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Time-waste or super-tool?

It’s less of a debate in Pakistan, given the socio-economic realities. But in more developed parts of the world there is great concern amongst parents and teachers that children spend far too much time in front of screens now, the addictiveness of the television having been vastly augmented by computers. In Pakistan, too, in those households that can afford it, the same reservation is voiced.

While too much television may or may not be bad for you — film and television studies are credible academic and research disciplines, after all — computers are another matter entirely. They are leading to a remarkable new educational philosophy.

Both the machine and the internet constitute a game-changer. Never before have people and children had access to infinite information, and this is changing how people think, communicate, and process information.

More significantly, it is changing the demands of skill sets in terms of workplaces. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, in 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were reading, writing and arithmetic, generally known as the three ‘Rs’; by the end of the millennium, the most needed three skills were interpersonal skills, problem-solving and teamwork.

According to the proponents of this new educational philosophy, the school system across most of the world is such that children are not just not encouraged to mine their potential and develop the skills that the modern world requires, they are actively inhibited or held back.

There is plenty to bear out the idea that the dominant mainstream mode of education caters to the needs of the industrial revolution in the West that it was set up to serve, when the world needed factory workers and valued regularity, punctuality, attention and silence.

Teaching pedagogies in large parts of the world as well as in Pakistan, particularly in the public school education sector, conceptualise the classroom as a place led by the teacher who stands at the head of the room, disseminating information to students who must then sit tests and exams to demonstrate how well they can recall that information.

Curricula decide what the teacher must teach every day, and how much must be covered in an academic year. But could kids be right when they complain about school and want to play with computers instead? Several studies indicate that the answer is in the affirmative. Amongst these circles, the name of Sugata Mitra and his “hole in the wall” experiment command huge respect.

Now a professor of educational technology in the UK’s Newcastle University, in 1999 he held the position of chief scientist at a New Delhi company that trained software developers.

His office was on the edge of a slum that was no different from the many that we are familiar with. Looking out at that scene every day, watching children aimlessly and hopelessly ambling around with no future except perhaps for beggary, he had an idea: he placed a computer in a hole in the wall separating his office from the slum, curious about how the children might react.

He gave them no instructions, simply powered the machine on and watched from a distance. The children quickly figured out how to use the machine.

This paved the way for Mitra’s theory that children learn best when they are left to themselves to experiment, discuss and follow the line of thought that most interests them. His idea of teaching: provide the resources, and walk away.

In a study published in 2010, he detailed a more ambitious experiment. He put a range of molecular biology materials on a computer and set it up in a village in southern India, selecting a small group of 10- to 14-year-olds and telling them merely that there was stuff in there they might find interesting; they were free to take a look if they wanted. Then he left.

Children soon worked out how to use the computer and when Mitra returned after 75 days, he administered a written test on molecular biology; the children answered an average of one in four questions correctly. Another 75 days later, they were getting one out of two questions right.

This experience of children teaching themselves through computers, and the massive benefits of child-led learning, particularly when aided by computers, has been witnessed in several studies and experiments.

Last year, the One Laptop per Child intervention, for instance, delivered 40 tablets to children in two remote Ethiopian villages. They just left them there, didn’t even open the boxes. But the children soon taught themselves to play the alphabet song and taught themselves to write letters.

All the studies undertaken to test whether child-led learning is more productive have produced answers in the affirmative. The analogy that Mitra uses of children and computers is of bees and flowers: they self-organise around that node.

That the traditional method of formalised and rigid-curriculum-based classroom teaching holds children back is not really that new an idea, given that theorists including Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget propounded similar ideas decades ago, and Socrates much beyond that.

Evolutionary psychologists have pointed out that young children have an innate drive to learn and this is motivated by curiosity and playfulness; when curricula are imposed on them, some argue, this drive is suppressed. There are a handful of schools in the West, with an aggregate of a few thousand students, that are following such educational strategies now.

It would seem, then, that adults’ concerns about screen-time and children, and what children choose to spend their time on, might not be warranted. Maybe those kids do know what they’re doing, after all.

The writer is a member of staff.hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com

Hajrah Mumtaz, "Time-waste or super-tool?," Dawn. 2013-11-25.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social needs , Social development , Society-Pakistan , Children , Sugata Mitra , Pakistan , Delhi