Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Minimally Invasive Education: Lessons from India

How thousands of impoverished children in India became computer literate.

Ten years ago, on January 29, 1999, Sugata Mitra--who then was science director of NIIT, an information technology firm with headquarters in New Delhi--initiated a fascinating set of studies of children's self-directed learning.

On that day, Mitra turned on a computer that he had installed in an outside wall of the NIIT building, a wall that faced one of the poorest slums in New Delhi, a community where most children do not go to school, are illiterate, and had never previously seen a computer. He simply turned the computer on, left it there, told the crowd of children that they could play with it, and used a video camera to monitor activity around it.

Children--mostly in the age range of 6 to 13--immediately approached and began to explore this odd installment, which looked to them like some kind of television set. They touched some of the parts and, apparently by accident, discovered that they could move a pointer on the screen by moving their finger across the touch pad. This led to a series of further exciting discoveries. The pointer turned to a hand when it was moved to certain parts of the screen. By pushing (clicking) on the touch pad when the pointer was a hand, they could get the screen to change. They eagerly sought out their friends to tell them about this fascinating machine. Each new discovery, made by one child or a group, was shared with others. Within days, dozens of children were surfing the Web, downloading music and games, painting with Microsoft Paint, and doing many of the other things that children everywhere do with computers when they have access to them.

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Subsequently, Mitra and his colleagues repeated the experiment in 26 other places in India, rural as well as urban, always with the same general results. Similar findings occurred in other nations where outdoor computers were set up--in Cambodia, Egypt, and South Africa. Even now, as I write, new outdoor computers are being installed in various impoverished parts of the world.

Wherever a computer kiosk was set up, children quickly gathered, explored the apparatus, and, with no help except that which they provided to each other, discovered exciting ways to use it. The children made up names to refer to the computer, its parts, the various icons that appeared on the screen, and the activities they could perform with the computer. For example, one group referred (in their native Hindi language) to the pointer as a "needle" and to folders as "cupboards." Those who did not know English learned many English words through their interactions with the computer and their talk with others about it. Children who could read sometimes found and downloaded articles that interested them, in the language in which they were literate (typically Hindi or Marathi).

Mitra and his colleagues describe the kind of education they were experimenting with as minimally invasive education, a descriptor borrowed from the medical world of surgery. It is education with the minimal amount of intrusion into children's lives. The experiments demonstrated that children learned at an amazingly rapid rate with no adult teachers. All that the educators had to do was to provide the tool, the computer. The children's natural curiosity, playfulness, and sociability took over from there.

Mitra and his colleagues estimate that for each outdoor computer they set up, an average of 300 children became computer literate within three months of the computer's becoming available. That's 30,000 computer-literate children for 100 computers, within a three-month period. By computer literate, Mitra means that they can "do most or all of the following tasks:"

• Use all Windows operational functions, such as click, drag, open, close, resize, minimize, menus, navigation, etc.
• Draw and paint with the computer.
• Load and save files.
• Play games.
• Run educational and other programs.
• Browse and surf the Internet, if a connection is available.
• Set up email accounts.
• Send and receive email.
• Chat on the Internet.
• Do simple troubleshooting, for example, if the speakers are not working.
• Download and play streaming media.
• Download games.

On the basis of various tests given to randomly chosen children who used the outdoor computers, Mitra concluded that the children's abilities to learn in this setting "seem to be independent of their educational background, literacy levels in English or any other language, social or economic level, ethnicity and place of origin (city, town, or village), gender, genetic background, geographic location, and intelligence."

Mitra's observations illustrate beautifully many of the ideas that I have been discussing in this blog. My major theme is that children educate themselves.  Mitra observed that children taught themselves to use the computer, and then used the computer to teach themselves much more. They did so because they have, within them, a set of powerful instincts for self-education--the instincts of curiosity, playfulness, and sociability.

Curiosity: All mammals are curious, but we humans are the most curious, especially in childhood. Because we are tool-using animals, our curiosity leads us not just to explore new objects with our senses, but also to explore them with our muscles. When we see something new, we want to know what we can do with it. Children, from infancy on, explore new objects by manipulating them--pushing them, shaking them, squeezing them, dropping them, throwing them, bouncing them--to see what interesting effects might be produced. In Mitra's experiments, curiosity drew children to the outdoor computer and motivated them to manipulate it in various ways to learn about its properties. The manipulations led to exciting discoveries, each of which led to new questions and new discoveries. For example, the discovery that clicking on one icon caused the screen to change led children to click on all of the other available icons, just to see what would happen.

Playfulness: The young of all mammals are playful, but human children are the most playful of all. The primary evolutionary function of playfulness, in children as in the young of other mammals, is skill development (see Jan. 1, 2009, posting). Play involves repetitive but varied actions aimed at producing effects that the player has in mind. The actions--both physical and mental--are performed for the pure pleasure of doing them, but the consequence is skill at those actions. In Mitra's experiments, playfulness led children to become highly skilled at using the computer's functions. For example, children who had already explored the Paint program and knew how to use it were motivated to play with that program, that is, to use it to paint many pictures. Through such play those children became skilled at computer painting. Through play the children consolidated knowledge already acquired and developed skill in using that knowledge. Often play led inadvertently to new discoveries, which renewed curiosity and led to new bouts of exploration. Play and exploration are inseparably mixed.

Sociability: We are not only the supremely curious and playful animal, but also the supremely social animal. Our sociability is such that we want to know what other people know, and we want to share our stories and knowledge with others. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what distinguishes us from the other mammals. Through language and our desire to communicate with and understand others, our minds are linked in a vast network with the minds of other people. No other animal has such a capacity and drive for communication, and that is why no other animal has developed culture as we have. In Mitra's experiments, sociability motivated children to play together, to want to know and do what the others knew and did, and to share their own knowledge with others. When one child made a new discovery about something that could be done with the computer, that discovery spread like a brush fire through the whole group of children nearby; and then some child in that group, who had a friend in another group, would carry the spark of new knowledge to that other group, where a new brush fire was ignited, and so on, and so on, through the roughly 300 children who at varying times were using the computer. Each discovery by one child became the discovery of all the children in the network.

Why don't school lessons spread in the same wildfire way that Mitra observed in his experiments on minimally invasive education? It is not hard to think of many answers to this question. Here are a few that pop to mind:

• Children in school are not free to pursue their own, self-chosen interests, and this mutes their enthusiasm.

• Children in school are constantly evaluated. The concern for evaluation and pleasing the teacher--or, for some children, a rebellious reaction against such evaluation--overrides and subverts the possibility of developing genuine interest in the assigned tasks.

• Children in school are often shown one and only one way to solve a problem and are told that other ways are incorrect, so the excitement of discovering new ways is prevented.

• Segregation of children by age in schools prevents the age mixing and diversity that seem to be key to children's natural ways of learning. Mitra observed that the mix of abilities and interests in the age-mixed groups that gathered around the outdoor computers ensured that different functions of the computer were tried out and played with by different children and that a wide variety of discoveries were made, which could then spread from child to child.

Learning is so easy, and such fun, when it occurs naturally. We make learning hard and dreary in our classrooms by depriving children of the opportunity to use their natural ways of learning and by replacing them with coercion. If we would concentrate on providing children with environments and tools that optimize their abilities to teach themselves, in age-mixed groups, and if we would stop trying to control children's learning, life would be more fun for all of us and the culture would flourish even more than it does now.
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Some references describing Mitra's work:
For a video of Mitra talking about his research into minimally invasive education, click here.
To read about the most recent developments in Mitra's program of minimally invasive education, click here.

Published articles by Mitra and his colleagues:
Dangwal, R., Jha, S., & Kapur, P. (2006). Impact of minimally invasive education on children: An Indian perspective. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37, 295-298.
Inamdar, P. (2004). Computer skills development by children using ‘hole in the wall' facilities in rural India. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 20, 337-350.
Mitra, S. (2003). Minimally invasive education: A progress report on the "hole-in-the-wall" experiments. British Journal of Educational Technology, 34, 267-371.
Mitra, S. (2004). Hole in the Wall. Dataquest (India), Sept. 23 issue. URL http://dqindia.ciol.commakesections.asp/04092301.asp.
Mitra, S. (2005). Self organizing systems for mass computer literacy: Findings from the ‘hole in the wall' experiments. International Journal of Development Issues, 4, 71-81.
Mitra, S., & Rana, V. (2001). Children and the internet: Experiments with minimally invasive education in India. British Journal of Educational Technology, 32, 221-232.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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