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Children can teach themselves. Can we do it too?

Blog by Rob Gering, Talent Development Manager at ORMIT

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By:  Rob Gering, Talent Development Manager at ORMIT
Date: 24 June 2015

The hole in the wall

Sugata Mitra has a great video on TED talks about his wish to “build a school in the cloud“ (link). It’s about how we can design the future of learning. For this, he draws on his experience, which goes as follows:

I made a hole in the boundary wall of the slum next to my office and stuck a computer inside. I wanted to see what would happen if I gave a computer to children who never would have one, didn’t know any English, and didn’t know what the Internet was.

The children came running in and said: “What is this?”

And I said: “Yeah, it’s, I don’t know.”

They said: “Why have you put it there?”

I said: “Just like that.”

They said: “Can we touch it?” I said: “If you wish to.”

And I went away. About eight hours later, I found them browsing and teaching each other how to browse. I said: “Well, that’s impossible. How is it possible? They don’t know anything.”

My colleagues told me: “The solution is simple. One of your students must have been passing by, and showed them how to use the mouse.”

I said: “Yeah, that’s possible.”

I decided to repeat the experiment. I went to a remote village, 300 miles out of New Delhi, where the chances of a passing software development engineer were virtually zero. I repeated the experiment there. There was no place to stay, so I set up my computer and went away. When I came back after a couple of months, I found kids playing games on it.

When they saw me, they said: “We need a faster processor and a better mouse.”

I said: “How on Earth do you know all this?”

I found the answer most interesting. In an irritated voice, they said: “You’ve given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it.” That’s the first time, as a teacher, that I had heard the word “teach ourselves
” said so casually.

Encouragement is key

To stimulate learning, encouragement appears to be the key word. What was found in Kuppam and in all other experiments is that the simple word ‘wow’ uttered by a grandmother or a passer-by was enough to stimulate learning. Positive stimulation helps!

There is evidence from neuroscience that positive stimulation works. In the centre of our brain sits a reptilian part. When it’s threatened, it shuts all the other parts down. The prefrontal cortex, the parts which learn, it shuts all of that down. Punishment and exams are seen as threats. We take our children, we make them shut their brains down, and then we say: “Perform.” If you allow the educational process to self-organise, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then stands back and watches as learning happens. That’s what it’s about.

The power of big questions

For SOLEs (Self Organised Learning Environments) we need a learning plan with big questions. In the Stone Age, people looked up at the sky and said: “What are those twinkling lights?” They built the first learning plan, but we’ve lost sight of those wondrous questions. In our maths lessons, we are dealing with the tangent of an angle. But that’s not sexy enough. The way you should put it to a child is to say: “If a meteorite was coming to hit the Earth, how would you figure out if it was going to or not?” And if he says: “Well, what? How?” you say: “There’s a magic word. It’s called the tangent of an angle,” and leave him alone. He’ll figure it out.

How can we apply Self-Organised Learning Environments?

The 5 principles appear to be as follows:

1. delegate responsibility;
2. be open;
3. design learning experiences;
4. provide a temporary structure where learning questions play a key role;
5. stimulate reflection.

The core – creating awareness and the need to set an individual in motion – is the biggest challenge. How much time is needed for that? How to achieve that in a short space of time? And how far can you take this?

Self-Organised Learning at ORMIT

Within ORMIT, we are constantly looking for ways to use this as the primary basis for our learning activities. We do this because we know that the power of self-learning many times exceeds that of being taught knowledge. An additional advantage is that you can use everyday practice as a learning platform. No longer talking about something, but actually doing it! How do you structure that? By asking the right questions beforehand. People determine themselves when and how they go about it. But probably even more important: if the questions are good enough, they will stimulate curiosity and cause people to go beyond the questions asked!

When was the last time that your curiosity was stimulated by the right question?