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Network Schools Possible… IF

November 14, 2013

A few months ago I became familiar with the work of Sugata Mitra, an Indian systems analyst turned computer-assisted instruction advocate who has done amazing work with children in India raised in abject poverty who, given the opportunity to access information with computers, have made amazing strides in gaining an understanding of subjects like molecular biology. As reported in a recent Wired magazine article, Mitra’s research has been applied in an indigent community in Mexico with the same results, evidence that if left to their own devices children can obtain knowledge quickly and efficiently. The major point of the article, flagged as a margin notation is this:

“THE BOTTOM LINE IS, IF YOU’RE NOT THE ONE CONTROLLING YOUR LEARNING,

YOU’RE NOT GOING TO LEARN AS WELL.”

I am one who believes that we should be willing to cede control of the pace and content of learning to students while focussing the efforts of adults on learning skills. That is, we should teach reading and calculation skills but capitalize on the inherent desire of children to learn content by allowing them great leeway in exploring areas where they want to learn.

There are at least three reasons we are not using Mitra’s methods to capitalize on the natural curiosity of students. One reason is our country’s desire to measure school performance based on items that are easy to test.  The extreme use of tests holds many of our students back and labels another group as “failures” not because they can’t learn more or learn at all but because their learning rates are faster or slower than some mythical norm. The testing regimen, then, controls the pace and content of learning and, as a result, our students don’t learn well.

A second reason we don’t use Mitra’s methods is that they are antithetical to the Western notion that everything is a competition… and by sorting students into “winners” and “lowers” we are preparing them for the competitive world they will be entering once they leave school. No matter that businesses today see the value of collaboration and teamwork, our schools are still operating on the industrial model where competition is vital.

The third reason… and saddest of all… is that we are falling behind technologically. An article in the Atlantic reports that over half of our schools don’t have sufficient wireless network capability to provide access to all students and, what’s worse,  “…teachers of the lowest-income students are more than twice as likely as teachers of the highest-income students to say that students’ lack of access to digital technologies is a “major challenge.”

Children born into poverty in our country in many ways. face more obstacles than children raised in poverty in any other country. We have reduced the food we are putting in their parents’ basket, closing the schools in their neighborhood, starving their community’s resources thereby denying them access to the health and well being children raised in affluence have available, and failing to give them access to the learning tools that could help them improve… They feel responsible for the failure of their schools yet have no way to gain access to books, internet access, or any of the social support systems like youth sports, after school activities, or medical care that middle and upper class children take for granted.

Technology is one relatively inexpensive means of providing all children with an equitable educational opportunity… but giving students laptops or I-pads without providing schools and communities with the wireless access required to make those learning tools viable is akin to giving light bulbs to people who don’t have lamps or electrical lines that connect to their houses. There will be no network schools until we have network communities… and without either we may find ourselves struggling to keep our lights on.

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