• Facebook

© 2019 SOLE Online

Aug 16

Interview with Sugata Mitra


Edited: Aug 18

I was lucky enough to interview Sugata Mitra on August 9, 2019. Most of the questions I asked were from Japanese guests who attended our showing of the "School in the Cloud" documentary on July 28.

The video and transript have CC licences. Feel free to use them.




The transcript is here.



ML: It seems that children are able to learn many interesting things off of group study and self study of the internet. But can kids teach themselves creative arts?


SM: Well it depends what kind of creative arts you’re talking about. In my experience, they seem to be able to make some progress with drawing, drama… these are the two instances that I know. And if you were to include, for example, cooking into creative arts, then also it works. Basically they use a mixture of searches and particularly of videos, from YouTube and so on. And then they simply, you know, attempt to do the same things. So the answer I think is yes, although I would say that teachers need to experiment with this a little bit more. My experience in this area is limited.


ML: Yeah, actually when I first became interested in your work, I talked to my cousin about you. He's a professional chef. And I asked him: “Do you think, given the right circumstances, the right materials, and the internet, do you think you could have taught yourself cooking?” He had gone to cooking school and spent some time in cooking College. And he thought: probably not. You have to have some kind of mentoring, someone to show you how to chop your onions and the right way to do it and the wrong way to do it, to watch what you’re doing and to have that immediate feedback. That’s what he thought. What are your thoughts?


SM: Well you know I mean I think there are pros and cons. Obviously if you have a mentor the process of your learning something becomes quicker. Assuming that you are paying full attention, and so on. Where the mentoring method tends to fail, to do badly is it the students are not particularly interested in what they are watching. On the other hand, In self-organized learning there is a built-in assumption they are watching all this stuff because they really want to watch it. Nobody is telling them that you have to do this. In fact in a self organized learning environment if you tell children that they have to do something, then it doesn't work. OK? I've had numerous examples of where teachers would say “Oh, it didn't work.” And I would say “Well, what did you do?” “I asked them to look at these websites and they were doing everything else.” So, you know, it doesn't work that way. But if a child is interested and does therefore look carefully at whatever he or she is finding, and if they are in groups, then while process may be slower, but I think they will get to the same or similar kinds of results. There is also a slight advantage in the self organized environment which is when you learn how to chop onions from a chef you only learned that chef’s way of chopping onions. You do not even consider inventing your own way to chop an onion. Whereas self-taught cooks, and I am afraid I am one of them, self-taught cooks tend to experiment a lot. And if you're in a hurry you might say “Oh, what happens if I don't even chop it at all if I just cut it into four little pieces and chuck them in and then you find “Oh, but that worked!” So you just got a little new method. So there are pros and cons. If you are in a hurry, go ahead get someone to teach you, tell you exactly what to do, and hope for the best. If you're not, and you want to develop yourself, then use the slower method.


ML: The next question is regarding the freedom that children have in running SOLEs. In the movie, at the school in England, part of the children's school day was devoted to doing a SOLE. And the question came up, if they were doing a SOLE and their education during that portion was free-style, then, to an extent, they were deviating from the country's plan for their education. Now I think most teachers don't really want to have countries and governments dictate what education kids get. But the question came, "Shouldn't a country have some kind of policy about what to teach children, rather than letting the kids roam freely on the Internet?"


SM: Oh absolutely! One of the biggest misunderstandings about my work is that people sort of interpret it as "You leave the children to learn whatever they want." It sounds fine, except that, how would you know what you want? So, if you see what I mean, that if I'm trying to learn, I don't know, if I'm trying to learn how to knit, the I could perhaps do it on my own. I could look up the Internet, I could do all sorts of things, I could practice. But what if the thought of learning how to knit never entered my head? Would it then be justifiable to say that it’s all right if I spend my whole life not even knowing what knitting was? So that's where I think policy comes into the picture. Except that policy is a delicate and somewhat dangerous ground. Policy can get affected by ideology, by politics, by all sorts of things. If we can avoid all of that, and if we can make the policy generic enough, you know, without going too much into detail, if we were to say "It's important for children to learn history" as opposed to "It's important for children to learn the history of..." and then give a whole long list, which most countries do. And in that list they sometimes leave out stuff which they don't want the children to learn. That doesn't work. So I'm still looking for a country that has a generic enough curriculum so that we don't leave things out just from oversight. But at the same time, we don't go into the kind of detail that might lead us into ideology of some sort. There is more work needed on that and I guess it's us academics who should be doing that work I think a little more seriously than we have.


ML: Very good point. Continuing the same theme, when kids spend more and more of their time as they are doing, on the Internet, and the Internet is guiding what we know and to a degree what we think, will that affect students' relationships, young people's relationships with their parents', and you know, their grandparents' cultures, and basically, will it affect culture?

SM; Well we are no delicate ground again. It's a question of whose culture, what culture, for what purpose. Is it because of history? Is it because of self identity? Or is it because of something else? Is it because of religion? I don't know. So I would say, can there be a collective view of culture? Can there be, for example, a collective view of what a value system should be? And indeed we do have some. We do have some. I mean, in almost every culture we know, people would say you should not kill another person. It's kind of taken for granted that that is a collective value system that all of us have. And it probably has an evolutionary reason because it's not good for the species if we don't have a rule like that. But on the other hand there are also little rules which go under the name of culture but are actually derived from either history or from "byGodraphy". Once again we need to be courageous enough to confront those and rule them out, as perhaps not scientific, perhaps not logical, perhaps not even moral. But as we all know, very touchy ground ends up with wars sometimes. So the answer to your question, grandparents' culture, well when I think back to my own society, there are many things from my grandparents culture that I retain and there are many that I don't. Now the ones that I don't, there are often enough some very tangible reasons for why I don't. To give you a really silly example, in the tropics it used to be a bit of a cultural thing to have salt heaped on your plate. Heaped! In a heap! These were climates such as the one I grew up in with a humidity of 100%. If you didn't have that salt, you could die. Jump forward to the temperate climate of the West. If you eat salt, your blood pressure goes up. So what should a child do? What should anyone do? Well, examine the cultural value in the view of the environment and in the view of what we know now, that we didn't know earlier. And the say "Yes. If you are in the tropics, good idea to have a lot of salt. If you're not, it's a bad idea. Drop it" So there's not much of an example this but I think it illustrates what I'm trying to say. And you could actually apply it to all kinds of things including our habits of dressing for example. What is culturally acceptable, what is not? What should be covered, what should be not? We often don't go back enough to figure out what were the geographic climactic reasons why these so-called cultural norms evolved. I think we need to know that or at best, or at worst, we need to sensitize our children to the fact that culture itself evolves and has a reason.


ML: Very good point again. Is it better for Big Questions to be written, designed by the children? Or is it better for them to come from adults? Or is this a different category of Big Question?


SM: We, I would say, a bit of both. But to be honest, my experience with questions designed by children often fall into two categories. One is, they can be very simplistic. Just a thought, whatever. Or they can be absolutely humongously difficult. For instance, I'll give you an example to quote, 12-year-olds generating a question: "Is it going to get hot because of climate change?" Okay, fair enough, not a bad question, results in a reasonably good SOLE. But to me, I would have phrased that question differently. I did in fact. I started a SOLE by saying, by posing the question, "What's the difference between climate and weather?" And then take it from that. Now, I don't think the children would have thought of this question. So I think we, in a SOLE, we run the danger of downgrading the adults too much. Say, you know, "They're not required. They should be withdrawn, we don't need a teacher." That's not true. We need the adults but we need them to do different things. On the other hand is the other extreme, the question once posed to me by a five-year-old. "Are we real?" You know I'm a physicist by training. I wouldn't dare take that question on. So I had to weave my way around that question to something else. But they do make questions like that. Another question that nine-year-olds made in England: "Who made space?" I said "Eh?" They said "You know, space. Everything is made by some force, by something, so who made space?" And I said "I don't know." I actually let them tackle that question. It was a Church of England school. They ended up with the conclusion, "We don't know who made space, but it could not have been God because God would need space in order to exist." I, at that point I had to say, I mean "Let's just not get into that, ok?" So this is the danger because children can take you to the edges of our deepest misunderstandings. It also show that these misunderstandings are not invisible to them. They can sense our nervousness. It's up to the teacher again, or to the school, or to the state: should we let them? Or should we not?


ML: Okay. A couple more questions and then I'll let you go. This comes from one of my colleagues here in Japan. "It seems that the current education/school systems around the World are creations of previous empires to control people and to control information. How is this going to change? How can our generation, or the next generation, turn that around?


SM: Well, let me, let me play Devil's Advocate. I don't think it was as much about control as about keeping the social machinery in running order in a society that had no automation. It was necessary therefore to have people who would for example lift things and take them from one place to another - something that machines do all the time now. There was a time when we needed people to do that. Any normal person would say "Couldn't I do something else? Couldn't I do something more interesting?" It was necessary to have an education system that said "We need some people who will lift things and take them from one place to another. We can't survive without them. They are important. You need to be one of them because we can't run the show without you." It can result in your talking about unfairness, about, you know, all sorts of things like that including, in its extreme, the caste system. We need people to clean the gutters. We can't help it. We just need them. They've got to come from somewhere. Jump forward to the 21st Century. Well, luckily we've got automation, that does all, most, of the dirty work for us. So what can we now say to people? We can say "You choose." We couldn't have said that earlier. I must emphasize that there was a time when you couldn't have given that choice if you were the head of the government, because you would not get a sustainable society. Since we have the choice now, we need to look at "So how many kinds of people do we need today? " What if everybody said "I want to become a poet"? Well you can't run the, you can't run society again with, you know, a billion poets. We would then have to say "But we need some engineers. We need some mathematicians." You can see signs of that in countries where they say "Not enough children are going into STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). Why Because we've given them the choice, and they've chosen not to. I've asked many such children "Why don't you do mathematics?" "It's hard!" One child in England asked me many years ago. I asked him "Why don't you want to become..." I asked him "...don't you want to become a professor like me." And he said "Why would I work for years and years and years to become a professor like you, when I can earn just about that much by being a bus driver. So that doesn't say much about professors' salaries.


ML: Right!


SM: But anyway, I was taken aback and I said "Well, so would you be happy just being a bus driver all your life?" He said "Who's talking about all my life? I'll be a bus driver for three months." "So, what will you do?" "Save up enough money to take my girlfriend out for a holiday to Spain." "And then?" "I'll come back." I said "What if, what if they don't have the bus driver's job left any more?" "It doesn't matter. I'll be a supermarket clerk. And then I'll work for six months, and I'll save up again some money, and I'll go for a holiday." I never thought like that when I was young. I certainly didn't think like this when I became a professor. I probably wouldn't have become one if I did. So, what should we do in a society where children can be given the choice? Well, I would suggest that they should investigate what composition of society is needed today to maintain a stable culture and civilization. Let them figure it out. Let them come back to us and say "We need programmers. We need people to build bridges and we need people to mow the lawn. If we can do that, we've solved the problem.


ML: All right. Last question then. Because actually Zoom is going to kick us out soon. So, last question: Like in the movie, in England, you had SOLEs in a standard state school, right? That was a state school? Yeah. Can SOLEs mesh with standardized educational systems?


SM: I face that question increasingly. The answer is yes. And that answer comes from England. In the schools where I had set up these schools in the cloud facilities, the first objections were, it's wonderful, but it's not going to help the children during the exams. Which is true, it doesn't. SOLEs do not help at all for conventional exams. But they didn't shut it down. What the teachers did was they meshed the school in the cloud with the existing system. How did they do that? Well, one of the ways is to give an exam question as a SOLE question, and let the groups all get together. We don't know as yet, and I would like to know, if doing this repeatedly will actually the individual competencies of being able to answer examination questions. It's possible that it may. The other way to mesh the two methods in, is to start a topic with a question. So if the curriculum said "Teach them geometry." they would start with a question. For example they would say "Why are triangles important? Are they important? Are they more important than a square?" And you know the SOLE, it would go all over the place and so on and so forth, probably land itself in trigonometry. And then you'd say "Well, let me tell you the history of trigonometry. The man who solved the right angled triangle, they killed him. His name was Pythagoras." Etcetera. And suddenly the whole nature of geometry changes. I admire the teachers who are able to do this meshing. And I would encourage every teacher to try to do it. It's not easy, but it can be done.


ML: Have you heard anything from the schools in England about whether their average exam results are better than they were before the SOLEs were implemented? Or whether they're better compared to other schools?


SM: There are, you know there's a body called OFSTED in England, which is the state government body which reports to Parliament about the quality of schools. I've had two official mentions in OFSTED. And they're both very interesting. They both available actually publically. They mention the fact that the children appear to be more relaxed, more communicative, and less worried about answering questions or taking on a problem. And they, not I, directly attributed it to SOLEs. Would that be a good answer to your question? Probably not? Will they do better at the exam? We have no evidence that it does. But I will end with what a school principal once told me when I asked him "Why do you do SOLEs when they're not going to help in exams?" And he showed me the football field and said "You know, we let the children play football. It does nothing for their exams. But we don't remove the football field because, in the end, where our society goes, what inventions we make, what wars we win, depends more on those football fields than on the exams. And I thought that was a brilliant answer. The SOLE, the School in the Cloud, is a playground for the mind.


ML: I see. Professor Mitra, thank you very much for the interview.


SM: Thanks very much.



インタビュアー:マイク・ライオンズ 訳:加藤裕明













A:これもデリケートな問題ですね。そもそも、文化とは誰のものか。何のための文化か。歴史? 宗教? アイデンティティーを成すもの? 皆にとって「文化」とはひとつでしょうか? 「価値感」はひとつでしょうか? 進化論的に、「人を殺してはいけない」のような、普遍的な価値観は存在するでしょう。しかし、「文化」の中には、守り続けることに合理的な理由が見つからないものも混ざっています。そういったものに疑問を投げかける勇気も必要ではないでしょうか。例えば、インドでは、たくさん塩分を摂取する「文化」がありますが、それは大量の汗をかくからです。現代の、西洋文化で、大量の汗をかかない環境にいる人は、たくさん塩分を摂取すると高血圧になります。同様に、衣服の文化も、日差しの強さなど、環境の影響を受けています。こうしたことから言えることは、子どもたちは、「文化」とは環境に適応する手段として、発生、発展してきたものであることを知る必要があるでしょう。


Q:SOLEでは、Big Questionは大人が提示しますが、これを子どもたちが作ることについては、どのように考えますか?


A:子どもたちが作るBig Questionは、大きく2つの種類に分かれます。非常にシンプルか、極端に難しくなる傾向があります。例を挙げます。12歳の子どもが、「気温が上がっているのは、気候変動のためですか?」という問いを考えました。良い問いです。しかし私ならこう問います-----「気候と天気の違いは?」このような形の問い方は、子どもたちでは作るのが難しいです。SOLEにおける大人の役割は、この点にあります。一方、子どもたちが作る難しい問いの例に、こんなのがあります。「私たちは実在するのか?」これは物理学が専門の私も逃げ出すような問いです。もうひとつの例です。「何が宇宙を作ったのか?」どういう意味か聞いたところ、「何かが生じるには、外部からの力か何かが働く必要があるでしょう。宇宙を作ったのは何だったのでしょうか?」子どもたちが出した結論は、「わからない。でも、神ではないはず。だって、神が存在するために、宇宙がなければいけないでしょう。」宗教によっては、子どもたちにどこまで自由な学びを許すか、というのはデリケートな問題になってきますね。


Q:従来の教育は、帝国が人々を統制するために設計されたものだといわれていますが、これからどのように変わっていくのでしょうか? 私たちの世代、あるいは次の世代で、どうすれば変えていけるでしょうか?




Q:映画「School In The Cloud」の中で、イギリスの学校が出てきましたが、あれは公立ですよね。彼らはどうやって、公立の教育カリキュラムにSOLEを組み込んだのでしょうか?







New Posts