Education Reform

Established in 1984 by graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman, the TED Conferences (known as simply TED) offer talks (their motto is “ideas worth spreading”) centered around Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED); during the 90s TED expanded to include a wider range of disciplines. Each year, the TED Prize — a grant of $1 million and a “wish to change the world” — is awarded to an individual. Sugata Mitra, trained as a physicist and now a professor of educational technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University in England, was named as the TED Prize Winner of 2013 for his fascinating discussion of his “Hole in the Wall” experiments conducted in India in 1999 and later in Cambodia in 2004. Mitra’s frank and critical assessment about the established (translation: out-of-date) pedagogical paradigms come at a time when K-12 and college education have come under heavy scrutiny and harsh criticism by a new generation that has seen, for the first time in the history of the U.S., that the exorbitant cost of a college education is out of reach for the middle class. In October 2012, Time magazine dedicated an entire issue to the topic of “reinventing college.” The editors focused on what is known in the world of education as the “iron triangle” — the three interrelated problems facing U.S. colleges: access, cost, and quality. Over the past several decades, the cost of a college education has soared, creating a pronounced disparity between the value of a college education and its cost. In fact, 80% of Americans believe that the education that college students receive today is not worth what they paid for it. Moreover, students in the U.S. are graduating with a crushing collective debt of more than $900 billion in student loans.

But we digress; let us return to Mitra. His talk begins with the age-old pedagogical question: “How do we spark curiosity and wonder in children?” Mitra explains that the current educational system is a legacy of the British Empire that created highly bureaucratic “education factories” to supply workers with identical skills, ready to serve in factories and the very bureaucracies that created the system. Given his remarks, it is unlikely that Mitra will be feted at any prestigious (and expensive) American university any time soon: “Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.”

Mitra calls for a complete new paradigm in the internet-age, that is built on the foundation of encouragement rather than punishment (endless testing and developing a grading curve that requires to “fail” students), empowering teachers and parents to use innovative methods of sparking and supporting wonder, allowing children to be partners in education, to use and share the vast information of the internet. “Learning is not about MAKING it happen,” says Mitra, “It is about LETTING it happen… and encouragement is the key to learning.” Mitra also raises the question facing education in the internet age: are we headed to a future where knowledge is obsolete?

Mitra is not afraid to rattle his saber at the imposing pillars of universities that prop up aloof and arrogant bureaucrats who impose their edicts and policies(not to mention constantly raising tuition) with the effortlessness of Olympian gods. Perhaps it is best not to underestimate Mitra and his legions clamoring for educational reform — the barbarians at the gate: “We need a curriculum of big questions, examinations where children can talk, share and use the Internet, and new, peer assessment systems. We need children from a range of economic and geographic backgrounds and an army of visionary educators. We need a pedagogy free from fear and focused on the magic of children’s innate quest for information and understanding. In the networked age, we need schools, not structured like factories, but like clouds.” Class dismissed.

For further reading:
Time Magazine, October 2012 issue.

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