The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

Baloney Detection and the Grandmas of SOLE

IATEFL…sounds like a badly aspirated “I hate EFL”. Where were the marketing people that day? It seems as if after the latest IATEFL shindig, two people who won’t be needing marketing gurus are Russell Mayne, aka @ebefl, and Sugata Mitra. Of course, Mitra doesn’t need a publicist because he is his own best publicist; his message is enchanting; his mannerisms are endearing; he is a polymath who has approached the problem of educating society’s outcasts and thinks he may have found the solution: a hybrid lo-tech/hi-tech mechanism that has Indian children from socioeconomically deprived communities struggling to help Geordie grandmas improve their pronunciation – assuming I haven’t misunderstood anything here. People loved it.

Russ doesn’t need a publicist because, weirdly, he did the opposite of Sugata Mitra and people loved it. Sugata told people that the solution to the challenges of creating a more equitable world was simple and straightforward. Russ told the people that when someone tells you that there is a simple and straightforward solution to a deep-rooted problem, you may need to use a Baloney Detection Kit.  I loved it.

Sugata, it seems from the Twitter flurry, stirred up a storm by suggesting that teachers were not the sine qua non of education. This was a conspiracy, some people seemed to be saying, dreamt up by those who stand to make a quick buck out of the poor. Of course, you need teachers, the counter cry went up. How very dare he?! At a conference of teachers, as well! [And of researchers, course book writers, publishers, managers, celebrities, business owners, students, ministry officials, touters of goods, etc, I am tempted to add. And have now added…]

 But I think to take Sugata too much to task over this is to miss the point. His contribution opens up a much broader debate that is always to be welcomed. And, given the fact that he is a Newcastle United supporter, I don’t think he needs to have any more hardships visited upon him this season.

 Let’s look first of all at what he was saying. He says that if you plonk loads of novel, shiny, symbols of power and wealth in a deprived area and offer unconditionally positive feedback to students who might try and use them, the chances are that the intervention will be much better than if you were to follow the tired old routine of shoving young bodies behind desks and forcing them to follow an irrelevant curriculum taught to them by a bad teacher. I don’t know a lot about gambling, but I would be tempted to bung a couple of monkeys on the chances of that nag romping home. Or is it a couple of ponies?

Sugata, of course, has his critics. They say that his supposed approach to education means that girls and younger boys are less likely to receive a balanced education. Their research found that it was the older (and bigger) boys who made most use of the PC terminals and they used them to play games, it is alleged. They also say that his claims don’t actually reflect the reality- Sugata offers us a society in which education is a self-organising phenomenon that builds order on the very edge of chaos. Kids learn because they want to; they learn what they want; they don’t need no school; they don’t need no teachers. But the PCs ended up being in schools where they were less likely to be rendered obsolete through vandalism. As it turned out, in some of the schools where they were used, they were rendered obsolete through simple lack of maintenance and lack of sustained engagement from the World Bank-financed private company that set them up.

  I don’t want to join in with those who  dismiss Sugata Mitra. He is a respected scientist who has won prizes galore and to whom rigorous research is the water in which he swims. Sugata did something. It appears as if it has helped a sizeable number of people who otherwise might not have been helped. And he is now sharing his experiences with us all through a cheering mix of story-telling and charming images. If it all seems too good to be true, it probably is. But it is also probably true that it is quite some time since the education of people in socioeconomically-deprived parts of the world has received so much discussion within the confines of IATEFL. 

If Sugata is saying that teachers are unnecessary, I would agree…in a world where people are free to pursue their own interests and where learning is prized for learning’s sake. I am not so sure that I would be so cavalier in a world where non-compulsory education might contribute to children being exploited in the workplace and where the presence of teachers may actually be a respite from the terrors of home. Nor in a world where some people’s interests had been severely curtailed by dint of the fact that they had been born in a socioeconomically deprived area. But to focus on this is to miss a wealth of other questions that make for stimulating thought:

What is school? Is it a learning community that pursues its own interests and contributes to the collective knowledge? Well, why do that from scratch instead of having someone there to instruct you about the great discoveries that have already been made? Why remove the Elders from a community in the hope that the youngsters can rediscover things for themselves? Why run the risks of communities becoming divided around schisms in knowledge and thought? Why make the community reliant upon global knowledge at the expense of the knowledge that is more local?

What is a teacher? Surely there is more to teaching than saying, “Well, darlin’! I divven ken how ye did it, but yiz did it so well. Do it agin!” To be fair, Sugata said that Access to the Internet + Geordies = more effective learning…than bad teachers. But why not just put good teachers in place and see what happens? Because good teachers just bugger off after a while. Well, I think that this means that we need to redefine what a good teacher is. Certainly, someone who ups sticks and leaves their students behind to die in poverty is not going to be getting my vote for Teacher of the Year. But it’s coming to something when the solution to the fact that nobody wants to teach the poor and uneducated is that we tell the poor and uneducated to go and teach themselves. Meanwhile, all the posh oiks get to have the most whizzer type of teacher who can actually see them, smell them, cuddle them, dry their tears…all that sort of thing. 

What is learning? Is it really the random access of predigested information stored in some virtual warehouse for young enquiring minds to digest at their ease, with the odd encouraging, “Howay, pets!” from Tyneside? When confronted with the immensity of knowledge (and opinion, prejudice, hate and porn) that is to be found on the internet, how do the children decide what is valid and what isn’t? Am I the only one who tries to get a grip on a new concept by going online and reading for hours and hours before deciding that I really don’t know very much more than I did when I began? Only this weekend, through no fault of my own, two new goldfish were added to the Secret Household. So I go online to look for some tips about how to avoid the slaughter of goldfish, only to drown (baddaboom, here all week) in the amount of information that was presented to me on this side of the paywalls. So, do goldfish need light? What should  I do when the water goes cloudy? Do you feed them twice a day, every day or every other day? Do you give them whatever quantity of food they can eat in a minute, two minutes, three minutes or five minutes? Perhaps 12 year olds can cut right through these competing bits of knowledge and come up with the right sort of thing. I wish I had a teacher who would tell me what I needed to know though. 

Is the process of learning what we should be concerning ourselves with? But this is where my newfound discovery of the Trivium (thank you, @surrealanarchy) comes in to play. There is something to be said, I think, for an approach to education that says, “Look – this is essential knowledge; you need this; you don’t need to understand it at this stage, but you do need to have quick and instantaneous access to it. So learn it off by heart.” Once the foundation has been laid, the education system needs to allow people to explore the limits. All the while, delineating what those limits are (otherwise how could you explore them). Schools provide this sort of education; usually through having a teacher tell you what you need to learn and the time by which you need to have it learnt. At a later point, you can begin to question all of this received knowledge, but when you are starting out, some good ol’ traditional education might not go amiss. I don’t think I go along with Sugata’s view that Google is all you need. I like my children knowing how to recite a poem or being able to quote speeches from history or knowing the order of the Kings and Queens of England. And I like the fact that if they were to find themselves chained to a radiator in a far flung part of the world, they would have all of this knowledge to stop them going insane. I am assuming that nternet access to the granny cloud would not be available in such a bleak situation.

What is the purpose of education? Sugata had his schoolchildren learning about the manipulation of computers, the development of English, the molecular structure of the cells and the delights of quadratic equations. I’m just not entirely sure why. Was it so that they could pull themselves out of the slums? Because I would have thought that this probably would have been better achieved by offering more AK47s and fewer Commodore 64s to the poor. Admittedly I might be a cynic, but it seems to me that it serves a small number of people very well to have people living in slums. They make for cheap, pliable workers and are often quick to be hoodwinked into defending the very people who put them in the slum. I wondered whether or not Sugata’s experiment would ever really challenge this set-up. Perhaps the problems faced by the poor of the world are too many for a few circuit boards and a touch screen to solve. 

It’s probably down to my own misunderstanding, but I heard a funny, charming man tell us how he had started tinkering around with some ideas and ended up discovering that 

a) humans are often keen to engage with novel things;

b) humans are capable of building some sort of meaning out of a wealth of information;

c) positive encouragement is often conducive to sustained engagement;

d) bad teachers are easily replaceable.

None of this, of course, is particularly revolutionary. To suggest that the problems of the poor can be solved by dropping PCs on them and having Extraterrestrial Grannies rub away the pain is a much bolder claim and one that might offer potentially valuable experience to those of you who wish to test drive the Russell Mayne Baloney Detection Kit. 


07 Apr 2014 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. hehe ihatefl 🙂
    your last 4 points
    a) what happens when the novelty wears off?
    b) building meaning without previous meaning is very difficult to do
    c) praise has no or negative impact on performance
    d) cannot bad teachers also learn?

    i really recommend this tornhalves analysis as he raises great questions on what we mean by knowledge; graham stanley’s post is good and has some great general links as well

    Comment by eflnotes | 07 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • Hi Mura
      a) I left this implicit, but the point is made. People move from fad to fad and some individuals will see themselves changed as a result. The majority will carry on as before. In some of the follow ups to Mitra’s work, this seems to be the case. When asked about the intervention, people have said, “Huh? The what? Oh! That! Rather than change there life, it had provided a breif distraction from it. understandable, I suspect when the forces weighed up in the other balance were much more considerable.
      b) I know what you mean, but I may have been a bit too opaque. I meant that we are narrative-weaving creatures. Given enough information, we build stories and these stories are frequently -if not always- unique to us. In a community, the community bashes around the individual stories until a collective version (and acceptable alternatives) is agreed upon. Our cultures are the fruit of much story-bashing, so why make someone start from scratch. Or start by using the stories bashed together in other far-flung cultures?
      c) I assume you mean that praise has no or negative impact upon the quality of performance? But what about on sustaining engagement? A quick search on Google scholar suggests that praise does keep people coming back for more. If, as a result of coming back for more, they remain engaged in the process and by being part of the process, natural tendencies take over and they end up participating in the narrative-building, then something has happened. What do you think?
      d) Absolutely…if they want to (or if they are frightened into it). And bad teachers can also be good teachers. At least they don’t go hightailing it off to the bright lights of the big city. And maybe it is the environment that they are put in which makes them bad. It’s certainly not quite as simple as Mitra’s talk might have led people to believe.

      Thanks for sharing the links. There is some good stuff out there by Donald Clark, Larry Cuban and Wikipedia also has some interesting links. But we should be charitable and say that without Mitra’s presentation and bold assertions, we probably wouldn’t be discussing this. I don’t want to climb aboard his tumbril! Although he may be enchanting some, he really has helped others. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in their audience! Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit can also be used alongside Russ’s. And to give Mitra credit, he is putting his ideas out there for debate.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 07 Apr 2014 | Reply

      • hi, i take all your points, hope your goldfish are doing well 🙂 though not sure about whether the indirect route of praise you talk about is that effective?

        i know u follow the non-tefl ed debates where direct instruction is favoured in things like worked examples say, i do wonder to what extent mitra takes in such research when designing his studies, there does not seem to be any discussion of these in the papers i have read? and how he can reconcile the results he gets with any theory of learning (chaos theory not really tested yet and doubt it has any legs imo)?

        certainly mitra provokes some debate but no more than others. another thing i find odd is for example his “deification” of the internet as this almighty being, this intangible thing, wtf?

        as you and other people have already mentioned his “i have solved education” schtick is very popular with certain quarters and people should rightly call him out on it.


        Comment by eflnotes | 07 Apr 2014

      • Yes, indeed. I think we are banging the same drum. I’m highly sceptical of Mitra’s claims, but am prepared to acknowledge that he has devoted a lot more of his time to exploring this than I have, so just want to hedge my criticisms appropriately. For me, these claims are unsubstantiated by research because there is no control group of students who have access to good teachers (allowing claims that Geordie pensioners better than good teachers).

        I think that Mitra’s claims are attractive because they say, “Look – there are poor people who need our help and it’s really easy to help them.” Whoopee – who doesn’t want to help the disadvantaged? And Mitra is an effective presenter – self-effacing, chucklesome, full of charming anecdotes (“Kids, eh?! Don’t they say the funniest things?!”) But the problem isn’t Mitra – it’s the reaction that he gets. I’ve just come from Twitter where some people have got their knickers in a twist because there isn’t unconditional acceptance of the Mitra message. I would imagine/hope that as a scientist, he finds this Messianic role to be a real pain in the arse.

        Mitra’s value is to have put up some principled research that can be interpreted in a provocative manner. Gardner did the same with his theories about M.I. It might all prove to be a load of poppycock, but the value may be found in what emerges. Really, all I am hoping to achieve is to say that we would be as misguided to dismiss his message outright as the hagiographers are to turn it into unquestionable scripture.

        Comment by thesecretdos | 08 Apr 2014

  2. Reblogged this on TESOL Thoughts.

    Comment by laurasoracco | 07 Apr 2014 | Reply

  3. My dad once asked me how I could possibly be doing an M.A in frying pan coating. TEFL – TEFLON. Looking back I think it was a very sensible question and I wish I had the answer!

    Comment by Connie OGrady | 07 Apr 2014 | Reply

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

    Comment by teachingbattleground | 09 Apr 2014 | Reply

  5. Nice piece if not a little on the fence. Here’s my retort

    Comment by Robert McCall (@musenz) | 11 Apr 2014 | Reply

  6. […] Inspired by the Secret DOS, who observes that when you get ‘good teachers’ in remote places, they inevitably leave for the […]

    Pingback by #ELTchat summary on Sugata Mitra and 25 Questions He Needs To Answer | TheTeacherJames | 19 May 2014 | Reply

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