Elixir of Learning or Snake Oil?

It seems somewhat serendipitous that a bout of squabbling and name-calling broke out in the blogosphere as a series of articles were published on SOLEs and Schools in the Cloud just as EDU8213 on The Future of Learning was drawing to its somewhat unsatisfactory climax (more of that at a later date).   Sugata Mitra in the blue corner being squared up to by the tag team of Tom Bennett and David Didau in the red.   I know Professor Mitra as a student on his Master’s Level module at Newcastle University but Messrs Bennett and Didau are both new to me.   It is obvious that the latter two have little time for the ideas of the former, which is disappointing as there is some merit to parts of Dr Mitra’s argument, even though I may not agree with his conclusions about the future of learning.

Dr Mitra argues that much of what is learned in school is what he has called “just in case” education and that he has not been able to find any estimate of how much is actually used in a lifetime.   My response to that would be – so what?   So what if much of what is taught in school is unused, that in no way means that it was a waste of time being exposed to it in the first place?   So what if we have calculators to help us to multiply three and two digit numbers, that doesn’t mean that there is no satisfaction in knowing how to do it ourselves does it?   And what of the neurological effects of learning.   I’m no expert but I think I understand enough to feel comfortable in saying that the brain needs to be exercised in order for certain pathways within our brains to become “hardwired”, for the neural networks that allow us to do other things to be fixed.   Is that not, in itself, an argument for learning something, even if that something falls into his “just in case” category?

Much of the work on SOLES has been carried out with primary aged children, who have an innate curiosity about the way the world works and the interest to find out more.  It has been carried out as a discreet activity with a purpose, not as a way of delivering an entire curriculum.   Here I have to agree with Dr Mitra’s antagonists that the quality of the research, such as it is, leaves far too much to be desired; a situation I find remarkable given Dr Mitra’s background and training as a physicist.   In the original “Hole in the Wall” experiments, it is said that the children taught themselves English as a result.   Where is the evidence?   Yes, they may have been able to use a computer whose operating system was in English but does that mean that the children have learned English in a way that might allow them to communicate in that language?   Could they not have simply learned, by something as simple as trial and improvement, the particular shape that a word takes that then indicates a particular course of action?   The assertion that they have taught themselves English is not tenable without further corroborating evidence, which has not been supplied.

Where I do agree with Dr Mitra is in his critique of the current system of examinations; high-stakes assessments which dominate so much of UK education practice, to the detriment of the students and education itself.   As he says: “The need for standardisation dumbs the whole system down.”.   Technology could and should be used as a force for good in developing a more appropriate and less threatening way of measuring how well an individual has engaged with the knowledge to which she has been exposed.

Messrs Bennett and Dildau have both presented lengthy discussions on their reasons for opposing Dr Mitra but, for me, the killer comes from Donald Clark in his blog of 29th October 2015 entitled “Mitra’s SOLE – 10 reasons why it is ‘not even wrong‘”.   I have to agree with Clarke’s observation that “It is not clear if this is anything other than traditional project or inquiry based teaching.” – it certainly feels very much like it, albeit with the information much more readily accessible thanks to the internet, wifi and download speeds which were unheard of only a couple of years ago.

I have no doubt whatsoever that there is a place for SOLEs as part of an inclusive and participatory curriculum and as valid and valuable pedagogical tool but they are certainly not “The Future of Learning”.   Which begs two questions: (1) If SOLES are not the future of learning then what are they? and (2) If SOLES are not the future of learning then what is?

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