Awasu » A hole in the wall
Saturday 10th February 2007 4:57 AM [General]

I've written a few times before about my long interest in how people learn [1], especially young kids, and came across a crackerjack story today about exactly this. Sugata Mitra set up the Hole in the Wall project where he goes into slum areas and rural villages in India, bungs an internet-connected computer into a hole in the wall and then comes back a few weeks later to see what happened.

The whole thing is intended to study whether young children are able to self-organize and teach themselves stuff and that's exactly what happened. The first kid figured out how to use the mouse within minutes and by the end of the first day, they had taught themselves how to use the machine and surf the net, and then propogated that knowledge within the group. Not only that, Mitra has tried the experiment elsewhere with an emphasis on getting girls involved and once they realized that they were actually allowed to use it, they loved it. In a place where only one in three females can read, this is huge.

Kids are smart, there's no doubt about that, and usually far smarter than we ever give them credit for. It drives me nuts when I see adults talking down to young children in an inane, cutesy-wootsey voice and things like this show how insanely condescending things like that are [2]. I did a lot of work writing computer programs for the educational market many years ago and quickly realized that the best thing about using computers was that they let you make mistakes. Kids are fearless when it comes to using computers and will press and prod and poke anything and everything they see and if it doesn't work, no problems, you just reload your saved game and try something else [3]. Adults are terrified of "breaking" something and are incredibly more cautious. Trying to teach Big People how to use computers is extraordinarily frustrating since they often won't want to do anything unless they're absolutely sure of it.

There's a great passage in this article which says

Dr. Mitra likes the way in which Indian children reinvent computer terms and icons in their own language. "They don't call a cursor a cursor, they call it a sui, which is Hindi for needle. And they don't call the hourglass symbol the hourglass because they've never seen an hourglass before. They call it the damru, which is Shiva's drum, and it does look a bit like that."

Much the same way the job of a good corporate manager is to stay the hell out the way of his staff and let them do their work, we should take the leashes off our kids and let them run. Some might argue that this kind of thing, inventing their own words for things, is counter-productive. "What will happen when it comes time for them to work in the real world and they have to use the proper names for things?", they might bleat. But bilingual children (or even better, monolingual children that have been moved to another country) show how easily they can map one set of symbols to another on the fly. Let them invent their own words, I say. Those words will become theirs and they're the best kind. They can always translate them into the "correct" terminology when talking to us monolingual old fogies :roll: Teaching isn't about ramming "knowledge" into peoples' brains via their throats, it's about, or should be about, facilitating the learning process, guiding students as they make their way down a path the teacher has already gone himself.

But the best thing about the whole experiment? At one place, not only did they end up teaching themselves English because "[Mitra] left this machine that only speaks English" but the first thing they said when he came back several weeks later was "we need a faster processor and a better mouse" :hysterical:

Some things are just universal :roll:

[1] And by association, education although, as I often say, what happens in our schools bears about as much relationship to learning as McDonalds does to fine dining :roll: If you think what goes on in most businesses around the world is stupid, inane and counter-productive, what goes on in our schools is far worse and should make you weep since it, unlike the majority of what happens in the corporate world, actually matters :roll:
[2] And when you see those same adults try to learn how to use computers themselves, it's downright hilarious :hysterical:
[3] As science teachers are fond of saying, there ain't no such thing as a failed experiment :-)
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