Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Sugata Mitra

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher agency at my school. In the early years, our motto was “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” 

Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, recently interviewed Sugata Mitra, Professor Emeritus at NIIT University. Mitra has advocated for much less teaching in favor of much more self-organized learning since at least 20 years ago, when his Hole in the Wall experiments first garnered international interest.

Future Learning Design

I met Sugata Mitra at an ECIS Conference several years ago. After his keynote, I followed him to his breakout session that was, predictably, in the largest conference room available, with twenty or more tables that each sat eight people.

He started the session by presenting a problem to all of us in the audience. He told us we would have the entire session to wrestle work on our solutions. He added that we could use anything at our disposal, that we could switch groups if we thought it best, and that at the end of the session we would be able to share some of our solutions. Then he sat down. 

And didn’t speak. Just sat there. Quietly. I loved it.

About self-organization

My colleagues and I have frequent conversations about teach and student agency. We do so because we are working together with a set of creative elective courses within our traditional school. We call our program Edge, because it is a bit on the fringe, perhaps even a little edgy. There are no grades and we let the students self-organize. 

Well, mostly. Often we get a little uncomfortable as we watch our students struggle to self-organize. They don’t take the opportunities given to them (at least from our perspective) and instead seem to waste a heck of a lot of time. I’ve argued elsewhere that this time isn’t necessarily wasted and that slack time, as we’ve grown to call it, is needed for students to learn agency. My reasoning is that students can’t learn agency if we show them what to do every step of the way. They actually need to discover and practice agency themselves. 

But we teachers sometimes still go a little crazy watching this process. 

It is therefore something of a relief to reconnect with Mitra’s thinking and his gentle way of doing – or not doing. Learning (certainly he means some kinds of learning?) has to be undirected, he claims. Like when he put computers in poor areas of India and just watched what happened. (Learning happened, by the way, although I’m pretty sure you are already familiar with his Hole in the Wall projects.) 

Mitra remains very confident that students need the space and time – like the teachers needed the space and time in his workshop at ECIS so many years ago – to work things out for themselves. They need to get all the way back to self-organization as a starting condition to work on developing agency. I like to picture children when they are not in school, say on a Saturday at home with friends. They are often quite good at practicing self-organization then, because we leave them on their own and are happy when they work things out themselves. 

Maybe there is something artificial about our approach to learning during the school day. Mitra’s genius is his ability to make us worry about that possibility.

Speaking about curriculum, Mitra suggests that knowing why one is learning something is a necessary step in the process. If you think we already do this in school, well, here’s something to try. Roleplay a doubting, persistent student and a teacher from any subject. The person playing the student role should ask “Why is this necessary to learn?” The person playing the teacher should try to give good answers. Is it easy for the teacher? Do any of the answers ring a little hollow?

“When we make a curriculum … we have to tell the children WHY we had to learn this. It’s not okay to answer “You will understand when you grow up… or because it’s good for you.” So what do we really answer?

I think it might be interesting as well to ask the person playing the student role to bring up subjects that are not taught in school and ask “Why don’t we teach this?” Can the person playing the teacher give a good answer? Hint: Answering “Because that hasn’t been in the curriculum before” is not an allowable answer. “Because it’s good for you” neither.

Mitra also raises questions about our underlying mindset about what school is. “Within a school, unfortunately, people don’t really admire children’s ability to learn. It is often the reverse. The system seems geared towards pointing out to children what they need to improve in.”

Ouch. Are we doing that? I’m immediately reminded of those times I’ve heard, as a student or a colleague of a teacher, the speech at the beginning of the semester that goes something like this: “You all have an A right now. It’s yours to lose.” And I think of worksheets and papers and rubrics (some that I used just this morning as a teacher) which may encourage us (me) to find things that are wrong so that not everyone gets an A. In fact, I recently heard the admonition that not all students can get the highest score so their work shouldn’t all be graded at the highest level, even in the context of a rubric which allows unlimited redos in order to get the highest score. Are we in fact geared mostly to pointing out what needs to be improved and not lifting up what is good and interesting and insightful? 

I think again about when we leave our own children alone to self-organize their play (their learning, really). When we observe them for a minute our tendency is to comment on what is going well, what is interesting, and what is fun. Do we too readily swap that mentality when we enter the context of school, where a mindset of pointing out errors takes over? 

Mitra continues by noting that we tend to have students practice the stuff that is hard or not going well or is, to the students, less interesting. He muses that if our focus is often the hard and uninteresting stuff, the eventual result can be students who are not interested even in the stuff that was originally interesting to them.

In short: “If you admire children, they start doing better at the things they are really good at, just to show off. So I thought, can I get someone to admire them ….”

For Mitra this led to a program of volunteers called “the Granny Cloud.” Their purpose was not to teach, but simply to ask and be interested in what the students were doing. This sounds like a breath of fresh air. Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine your relationship with students along those lines? And if you already do – well, more power to you.

And a few words about assessment.

“If you allow students to use the internet during an exam, then that is called cheating … if you use Google Maps while driving, that is not called cheating.”

Indeed. The world of information has shifted faster than schools have kept up. I don’t see that as the problem. It’s just a statement of what has happened. What might be more problematic is recognizing the fundamental recalibration and not addressing it seriously. Yes, we can get away with slow change (or even digging our heels in), mostly because there are so many other slow changers to hang out with. But is that the right thing to do?

Mitra is telling us, like many are telling us, that we need a switch from what students remember to how students use the tools that are out there in order to actually do something. So he suggests we give the students their cell phones back and measure just three things:

  1. do they comprehend the material;
  2. can they transfer that understanding to another person; and
  3. can they use the internet well in order “to be able to figure out when it is leading you astray.”

Maybe his advice sets the stage for some backwards design planning on a very global scale. As a thought experiment, imagine that your school, your district, or your region adopted Mitra’s three areas to measure. Now work backwards to how the curriculum and instruction would need to change. For the curriculum, what stays and what goes? For instruction, what might learning look like?

In a nutshell, Mitra is telling us to do this: “Instead of saying solve this equation, change it to: how would you go about finding the solution to this equation?” 

And then sit down.

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