it. I switch the TV off.

I walk over to the window, look out at the cold hillside across the valley, and I watch and listen. It is not silence because through the closed window I can just make out the sound of the boy on the dirt road near the dry river bed. He is on his bicycle making the noise of a car engine as he cycles up and down the dirt road – something he regularly does at this time in the afternoon when he returns from school. And there is also the faint song of one or two birds that have not yet been shot.

I have no idea what Kourosawa meant or what silence might have been for Angelopoulos, but in my own silence I am filled with an incommunicable sense of the significance of things. Of that boy, of the hillside opposite, of these trees, of the grey clouds overhead and of those birds who have somehow escaped the rifles of the hunters.

And the significant things include things that are no more. Further down the valley from the boy is the small cottage Nikos lived in. I can’t see it. It is hidden behind a drop in the hillside. But I know it is there, and I know it is cold and empty. The absence of Nikos (who died last year) is still tangible.

And I am struck now by how this silence is so utterly different from the one that Albert Camus seemed to express.

For Camus language would seem to belong to the familiar world of convention and habit and illusion – a world which, at crucial moments, appears ridiculous. The sense of the absurd then wells up – “that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors”. At such moments, the only answer to the question: “What are you thinking?” is: “Nothing” – an utterance expressing the state of a soul for whom (as Camus puts it) “the void has become eloquent”.

And at such moments, what becomes clear for Camus in this “eloquent silence”? What becomes clear is that things are infinitely remote, foreign, alien and hostile.

“At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia…The world evades us because it becomes itself again. That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. …that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd.”

With Camus and Angelopoulos we have a clash of silences. For Camus, beyond language there is nothing significant. For Angelopoulos (and here I have to guess, relying on an imagined similarity between his eloquent silence and mine) what is most significant is beyond language – something that moves us in rare moments when the chatter of life goes quiet, and we feel the need to at least attempt to say the unsayable, or if that seems completely futile, perhaps to film the unsayable.

The Meaning of Life

In life – as in philosophy – when faced with a question the most important thing is not necessarily finding the answer. It may be more important to know whether the question is the right one to ask. The question concerning the meaning of life is no exception.

“What is the meaning of life?”

Before we set off on a long – perhaps endless – search for an answer, let’s pause a while to consider why we are asking it. WHY are we asking it? Why are WE asking it? Why?

It is easy to assume that everyone is like us, and everyone – at some time – will come face to face with the question of the meaning of life. Will they? Have they? Let’s look at one example: Aristotle. He wrote a long book about life and happiness – a book entitled “Ethics”. Aristotle loved to answer questions. Surely in a book about life and happiness he would at least touch on the question of the meaning of life. But he doesn’t. He ignores it completely. Why? Did he just forget?

Aristotle’s “Ethics” is a description of the good life – the happiest possible life – written for a class of aristocrats who believed they were living the best of all possible lives. If you are in that happy position, the question of the meaning of life simply never crops up.

That grave question is more likely to crop up if – for some reason – you are not living the good life and are not firmly convinced that your life is the happiest life that is humanly possible. So it may have cropped up for a few of Aristotle’s slaves – people mentioned in the “Ethics” only in passing, and only to explain that a slave might enjoy some of the simple pleasures of life, but could not possibly be truly happy.

The idea that life needs a meaning assumes that this life – our life – is not the good life, so the search begins for a reason why we have to go through with all this, and inevitably there is the question of whether there might be something beyond this life – something to be hoped for – some other life offering happiness finally for the wretched.

A first conclusion: If the question of the meaning of all this turmoil burns in the bowels of the mind, this is a symptom of a malaise. The task, then, is not to find an answer, but a cure, and thereby put an end to the question.

Hypothesis: The only real cure is social – a different order of things that would enable everyone to be convinced that they are living the good life.

In other words, the real answer to the question of the meaning of life is politics (in the good old-fashioned Greek sense of the word, from a time before political parties and flag-waving conferences were invented). So – to misquote the old song by Olivia Newton-John – let’s get political.

Question: But can we find a way to go beyond that old, old division of an aristocracy enjoying the good life and the masses working their fingers to the bone and wondering what it all means?

Albert Camus in Bed with Thatcher?

Back in the 1980s my mother was a keen reader of the popular British women’s magazine “Woman’s Own”. On 23 December 1987 it published an interview with Margaret Thatcher (then the Conservative Prime Minister) in which she made the infamous statement that “there is no such thing as society”. It wasn’t more than a week or so later that I joined the communist party.

For years afterwards Thatcher would insist that her statement had been taken out of context, and there have been valiant efforts set the hermeneutic record straight. However, for some of us the utterance summed up in seven words a set of policies that included things like laying siege to long-established mining communities, selling off public housing, removing powers from local government, etc, etc. Doubtless Thatcher did incline from time to time towards an idea of the organically evolving society (the acceptable face of society for fierce neoliberal critics of rational social planning), but in practice the policies felt like a forced atomisation of society and an insistence that ever increasing areas of social life square up to the demands of the market and justify themselves solely in terms of their contribution to growth in the GDP.

Miners strike during the Thatchera era

There is no way – you might think – that Albert Camus would ever get into bed with a proponent of policies like these. I am not so sure. Perhaps I am missing something, but when I read “The Myth of Sisyphus” I see a thinly veiled attack on community life – something that (in its own small way) could have helped prepare the ground for the neo-liberal offensive launched later by the likes of Thatcher and Reagan.

No one will say a decisive “Yes” to the absurd unless they have seen through the kind of world of meaning that helps to give shape and structure to the life of a community. That framework of meaning has to be seen first as utterly contingent, and then, in its flimsy contingency, it has to seem to lose all weight, becoming one of those unbearably light bits of cultural flotsam that can later be blown away so easily by the winds of things like pop and fashion. In the process we become outsiders with respect to the settled communities of the past. To refer again to the phone booth scene near the beginning of “The Myth of Sisyphus” (where so much is crystallised) we stand like uprooted individuals outside the phone booth of life, in which the old gestures, habits, customs and beliefs (now mute because of the closed glass partition) seem empty, hollow, and absurd.

What would a society of atomised Sisyphean outsiders be if not a society dominated by money, the markets and the culture industry? How would their dealings with each other be mediated if not by the market? And how would they hold onto their outsiderliness if not by congregating in anonymous, high-rise urban blocks in cities where the economy is run according to impersonal principles of efficiency and precision and all qualities are ultimately reduced to calculable quantities? Economic fundamentalists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (prophets of what amounts to a market totalitarianism) may, at first sight, appear to be worlds away from the philosophy of Albert Camus, but how else could a society of outsiders be instituted if not by following the Hayek-Friedman prescriptions that Margaret Thatcher was so dutifully following?

Admittedly, Camus’ sympathies were with the left, and he too had once been a member of the communist party. In his journalism in Algeria he wrote scathing critiques of the injustices suffered by the Berbers, for instance. However, my impression (and I stand to be corrected) is that Camus was moved by the suffering of individuals. Each suffering Berber was essentially another human being who deserved equal respect and dignity. What wasn’t an issue for Camus was, for instance, the threat to the Berber way of life or the integrity of Berber communities. In any case, there are no Berbers or Arabs in “The Myth of Sisyphus”, and Sisyphus himself belongs to no identifiable community. Since the gods are dead and since he recognises no particular community, Sisyphus can only be rolling the stone mindlessly up the hill for an impersonal imperative – an imperative as impersonal as the invisible hands of the market whose discipline was so savagely enforced by the likes of Thatcher.

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