Raising young Einsteins

Teaching kids to be innovative is easy: give them a computer and then leave them alone.

Indian students participate in a Hole in the Wall experiment (Photo: courtesy Philippe Tarbouriech/Hole-in-the-Wall Education Ltd.)

Sugata Mitra insists that he did not have “a particularly altruistic motivation” when he first discovered that the poorest children in New Delhi could teach themselves to browse the Internet. It was 1999, and Mitra, at the time chief scientist at a major Indian software firm, says he was “a little irritated” by the fact that new educational technology was most often piloted in India’s best schools, which also benefited from the best teachers, and therefore needed it the least. What would happen, he wondered, if disadvantaged children had access to the Internet? Would it enhance their learning, even if no one showed them how to use it?

To find out, Mitra punched a hole in the wall of his office, which was located on the edge of one of the city’s slums, and installed a computer and a touch-pad mouse, as well as a video camera so he could observe. Within minutes, a group of children gathered around, running their fingers across the mouse pad and observing the effect on the screen. Almost immediately, they were browsing. “People said it will get stolen, it will get broken—but none of that happened,” says Mitra. “Then all hell broke loose, because the media said, ‘How is this possible?’ It took years and years to show that it will always happen this way.”

The revelation that disadvantaged children can teach themselves to use complex technology is an important one, and not just for impoverished communities. Consider how much time politicians, educators and researchers spend talking about how to teach the next generation to be innovative. Also consider how befuddled experts seem about how to accomplish that goal. Though neither well defined nor understood, innovation is widely believed to directly influence a company’s (and country’s) bottom line. And yet, when it comes to instilling this trait in our youth, the evidence suggests that Canada’s on a slow slide to mediocrity. In 2009, Canada ranked 24th out of 35 countries in granting university degrees in science and engineering, a key benchmark for innovation. Our academic performance on the international stage, once a point of pride among educators, is also cause for concern. Despite maintaining stable, above-average scores, Canada’s relative ranking on the OECD’s prestigious Programme for International Student Assessment, which is administered to 15-year-olds around the world, is slipping. From 2000 to 2009, Canada’s position in reading dipped from No. 2 to No. 5; in math and science, Canada’s rank dropped to ninth and seventh respectively, down from fifth in both subjects. “There are other countries that are looking at the need to develop science and technology—innovation—in their kids,” says Reni Barlow, head of Youth Science Canada. “As a result, though our numbers and our performance is still good, we’re being passed by other countries that are now outperforming us.”

If innovation is even half as important as everyone says it is, then the extent to which we encourage our kids to become creative, independent thinkers, and foster their passion for technology, science and math—the traditional springboards for invention and discovery—could mean the difference between building a country that leads and one that follows. Which seems like a good reason to put some serious effort into arming the next generation with the necessary skills and ambition to bring revolutionary ideas to fruition. But how? It’s a vexing question with no obvious answer, which could explain why one of the most promising solutions was discovered almost by accident, in a place you’d least expect. Experts tend to focus on universities and colleges as the place where we need to teach innovative thinking. Some might be bold enough to suggest starting in high school. But perhaps we need to start way, way younger. As Mitra’s findings suggest, the secret might not lie in research labs, or even traditional classrooms, but in giving kids some technology, an intriguing challenge and then leaving them alone to figure things out.

Mitra’s initial conclusion—that if left to their own devices, uneducated children could learn to use technology—was indeed surprising, particularly in a place and time when the use of computers and the Internet were limited primarily to those who could afford expert training. So he set out to replicate the results, conducting another so-called Hole In the Wall experiment in a poor rural village, where the kids didn’t even speak English. After two months, Mitra says he was expecting to find them “doing something fascinating like playing games.” But when he arrived, the children informed him that they needed a faster processor and a better mouse. “I couldn’t believe my ears,” he says. “I asked them how they knew [about those things], and they said, ‘You left a machine which works only in English, so we taught ourselves how to use English.’ And then gradually, they began to understand what it was all about.” In addition to playing games, browsing and sending e-mails, the children had picked up some 200 English words.

As Mitra got similar results again and again (to date, Hole In The Wall experiments have been conducted in more than a hundred communities in India, Southeast Asia and Africa), he began to wonder about what else kids with digital resources could teach themselves. Soon, he started to understand “the power of what a group of children can do if you lift the adult intervention.” The learning typically went something like this: a small group of “experts” (the handful of kids who spent the most time at the computer) would be surrounded by a larger group who offered suggestions and proposed new ideas. These kids were in turn surrounded by a much larger group of observers. Quite often, the younger kids took on the teaching roles. And in a matter of months, hundreds of children would become computer literate.

By 2007, he had observed kids teaching themselves to e-mail and play games so often that he wanted to test the capability of what appeared to be a self-organizing learning system. He came up with the most outrageous proposal he could think of: “Can 12-year-old Tamil-speaking children in a Tsunami-hit Indian village teach themselves the biotechnology of DNA replication in English from a roadside computer?” He set up the Hole In The Wall, gave the children the assignment and allowed them to play. After three months, the kids initially told him they’d understood nothing. However, when he pressed further, he got a truly shocking response. “They said, ‘Apart from the fact that improper reproduction of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease and deformities, we haven’t understood anything else,’” says Mitra, who published his findings in the British Journal of Educational Technology last year. Their learning outcomes, meanwhile, were on par with those of similarly aged children in a nearby state school. “What is it that they can’t teach themselves?” asks Mitra. “I think I’m on the edge of that answer now, and it’s a crazy answer: groups of children with digital resources can teach themselves anything.”

In recent years, Mitra has put the lessons from the Hole In the Wall to work in western primary schools. The method, which he has tried in classrooms in the U.K., Italy and the U.S., begins by dividing kids into groups of four, and giving each group a computer with Internet access. Unlike conventional group work, the kids are told that they can talk across groups, swap members and observe what other groups are doing. (As Mitra tells the kids, this isn’t cheating. “It’s sharing,” he says. “That’s how people find out things.”) The children are then given a tough question—anything from “Do trees have feelings?” to “Who was Pythagoras, and what did he do?”—and left to figure it out. When they present their findings 30 or 40 minutes later, they are interested and engaged. Consistently, they touch on concepts and ideas thought to be well above grade level. “We are not capable of understanding the size and the power of the Internet,” says Mitra, who is now a professor at Newcastle University in the U.K. “What I think I’m finding with these groups of children is that they plunge into this ocean, and they can swim.”

In settings where teachers are required to adhere to a more stringent curriculum, Mitra’s approach is perhaps best seen as a springboard for learning. When students at an international school in China were asked to delve into the question “How does an iPad know where it is?” they began to explore triangulation. “I went to the math teacher and said, ‘You walk into your boring trigonometry class now, but you’ll find that they’re working a lot harder,’” he says. According to Emma Crawley, a primary school teacher in Gateshead, England, who has been using Mitra’s method since 2009, empowering kids to direct their own learning makes them more confident, and more likely to start asking their own tough questions. “They kind of take things upon themselves a lot more. They develop an interest outside of the classroom,” says Crawley. “It can be used for anything really. We haven’t seen how far it can go.”

In many ways, Mitra’s experiments simply reinforce what we already know (or suspect) about the necessary pre-conditions for innovation. In a recent conversation with Canadian Business, high-school students en route to the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair highlighted the importance of having the freedom to come up with their own experiments. “You can really take your own direction. You really just go for it, and it takes you in many different areas,” says Megan Schlorff, 18, who earned a place on Team Canada for her idea for generating wind electricity in developing regions. Working in groups is “the most important thing,” says her teammate Adelina Corina Cozma, 15, whose computer-based communication system for people with autism went on to win several awards at the May event. “Being in an environment with like-minded individuals gives you a perfect [opportunity] to share ideas and just build on top of new ideas,” she says.

It is no coincidence that the school system in Finland, the darling of the international educational community for its superior test scores, is built on an experience-based model, where science and math are taught through doing, and labs take precedence over textbooks. On top of having one of the best cohorts of teachers in the world (even primary school teachers are required to hold master’s degrees), Finland has made hands-on subjects a priority. Whereas shop and music classes are becoming increasingly rare in Canada, in Finland, students spend a significant chunk of their weeks studying something inventive, like cooking, metalwork or carpentry, and get 75 minutes of recess a day. As one Helsinki principal recently told The New Republic: “The children can’t learn if they don’t play. The children must play.”

Perhaps the most pertinent lesson from Hole In the Wall is to give kids a break from the textbooks, standardized tests and sit-up-and-pay-attention instruction for which North American classrooms are known. If the aim is to inspire the next generation to come up with creative solutions to the world’s biggest problems (and show them that science and math are neither boring nor hard) an unconventional approach seems like a logical starting point. “Experimentation in learning methods should be encouraged,” says Paul Cappon, president and CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning. “Students learn best when they are engaged; when they perceive the significance of study in their real daily lives.” Mitra’s take is a little more blunt. “The Old World [idea of] innovation,” he says, “where you sit in a quiet room and close your eyes and breathe deeply and ideas form in your mind—I don’t believe a word of that.”

Science fairs, all year long
How to get teachers to think beyond the textbook and kids to think like scientists.

As far as elementary school goes, there is perhaps no better platform for innovation than science fairs, which give kids an opportunity to explore a subject they love, and solve problems of their own design. But what if everyday science classes operated the same way? That’s the thinking behind Smarter Science, an Ontario-based program that arms science teachers with the tools to get kids thinking like scientists all year long.

Piloted in the Thames Valley District School Board in 2006, Smarter Science was the brainchild of Michael Newnham. While working as the board’s science consultant, Newnham studied the process scientists use to conduct experiments. By focusing on the various skills—everything from observation and data gathering to analysis and reflection—Newnham and his colleagues developed a framework for teachers to use in their science classes, beginning as early as kindergarten.

At the heart of the framework, he says, is a “gradual release of responsibility, where you shift the responsibility over from the teacher to the student.” Smarter Science lessons often start with a hands-on question designed to allow kids to play and explore. To begin a unit on heat, for instance, a Grade 1 class was asked to determine whether mittens would warm a teddy bear’s paws. “What you’re doing over time, is you’re teaching them to become independent investigators,” says Newnham. “You’re teaching them to think like scientists.”

After conducting workshops with teachers in 75% of the province’s school boards (the program is now under the umbrella of Youth Science Canada), Newnham says he is now trying to develop a model for evaluation, which, in a results-oriented culture, will be crucial to widespread adoption. In the meantime, he’s working hard to encourage teachers to think beyond the textbook. “You stand in front of kids everyday, modelling what should be,” he says. “If you want them to be innovative and creative, you’ve got to be.”