The following article was originally written for WISE ed.review.
This article is part of a series developed around the following discussion theme: Can education do without teachers? (Part 4 of 4).
Teacher Sugata Mitra
Education Professor, Newcastle University
Teachers need freedom to enable new learning paths
The teaching profession as we know it has become obsolete because it is designed for an examination system that was created to serve the needs of another era.
Most curricula for children consist of outdated standards from the last century. They involve an overemphasis on spelling, grammar, cursive writing, multiplication tables and mental arithmetic. These are all skills required and valued in the last century, mainly for clerical tasks. Today, those who propose such subjects claim that they improve children’s mental capacities. I have found nothing to prove it.
The examination system requires the student to answer questions on paper, using handwriting. It also requires him to be alone, without communicating with anyone. The only technology that can assist you is a pencil and, with a bit of luck, a ruler: 18th century technology.
In order to meet the needs of such examination systems, teachers, whether good or bad, need to resort to 18th century didactic methods of rote learning, drill and practice and negative reinforcement.
After schooling years, when entering the real world, the student is expected to solve problems via the Internet, to collaborate with others in solving problems, to type and not write by hand, to use calculators and not the mind to calculate, to use spell check and grammar check while typing, and so on.
In other words, you are asked to do exactly the opposite of what you did at school.
On the other hand, we know that:
- Good teachers tend to like the well-paid jobs in private schools. They do not normally go to distant, poor or dangerous places. In other words, they do not go where they are most needed.
- Groups of children can learn to use computers and the Internet, whoever and wherever they are, regardless of the language they speak.
- Children’s groups can learn many things, in fact almost anything, on their own, using the Internet and discussion. This is the case as long as there is no adult supervision.
- It is possible for teachers to appear online, for example, using Skype. It is possible to allow teachers to control a robot in a remote location to which they cannot travel.
- Groups of children can investigate subjects ahead of their age. Doing so seems to improve their reading comprehension.
The examination system should be modified to allow for the introduction of collaborative problem solving using assistive technology. In this way, teachers will be free to facilitate new learning paths.
And this has to happen. A new generation already uses assistive technologies – in particular the tablet and mobile phone – at all times, except when they are at school. They learn continuously from these devices.
However, resistance to these ideas is powerful. It is exercised by an older generation driven by a subconscious desire to return to the 1920s, a time they identify as the best in the history of the world.
They have interpreted my phrase “children do not need to be taught spelling” to mean “children should not be taught spelling”. The same goes for grammar.
Those who use spell checkers are not always getting it wrong. If they ever misspell a word, they usually spell it correctly once the spell checker corrects the mistake. Assistive technology then becomes a learning tool. The same applies for many different types of assistive technology. If you use a GPS navigator to go to a place for the first time, it is not very likely that you will use it again to go to the same place. You know how to get there. If you use YouTube to cook a recipe once, you will not go back to YouTube to prepare the same dish, because you have already learned how to do it.
Children, and perhaps adults too, who use a spell checker or grammar checker will continuously learn spelling and grammar in a convenient and functional way. This will give teachers more time to spend on teaching, focusing on the more conceptual issues that technology, for the time being, cannot address.
The younger ones, almost unanimously, are very grateful for these ideas. One of them wrote “TC”.
This is nowadays considered a grammatical deficiency. It should have been written “I like your proposal and find it interesting”. This would have been the “correct” grammar, that of the early 20th century. Something older would not be “right” either. For example, “Lord, how right you are” would be considered quite out of place. Who decided that early 20th century Oxford English is the only “correct” English?
It is the middle-aged generation that has created devices with tiny keyboards that make typing almost impossible. The response of the younger generation has been to create an SMS language that solves the problem. They deserve a round of applause for that.
If we answer an exam using Shakespearean English, we will fail. If we answer an exam using text message language, we will fail. Something is wrong in a world where Shakespearean English is as inappropriate as the language used in text messages.
The examination system has become obsolete and so have the teachers who are conditioned to apply it.