Sugata Mitra: “Knowing is obsolete.” Is it?

The SacrificeIf Sugata Mitra thinks of himself as basically a humble scientist investigating the benefits of educational technology, he is deceiving himself. His appeal – the crucial factor explaining his rise to fame – lies not in the scientific rigor of his work (which people like Payal Arora and Donald Clark have criticised) but in the tweet-length myths that he has been helping to spin. In a previous post we looked at the Sugata Mitra myth of the end of empire. Another myth is the idea that knowing is now becoming obsolete. In his February 2013 TED talk he said this:

Could it be that we won’t need to go to school at all? Could it be that, at the point in time when you need to know something, you can find it out in two minutes? Could it be – a devastating question, a question that was framed for me by Nicholas Negroponte – could it be that we are heading towards a future where knowing is obsolete? But that’s terrible. We are homo sapiens. Knowing, that’s what distinguishes us from the apes. But look at it this way. It took nature 100 million years to make the ape stand up and become homo sapiens. It took us only 10,000 to make knowing obsolete. What an achievement that is.

Now, Sugata Mitra can’t actually mean that there will be no knowing. Mitra is not against learning, and anyone who is still an advocate of learning must be advocating some sort of knowing, however vestigial. In Mitra’s case, the learning he advocates is to become more and more child-driven, with children finding their own sources of information online to answer questions set by the teacher, and it would be a terrible failing if the children working hard in their self-organising learning environments (SOLEs) didn’t know more at the end of a project than they did at the beginning.

If we think about what is supposed to happen in the SOLEs, we see that what is really obsolete for Mitra is an older idea of the curriculum as a list of particular things that students ought to become familiar with. Hence, in the SOLEs the students are learning, and presumably coming to know more, but there is no concern about what exactly the students are learning. The teachers are to set questions, and it seems that these could be chosen pretty much at random as long as they are not too difficult for the children in question. Mitra suggests, for instance, asking 8- to 12-year-olds if someone could kill a goat by staring at it. The children search online for possible answers for 45 minutes or so, and work in groups to decide which is best. Just as the questions don’t really matter, neither do the answers (and the teacher is not supposed to express any interest in the children arriving at one answer rather than another).

So in the epoch beyond that of the Homo Sapiens knowing will still happen, but the emphasis will shift so that knowing comes to be less important than the business of finding and processing information. If we look at a society and see that no one knows how vulnerable goats are to an intense human gaze, it doesn’t matter as long as we see that the goat herders amongst them are able to find the answer online when they need to.

What this implies for education is a sort of pedagogic formalism: it is enough for the children to know how to work out the answers; it doesn’t matter in the slightest if they don’t know what any particular answer is.

Part of the reason for taking this approach to knowledge concerns technology. Mitra’s favourite example is the calculator. Why force children to learn multiplication tables when they can find the answers with their calculators? Of course, there is still a great deal that students who are interested in maths will need to know (and there is no indication of that becoming obsolete) but large chunks of the old curriculum that caused so much pain to young children can now (according to Mitra) be dropped because of the new tech. And what the calculator does for maths, the internet does for many other parts of the old curriculum. Mitra has said quite bluntly: When the knowledge exists online, why force children to commit it to memory?

The technology may make this sort of approach seem more feasible, but what is supposed to make it seem reasonable is Mitra’s perception of pedagogic priorities, according to which the thing that really matters in education is the liberation of children. Education must become child-driven. Now, many teachers committed to an older child-centred education also wanted their learners to become autonomous, but there was a clear perception that autonomy could only be achieved after a period of heteronomy, with children needing the pedagogic care of their Socratic teachers in order to achieve their full potential. Mitra’s idea of a child-driven education assumes that the autonomy is already there, and, ideally, we just need to clear a space for the child, give it a laptop and an internet connection, and it will educate itself, with the only human assistance coming from an encouraging mentor giving an occasional pat on the back. Hence, in addition to a pedagogic formalism, we also have a pedagogic libertarianism (that could also be called a pedagogic anarchism).

To put the contrast in other words: A child-centred pedagogy aimed at autonomy, but only after the child had come to accept the weight of society – a weight felt first in the organised life of the school. The pedagogy of a child-driven education, by contrast, toys with the idea of the obsolescence of school, with children learning online, pursuing their own interests at their own pace, assisted (as gently as possible) by encouraging mediators, either real or virtual. The dream is of an education in which society appears to the children to be weightless, where nothing seems to limit or challenge the child’s instinctive life. If Milan Kundera had described this pedagogy, he might have highlighted the wonderful lightness of such a digitally enhanced education conducted in an acultural and apparently timeless nowhere land, supervised by a handful of adults who are trying to make themselves invisible.

Mitra has captured the imagination of a fair number of online teachers, who are inspired by the idea of a child-driven education in which the older idea of the curriculum can be ditched, with teachers stepping to the side, keeping quiet about their expertise and repressing the old belief that the children might be better off knowing certain things and confronting certain things that they might instinctively avoid or ignore. However, there are reasons for remaining a little sceptical. One cluster of reasons has to do with the notion of knowledge that Mitra is taking for granted. Below we try to call that notion into question by coming at it from two directions: one from the self, and another from society.

Knowledge and the self

As a brief semi-philosophical prelude, let us draw a contrast with Descartes. Arguably, the modern intellectual world begins with the Cartesian proposition, “I think, therefore I am.” But that is where Descartes begins, not where he ends. The next step is crucial because the whole Cartesian project would collapse if thinking couldn’t become knowing, and Descartes is desperate to achieve some certainty that what he thinks about the world can count as knowledge. The self would be lost if it did not have a world that it could be sure of. On this account, what is most essential to us is our ability to know the world for ourselves (as opposed to taking things on trust because they are written in the Holy Book or Wikipedia). Mitra’s idea that we embrace the obsolescence of human knowing insofar as the knowledge is now safely stored online would sound to Descartes like the terrible suggestion that we cast ourselves adrift on some dark turbulent river going God knows where. We would be losing the integrity of the self, and be falling back to an older, darker state like the one where we allowed the Inquisition to do whatever it deemed fit. Mitra acknowledges this concern in his comment about Homo Sapiens, but he says nothing to persuade us that it is wrong.

Perhaps (in a somewhat Cartesian way) we need to establish for ourselves whether the obsolescence of knowledge would lead to liberation or dissolution – whether, in other words, the knowing that Descartes insisted on is actually an encumbrance that we are better off without now that society no longer needs to rely on human beings as the main store of knowledge. Mitra’s example of the multiplication tables (that the calculator spares us from having to learn) gives the idea an apparent veracity, but can we draw the conclusion that the less we need to know, the better off we are?

As a thought experiment, let’s imagine going for a walk in the hills. Sugata Mitra will be coming with us, and without a doubt he will be clutching his GPS. He will see us struggling to learn the path through the dense forest unaided by the new technology, and he will ask: Why bother when you can rely on a GPS? Isn’t it as pointless as forcing your young child to learn her multiplication tables?

No, it is not. What Sugata Mitra with his GPS misses is the satisfaction of slowly coming to know the forest and the hills like the back of your hand – an idiom that hints at a deeper connection between the hiker who knows and the hills that are known – a connection less likely to be felt by those who have to keep one eye on a flickering screen

There is a deeper significance in getting to know the forest. There is nothing comparable in knowing how to use a GPS. For those of us who hike low-tech, there is an example here of a form of knowing that the knower would not want to see become obsolete – that the knower would not want to be liberated from.

If we turn from the forest back to the multiplication tables, we might wonder if Mitra was being fair in characterising them as all pain and no gain. Is it not possible that some of the children who learn their tables experience a satisfaction that is not entirely unlike that of the low-tech hiker who comes to know the forest like the back of his hand? After the painful task of learning their multiplication tables, does it not become possible for children to feel a richer sense of themselves and their abilities and to marvel at the new world of number that they have discovered? Is there no such satisfaction? If there is, do we not have a reason for wanting to save what Mitra would gladly consign to the dustbin of history?

And what of foreign languages? According to one reported conversation, Sugata Mitra has toyed with the following question: “Is it necessary to learn new languages at all? Maybe machines will translate.” Again, there is room to doubt whether people are actually better off not knowing a foreign language. Is it so?

No, it is not. Motivated learners of a foreign language are likely to acquire an expanded sense of themselves as they experience their cultural horizons broadening and as they gain a new perspective on the culture they were born into. The tech that Mitra looks forward to would enable children to communicate effortlessly with foreigners, but they would be deprived the deeper satisfactions to be had through actually knowing the foreign language, and their selves – untouched by the foreign language – would remain unbroadened.

Now, let’s use our foreign language skills to take a trip to Delphi. One of the bizarre consequences of the idea that Sugata Mitra is toying with is that although the children are supposed to love finding answers to the teacher’s questions, they are not supposed to really need to know anything beyond the technicalities of how to use the calculator, the touch screen device, the internet, the GPS, the automatic translation machine, etc., etc. There is a perception of children as brimming with curiosity, which today might be directed to the question of why the hand has five fingers, and tomorrow to the question of whether a goat can be killed by staring at it. Beyond that there is no perception of the students really needing to know anything. Is that the case?

Outside the Temple of Apollo in Delphi the ancient Greeks etched an inscription. It didn’t urge the Greeks to develop their information-processing skills. Nor did it urge them to build something that would spare people the labour of cognition. No, the inscription urged them to know themselves. Did the low-tech Greeks grasp something that remains valid? Is education at its best and in its broadest sense not a matter of coming to know ourselves, and does this not involve knowing the world to which we belong? Do the children not need to move towards a Delphic knowledge of themselves and their world, or is it enough that they are continually tossed random questions so that their innate curiosity has something to play with?

In an earlier post on the need for education we quoted Camille Paglia giving a lovely description of that Delphic need in students. After years of teaching college students in America she felt that many reminded her of a scene from the Kubrick movie “2001 A Space Odyssey”, in which one of the astronauts has his lifeline cut and spins off into space. Her young students appeared to be lost – unable to make sense of the world and their place in it. Paglia saw a need there for the students to find a framework of meaning in terms of which things would either begin to make sense or with which the perceived lack of sense would somehow become understandable.

Is this Delphic imperative not alive in all of us who still find occasions of sufficient duration to think, assuming there are still a few fertile gaps in a life filled with wall-to-wall distractions?

For Paglia there is no question that the students have a vital need to know – not the sort of knowledge that has a merely instrumental value, but one that is integral to their very being – a knowledge whose obsolescence could only be achieved by something amounting to an act of amputation.

Knowing and the vision of society

To come at the problem of knowledge from the opposite direction, there is the question of the vision of society that we are to promote. Central to that is the issue of social cohesion. What will hold society together? Let’s suggest two sorts of answers to this question: Either society is held together by an understanding (a knowledge) of itself, or it is held together by something else. The latter might involve supplementing the inertia of habit with policies like ensuring that all citizens become property owners and share-holders who are also in debt to the banks and all have pension funds invested in the economy so that their private self-interests come into perfect alignment with the technocratically tweaked macro-economic interests. This is the sort of approach Sugata Mitra would have to support if he is serious about the obsolescence of knowledge.

Mitra spins the obsolescence of knowledge as a great plus, but when we move through a society that relies on economic carrots and sticks to keep the labouring mules doing their socially necessary work, do we see a great leap forward in the history of civilisation? Recalling our personal entry into such a society, what we experienced was not the thrill of being part of some inspiring historical movement, but rather horror at our own ignorance.

We found ourselves at the age of 18 in the UK queuing up to vote without having any idea about basic things like why the UK has two houses of parliament, why democracy and monarchy are considered compatible, why the UK does not have a constitution, why representative democracy is better than direct democracy, why there must be no democracy in the workplace, why powers were being transferred from the local authorities to central government, why the teachers deserved to lose their autonomy regarding the curriculum, etc., etc. We could solve any number of differential equations and we had an intimate knowledge of things like Doppler effect, photosynthesis and the anatomy of the locust, but we knew virtually nothing about the political world we found ourselves in. We were citizens (or were we subjects?), but we had absolutely no idea what that meant. Outside school a discussion started about what it meant to be British, and the idea circulated that it all hinged on which cricket team you supported. Beyond that we didn’t have a clue. Britain’s political leaders were refusing closer ties with Europe. Why? What was Europe? Why should it be resisted? Were we not Europeans? Was there not a European heritage that we should embrace? We had no idea.

In addition to the felt need to belong to a society that understands itself and relies upon its self-understanding, there is the question of how well a society will rise to the challenges facing it if it is not organised to shore up and pass on its collective wisdom. Our society faces a series of massive challenges: demographic, economic and environmental. The current assumption is that the narrowest form of self-interest will pull us through, as long as governments set in place the right carrots and sticks. But will it?

Arguably, society needs to be re-established on a different footing. For all his pseudo-radicalism, Sugata Mitra’s view of education and knowledge leaves him supporting the status quo. A society full of SOLE graduates pursing their own specialised cognitive interests would be worse than the one we have now insofar as there would be no attempt to collectively learn from the past and organise ourselves better to meet the challenges of the future. Mitra’s approach rules out the collective organisation of education – something we would need if, for instance, we decided that students in the future ought to know the causes of the recent economic meltdown in order to avoid a repetition in the future, and that they ought to know about the contradiction between an economic system that demands infinite growth and an environment with finite natural resources. That would give us a curriculum with particular topics that students ought to be studying and developing their own ideas about, but that would be anathema for Mitra.

In brief comments he has made, Sugata Mitra sees the problem. When working with pupils in the north-east of England he has remarked, for instance, about the poverty of their dreams – dreams shaped by our celebrity culture. Some of his most enthusiastic comments following SOLE experiments in places like Gateshead were about how some of the children’s dreams were becoming more thoughtful and intelligent. Although Mitra has said again and again that progress requires the abolition of schools, his experience actually implies the opposite: the pressing need for schools that can generate a more thoughtful and intelligent culture – a process that involves not just liberating children, but also challenging them. Good teachers recognise that this involves promoting knowledge – a knowledge that is both the self-knowledge of the children and their knowledge of the culture to which they belong – a knowledge that is, at the same time, critique.

The issue here is extremely thorny for those of us living in liberal societies, because to push for a more thoughtful culture would be to lock horns with the liberal ban on a rich notion of the public good. According to the status quo, the notions of the good that are promoted in public (political) life have to be kept as thin as possible in order to maximise the freedom of individuals to pursue their dreams of fame, fortune and power. Although Mitra occasionally sees the need for the promotion of a more thoughtful culture, he ends up ruling it out because of his commitment to an unreflective notion of individual liberty. And his idea of knowledge as excess baggage also undermines any real concern for culture.

In effect, the way he frames his self-organised learning environments turns them into ultra-liberal training grounds. Just as the liberal government is (in theory) supposed to bracket any claim to a rich knowledge of the public good, Mitra insists his teachers express no opinion about which of his student’s answers comes closer to the truth. Just as the liberal political myth implies that the past is irrelevant as is the future (beyond the maturation of one’s personal pension fund), the SOLE creates the impression for the students that there is no weighty heritage that they ought to learn how to shoulder, and there is no prior set of collective priorities and common challenges that they ought to recognise and appreciate.

A further ultra-liberal feature of this set-up is Mitra’s assumption that knowledge is all about the facts of the matter – the sort of thing that the children can find on Wikipedia. Our dumbed-down culture retains a great respect for the facts and for the experts who have privileged access to them, at the same time as significant parts of the population retain a private fascination with mumbo jumbo. What the culture lacks is a more intelligent approach to our feelings (which is one way of framing the problem of the good). If we really want to challenge the dumbing down of culture, we need to do more work with the emotional lives of children (which actually has less to do with a narrow notion of feelings and more to do with broadening their sense of themselves and their appreciation of the world around them). But Mitra’s notion of education-as-fact-finding-and-information-processing excludes that education of intelligent feeling, and so he thoughtlessly affirms the familiar split between unfeeling truth of the technocrat and the thoughtless enthusiasm of the public queuing up for the next round of X-Factor auditions.

So – in closing – when Sugata Mitra spins the myth of the obsolescence of knowledge, he assumes the worst possible conception of knowledge, forgetting both the deep personal need to know, and the historical need for society to develop a better understanding of itself – an understanding that is shared, not lying dormant on a hard-drive or alive only in the minds of a handful of experts. The question for us is whether Mitra’s vision of an Information Age united not by knowledge but by private self-interest and a love of technology represents a great leap forward for civilisation or a step towards dissolution. Do we not feel both a personal and a social imperative to find a new significance in our collective knowing, rather than affirming its obsolescence as we roll further towards a technocratic society marked not by a shared understanding, but by a shared despair at the possibility of understanding?

written by Torn Halves on April 17, 2013 in digital revolution and Edtech and education and pedagogy and Sugata Mitra with 6 comments