Sugata Mitra and the new educational Romanticism – a parody

We live in an age which, for some odd reason, needs desperately to believe that it is continually being born anew – that its essence is something utterly different from the past, and so the old idea of trying to understand ourselves in terms of what has been now sounds as laughable as the attitude of the boy who wanted to go down the mines because his beloved father, with his cap and his lamp, radiated a certain nobility. But to those of us who are the intellectual miners of modernity the continuities are far more striking than the novelties of things like touch screens and the reduction of everything to only two digits.

One of those continuities is seen in the line that can be drawn between that great Romantic of the early modern period, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the movement represented by Sugata Mitra – a movement that could therefore be called a new pedagogic Romanticism. Two common elements worth highlighting are the discovery method in education – a method that Rousseau insisted upon back in the 1760s; and the second is the tremendous respect for the child (and Rousseau was one of those early modern thinkers who first, in a sense, “discovered” childhood and insisted that education start to pay more attention to it). With that in mind, it can seem as if Sugata Mitra and his colleagues take Rousseau’s educational Romanticism to new heights, arguing for a new, digitally enhanced and remixed version of discovery learning, that, thanks to this wonderful new child-friendly technology really manages to put the children firmly in the driving seat of their education, enabling them to discover the hardest possible things on their own – things like the secrets of recombinant DNA.

One laptop per child

But to the antiquarian miner of modernity this impression of inspiring progress is misleading. If we go back and attend carefully to the wisdom expressed by the founding father of educational Romanticism in his long and detailed book, Emile, the unavoidable conclusion is that the new Romanticism expressed by Sugata Mitra is but a parody. The key word for the approach advocated by Mitra is “minimal”. His extremely minimal theory tells people in education to keep their interventions in the natural process of learning to a minimum. And so we have a sparsely-worded 25-page PDF that we can download from the TED website enabling all of us to light the fuse of the new learning revolution. But this hands-off minimalistic pedagogy ignores so much that Rousseau drew our attention to in the 480 pages of his Emile (and since he was not being paid by the page and since he had problems with his eyesight he doubtless wanted to keep the work as short as possible).

If we recall those insights of Rousseau, the inevitable conclusion is that we need not only a maximal, hands-on and strongly interventionist educational practise, but also a maximal pedagogic theory. But those insights have been forgotten, and discovery education has become a parody of its former self. In what follows we highlight a few aspects of that parodic nature.

The parody of freedom

Great Romantics like Rousseau are not anti-modernists reeling from the shock of the new and dreaming of a comfortingly closed medieval world. They agree with their rationalising modernist opponents that the big issue is human freedom. We all want to be free. The difference is that whereas for the rationalists freedom is a simple thing (the freedom of choice and the ability to think), something that everyone can be assumed to have, for the Romantics freedom has to be understood holistically as something emerging with the development of a certain strength of character and a certain understanding of one’s limited existence.

Sugata Mitra’s minimalist pedagogy upholds the interest in freedom. What people find so inspiring (perhaps) is the idea of a child-driven education. The children are in the driving seat at last. They are free, free at last (thanks to the tech).

If Sir Ken Robinson gives us an organic metaphor for education, Sugata Mitra gives us one that is decidedly auto-motive (very industry-friendly, by the way).

All children are born to drive their education. The problem is that prior to the digital age there were no child-friendly pedagogic vehicles. Now that the military-industrial complex has created them, parents and teachers should give the keys to the kids as soon as possible and let them head off on their own down the beautifully linear highway of knowledge.

Self Organised Learning Environment - Sugata Mitra

What makes the theory a parody is its thinness – the way it ignores so much that is important. Rousseau was one of the first modern liberation pedagogues who tried to think though the complex process by which the child slowly develops the strength of character, the appreciation of limits and the sense of attachment that are essential to human freedom. In a sense, Rousseau, too, deals with roads: the road not to knowledge but to freedom. And the road he describes is a long one, beginning with breast-feeding and ending with a necessary period of foreign travel for the young adult. Not only is the road long, it is dangerous. At every junction there are empires waiting to ensnare the child. Guidance from insightful parents and guardians (teachers included) is necessary to help the children avoid them.

One of the empires is the empire of fear. Surely we are not free if our lives are dominated by fear. Although Mitra’s minimal model blithely assumes that children greet everything new with a calm curiosity, Rousseau recognises that children can just as easily respond to the new with fear. To avoid this requires early training. A snippet of his advice on this subject:

“Why should a child’s education not begin before he speaks and understands, since the very choice of objects presented to him is fit to make him timid or courageous? I want him habituated to seeing new objects, ugly, disgusting, peculiar animals, but little by little, from afar, until he is accustomed to them, and, by dint of seeing them handled by others, he finally handles them himself.” (63)

We might quibble with Rousseau’s suggestion that we get infants accustomed to the sound of grapeshot and canons (64), but surely he is right that there is a loss of freedom if we are dominated by fear. Defeating that empire does not involve simply standing aside and letting the child explore the unknown on his own, but carefully selecting objects and situations that will enable the child to get used to confronting the unknown with a calm curiosity.

At another junction on the same road is the empire of habit. We are not free if we are too firmly set in our ways. Hence Rousseau’s advice: “the only habit that a child should be allowed to contract is none. Do not carry him on one arm more than the other; do not accustom him to give one hand rather than the other, to use one more than the other, to want to eat, sleep, or be active at the same hours…Prepare from afar the reign of his freedom…” (63) (Sir Ken Robinson’s critique of the school bell is but a footnote to this.)

The reign of their freedom is something that we must prepare – a preparation that is certainly not minimal. Insofar as the child is still a child, there is work to be done to help establish that reign.

Further along the road lurk the imperial forces that latch onto the child’s vanity. It is rather thoughtless to declare the children drivers while they are still driven by an empire of vanity that has been carefully constructed by adults and promoted by a multi-national industry aiming to profit from the vulnerability of the child’s psychology, fanning the vanities of hairstyles, fashion, accessories, the cool and the uncool, the in and the out, the bling and the unbling. The industry provides what others would call an education in heteronomy. If we could disinter Rousseau, he would surely be arguing that this is the sort of thing that Romantic, hands-on, maximalist educators should be challenging.

Online education, elearning

There is also the empire of technology. To assume, as Sugata Mitra does, that the best and most liberating learning is one that happens online, is to forget that this ties the learner to an industry and a system of perpetual consumption that has a rather questionable relation to human freedom. Children are not liberated if they grow up with the idea that they cannot learn without the latest technology. Rousseau argued that the aim of liberation required a form of education that in the early years, at least, must be as low-tech as possible. If tools are needed, he suggested, it is better that we make them ourselves, and for the sake of the children’s freedom it is better that they acquire the belief that the imperfect tools they make themselves are better than perfect tools made by others.

The great Romantic pedagogy of liberation becomes a parody of itself when it loses sight of how vulnerable the child is to a myriad imperial forces, reducing itself to the myopic claim that the only thing children need to be liberated from is teachers.

The parody of discovery

Rousseau championed discovery learning. As he describes it it is a long and difficult process requiring incredible insight on the part of the teacher – an insight into what needs to be discovered, in what order, and how best to set up the situations in which the right discoveries will be made, being all the while on the look out to protect the child from the wrong kind of experiences from which he or she might draw the wrong lessons. Admittedly, Rousseau was rather excessive in trying to manage so many details of the environment in which learning would take place (the most glaring example being his suggestion that tutors need to select in secret the girlfriends for their male pupils). But the general idea about the immense complexity of discovery learning and the immense difficulty of organising it remains valid. Of course, the child must feel at every step of the way that she is making the discoveries, or, as Rousseau says of his Emile in his now outdated language: “let him always believe he is the master” but, he reminds the tutor, “let it always be you who are.” (120)

And now the parody: Put a computer in a city wall at a spot where children are known to play, and the children (any children, regardless of background and age) will spontaneously discover the excellence it represents, and will instinctively dismiss the terrible lessons of the corrupt city. The children are curious. And their curiosity has an innate wisdom that “knows” what needs to be discovered. A wisdom hidden deep in their intellectual bowels whispers that it is Google they must discover, not the source of the Ganges.

Source of the Ganges

Rousseau recognised that just because curiosity is something that comes naturally to children of a certain age, this does not mean that it does not have to be cultivated. Children are not born curious. And certainly they are not born with a curiosity that “knows” it must discover the fine arts of information search and retrieval, and ignore the crafts of urban deceit and exploitation. Rousseau: “Make your pupil attentive to the phenomena of nature. Soon you will make him curious.” (168) Yes, we must “never force our pupils to be attentive” (169) but we have to spark that curiosity and present it with the right sort of object at the right time, and in the right way.

Rousseau suggests beginning the scientific part of a child’s education with some geographical discovery learning. He has a nice criticism of his EdTech contemporaries: “You want to teach geography to this child, and you go and get globes, cosmic spheres, and maps for him. So many devices! Why all these representations? Why do you not begin by showing him the object itself so that he will at least know what you are talking about?” (168)

Rousseau suggests first taking the child out to a spot in the countryside to watch the sunset, then the next day, getting up before dawn to go to the same place to watch the sunrise. Immediately Rousseau perceives an error that the overly enthusiastic and insufficiently trained teacher might make. The teacher is moved by the incredible harmony of the scene with the first golden rays of the sun and the shining dew and the birds in chorus, and assumes wrongly that the young child can be made attentive to the same thing. No, says Rousseau. The teacher needs to know that a child of this age does not yet have the experience needed to see the scene in this way. “If he has not long roamed arid plains, if burning sands have not scorched his feet, if the suffocating reflections of stones struck by the sun have never oppressed him, how will he enjoy the cool air of a fine morning?” (169) A child cannot be curious about something that she cannot yet perceive. How many of the enthusiastic volunteers in the village and the cloud are aware of that?

Every seeing child has seen the sun, but there is no instinct in the child to pay attention to its course. If every child has a curiosity that can be cultivated, it is equally true that most children are inattentive to the things that are worth discovering. The skilled teacher is needed to draw the child’s attention at the right time and in the right way to where the sun sets and where it rises, and then ask the right question: “I was thinking that yesterday evening the sun set here and that this morning it rose there. How is that possible?” (169)

If curiosity and attention need cultivation and direction, they also need protection. Rousseau sees a particular risk with the sciences – and this is one which online learning surely magnifies, not diminishes. He puts it beautifully, describing the entry into science as something that can be like entering “into a bottomless sea…When I see a man, enamoured of the various kinds of knowledge, let himself be seduced by their charm and run from one to the other without knowing how to stop himself, I believe I am seeing a child on the shore gathering shells and beginning by loading himself up with them; then, tempted by those he sees next, he throws some away and picks up others, until, overwhelmed by their multitude and not knowing anymore which to choose, he ends by throwing them all away and returning empty-handed.” (172)

How easy it is for the taste for learning to dry up if the child’s attention is directed not to five or six carefully chosen shells but is instead left to roam unaided among five or six billion. And is this not precisely the risk with learning online? And does that not mean that education centred on the internet needs the same sort of skilful guidance required to guide a child standing in the chill morning air towards a grasp of the astonishing fact that we are standing on a rock that is spinning in space.

Sugata Mitra draws a parallel between the emergent phenomenon of learning and that of life. Life emerged quite spontaneously at the edge of chaos, he says. In a parallel way, learning emerges at the edge of chaos where children meet Google, and it emerges with the same spontaneity seen when the first amoeba dragged itself out of the primordial soup.

A parody, surely?

The parody of knowledge

One of the great services provided by Romantics like Rousseau was in deepening our understanding of knowledge and truth (and as educators, should we not have pondered a little on the question of what counts as knowledge, or is it enough to know that when we see a back we should pat it?). The rationalists of the early Enlightenment – people like Descartes – suggested that knowledge begins with thinking. The subject of knowledge (our essential self, according to Descartes) is nothing but the power of thinking. And so we have the great rationalist project of rebuilding the edifice of knowledge, not so that everyone has access to it (let me pause while the laughter dies down), but so that every thinking being can see its validity – a validity seen in the impersonal logic of the argumentation. Henceforth all knowledge would have to share this impersonal quality to be taken seriously. And so texts like the letters of the apostles were brushed aside and the epistemic centre ground was taken by the new encyclopaedias, where the latest knowledge was presented in an impressively impersonal alphabetical order.

One of the insights that guides Rousseau’s thoughts about education is that the truth must be felt before it can be known. He coins a term which, even now, sounds strange: sensual reason. “Man’s first reason is a reason of the senses; this sensual reason serves as the basis of intellectual reason.” (125)

Back in the heady days of the 18th century everyone (rationalists and Romantics) agreed that education at its best was moral – the highest truths were moral truths. This is the domain in which Rousseau’s critique of rationalism really hits home. It was futile, Rousseau recognised, to try to promote the good in education by relying on supposedly compelling rational arguments. Talk of duty, for instance, had to be postponed until the right period in the development of the child (late adolescence) and even then it wouldn’t mean anything to the child unless the right foundation in experience had been laid. It is pointless trying to impose on children a duty they do not feel (91). The ground for duty, Rousseau recognises, is a profound sense of attachment, of rootedness. This ought to begin, he argues, with the infant’s attachment to its mother. And so much depends on the quality of this first attachment. Hence, Rousseau’s critique of the practice of sensitive 18th century French women hiring a wet nurse and then dismissing her and forbidding her to see the child. Rousseau observes: “Everything follows from this first depravity.” (46)

Of equal importance is a deep appreciation of the human condition, especially of our frailty and the many ways in which our lives are weak and limited. Long before they hear lectures on the human condition, children need to experience that frailty for themselves and they need to be helped to accept it. This is the reason for Rousseau’s advice that parents “let the child know how to be sick.” (55) “The man who did not know pain would know neither the tenderness of humanity nor the sweetness of commiseration. His heart would be moved by nothing. He would not be sociable; he would be a monster among his kind.” (87)

In addition to the general point about the experiential foundations of our most important kinds of knowledge, Rousseau makes a point more specifically about the psychology of the child, arguing that it is damaging for children to be encouraged to learn things that are beyond the developing sphere of their experience. Children become accustomed to parroting the truth instead of perceiving for themselves that something is true.

In framing this psychology, Rousseau is on the lookout for things that promote and things that undermine the autonomy of the growing individual. For the sake of the cultivation of autonomy, education needs to rest as much as possible on the first-hand experience of the child. If, instead, it leads children to ignore their personal experience and simply “learn” what others claim to be true in books, it provides a training in a “servile submission to authority” (176). This is one of the reasons for Rousseau’s infamous ban on all books in education save one: Robinson Crusoe. The ban was excessive, but the concern behind it was utterly valid.

It is only when educational Romanticism becomes a parody of itself that people fail to see that Rousseau’s argument against “glueing a child to books” applies with equal force to glueing a child to Google.

E-learning - edtech

In place of a great Romantic pedagogy that recognises the inestimable value of the child’s own experience, we have the bizarre insistence that children put their faith in Wikipedia and gleefully drive their education into an arena where their personal experience counts for nothing.

And let us not assume that people like Marc Prensky (one of Mitra’s fellow travellers) have the answer, and that the internet rather than negating the sphere of experience, expands it as an entire virtual world opens up waiting to be explored – a world of online gaming in which discovery and play exist in perfect har-mon-ey. While things on the internet might supplement real life, they are no substitute for all the learning that requires first-hand experience. No child ever came face to face with his mortality when his avatar was struck by a pixelated bullet. No, the child learns infinitely more about the human condition from a single bout of toothache than from 1,000 hours of online gaming.

Mitra’s ultra-minimalist approach, which is applauded for its radicalism, encourages children from the age of 8 onwards to believe that the truth is not something that they can establish for themselves, but is rather something that they must find online.

This is bad epistemology, bad psychology and a very questionable politics. A complete forgetting of the importance of knowledge being grounded in experience, of respecting the expanding sphere of the child’s experience, and, above all, avoiding the child becoming glued to some external authority for knowledge.

The death of the synthetic – a parody of theory

The final parody we want to draw attention to concerns a feature of Romanticism that for us is crucial but that for others may seem obscure: the synthetic impulse. Perhaps the real genius of Romanticism is seen in its concern for how things fit together as a whole – a concern for the bigger picture, which is a concern for synthesis that is, as any lover knows, a concern for meaning. Rousseau, who had a background in music, took the synthetic impulse in theory to new heights in the 18th century. The Enlightenment rationalists, by contrast, inspired by the icy mathematical clarity of the new science, were obsessive analysts, dividing everything up and putting it into precisely labelled boxes in the museum of the mind.

Enlightenment anatomy

The analysts were masters of method. The title of Descartes’ great work was, quite simply: Discourse on Method. A method is a tool – something for the tool-using man – the man of industry. In the 1630s Descartes set the trend for modern industrial thinking – a form of thinking that excelled at the development of precise new techniques of manipulation and control, but that failed to push forward our thinking about the ends to be pursued in the process – a form of thinking that might question the manipulation of everything. The ends were torn apart from the means (and this is the worst form of analytic splitting), with the latter erupting in the white heat of industrial revolution, and the former withering hopelessly, creating a world looking increasingly like a runaway train.

At first sight, Sugata Mitra might seem to be a synthetic thinker. We have at least an image of something along these lines: the apparent synthesis of child and machine – a wonderful meeting of the child and technology that is supposed to lead to a quantum leap in learning. And there is a second image caught, as if by chance, on a short strip of celluloid: That of the group of children sharing the technology and helping each other collect digital shells on the beach of knowledge. Images of harmonious wholes. Images of meaning.

Mere images. More advertising than theory.

Mitra’s minimalism is not just the minimalism of a hands-off approach to teaching; it is also the minimalism of a theory that – in that questionable analytic tradition – wants to limit itself to technique. All we are given is a methodology – the theoretical equivalent of the automotive machinery that children can drive. A methodology cut off from any meditation upon the ends of education – upon where it is to be driven. Although Mitra’s popularity is due to the way his work has – accidentally, it would seem – tapped into a totalising liberal imagination, he himself refrains from committing himself to a view of the bigger picture. This is just a new learning method. Its merit lies in an effectiveness that can be scientifically measured. Look, the figures prove that the children of Asian slums can learn to code faster on their own online than adult secretaries in the West. It works. This is a great technique. A new learning method.

There are two issues here: the intellectual poverty of methodology, and its culpability.

The poverty: Every piece of scientific research rests on premises. In this case, the premise seems to be: Children ought to drive their education. The question is: How? The research then shows the (limited) extent to which this is possible online. But what remains unthought in that premise? The idea of the child as driver is an idea of the child as free. But what is this freedom and to what extent are children free? The child-drivers are coming up against technology that belongs to a massive, omnipresent industrial environment – a global institutional matrix. How is that as-yet uncomprehended freedom of the individual related to that social-institutional matrix?

There is no science of freedom (or did we miss that somewhere?). So in areas like pedagogy (and the reigning science of economics, for that matter) where we can’t avoid making assumptions about freedom, we need a form of thinking that ranges beyond the limits of a compartmentalised science to attempt to grasp the bigger picture.

Perhaps one reason for the decay of our world is our advancing inability – isolated as we are in a terrible division of labour where specialisms become narrower by the year – to make connections. Educational technology is handled in one corridor. Pedagogy down another. Political theory is handled in a completely different department. And the philosophy department – if there is one – is in some basement that only a handful of people know about.

We have forgotten the synthetic lesson that the Romantics tried to teach. The work of analysis and the development of technique is crucial, but it is even more important to keep the bigger picture in view. Because so much of what we do rests on assumptions of human freedom, we need to risk an understanding of what that might consist in and how it might be lived – how it connects, in other words, with our social being. What does it mean to be free? How does that freedom develop and how is it institutionalised? Only if we can have some better grasp of what this thing called freedom is, will we be able to talk more intelligently about whether it requires an education that is, from day one, high-tech, or whether it is better to begin in a decidedly low-tech way.

Rousseau worked on the assumption (right in our Romantic opinion) that there can be no compelling theory of education without a more overarching view of life that doesn’t shy away from the big philosophical issues. His Emile was not written in isolation. It dovetails into his Social Contract – a book laying out a theory of freedom leading to the conclusion that only a radically democratic society can give human freedom its full expression. Rousseau’s decidedly Stoic, Sparta-loving understanding of freedom might be wrong, and his argument for radical democracy might be a little shaky, but what remains true is the need for some such broad theory. No methodology in education will make sense (to someone who still needs things to make sense) without what might be called a philosophy of education.

And this needs to be the concern not just of a few academic antiquarians, but of the whole teaching community. If the overriding aim of education is freedom, do the children not need to develop (in the later stages) an understanding of what that freedom consists in and how they as people who can understand their freedom are in debt to the people from the past who pushed forward that understanding? But what hope is there of the children developing this if the teaching community is not itself pushing forward its own understanding of these issues, making connections between pedagogy, philosophy and politics? It is only right for the children to question these and push against them. But if there is nothing to question and push against?

And so we raise a plea to rediscover and push forward the great Romantic tradition in the philosophy of education, and we wish for a swift end to this terrible methodological minimalism.

written by Torn Halves on April 16, 2014 in digital revolution and Edtech and pedagogy and Sugata Mitra with 7 comments