During a recent lunch with my friend Sid, we started talking about our first encounters with computers. While I never had much exposure to computers in grade school, I remember vividly the day my father proudly unwrapped our first Mac Classic. Many a suburban afternoons after that were spent playing Brickles, the Oregon Trail and Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego.
Sid, on the other hand, grew up in a small town in North Africa. While he didn’t have a computer at home, he longed for Thursday afternoons when he could go to the library for three hours of unfettered access to his community computers. “When I was a kid, I loved building things, but I couldn’t afford the bits and parts required to do things like make an engine. What was so great about the computer is that I could create things like games (with code) and didn’t need any extra money or parts… I didn’t have a diskette or memory card. So, each week I had to start from scratch! I memorized lines of code and worked things out on paper in-between sessions”. His eyes lit up with excitement recounting the experience—the look of a true amateur (one that does things for the love of it, rather than for compensation).
His story reminded me of the wonderful research done by Sugata Mitra:
In 1999, Sugata Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected PC, and left it there (with a hidden camera filming the area). What they saw was kids from the slum playing around with the computer and in the process learning how to use it and how to go online, and then teaching each other.
In the following years they replicated the experiment in other parts of India, urban and rural, with similar results, challenging some of the key assumptions of formal education. The “Hole in the Wall” project demonstrates that, even in the absence of any direct input from a teacher, an environment that stimulates curiosity can cause learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge. Mitra, who’s now a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University (UK), calls it “minimally invasive education.”
It also made me recall a recent speech by Nicolas Negroponte on the latest success of One Laptop Per Child. He points out that in Peru, where children have been given small laptops (without further instruction on how to use them), children are not only teaching themselves to read and write, but teaching their parents as well!
As an ICT professional development leader, curricula writer and consultant, I don’t want to knock my own profession. But, sometimes I think schools focus perhaps too much on testing, structure, order and the creation of professionals, to the detriment of play and learning for the love of it. After all it is amateur love that leads to many a great inventions, but I will leave that to Ken Robinson (Chapter 10, The Element) to explain more.
Thinking about minimally invasive education…
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(Image available under CC license by dev null)