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For more than a decade, computer programmer Sugata Mitra has been watching some of India's poorest children teach themselves English and figure out how DNA works. Now he's bringing do-it-yourself learning to the rest of the world.

mitra-top.jpgJames Duncan Davidson

In 1999, Indian programmer Sugata Mitra was working in a research center that was right next to one of New Delhi's many slums. He carved out a hole in the wall near his office, and installed a computer so the screen was facing outward, like an ATM, with a touchpad keyboard beside it. The computer, powered up and connected to the Internet in English, soon attracted the attention of groups of curious street children.

But they didn't just fool around with the machine. To Mitra's amazement, they taught themselves how to use it, and demonstrated their proficiency -- with no knowledge of English or computers.

He tried the experiment again in a village 300 miles away, and the same thing happened. When he asked how the children had done it, one of them replied, "You gave us this machine but it's only in English. So we taught ourselves English."

He did it again in a Tamil village, putting up a complicated treatise on DNA. Over time, there was a similar result -- in this case, a stunning understanding of the basis for disease -- when all Mitra had done was set up a computer and walk away.

Ever since, Mitra has been promoting the idea of "self-directed learning" and "self-organizing learning environments" -- an audacious challenge to traditional education methods, where the emphasis is often on children memorizing facts, and educators "teaching to the test." Mitra essentially argues that kids, left to their own devices, will learn the skills they need to know.

Yesterday he was awarded the $1 million TED Prize at TED 2013 in Long Beach to try to scale up the idea worldwide. The TED Prize began in 2005 when the recipient was the singer Bono, for his ONE anti-poverty campaign. Other winners have focused on tackling child obesity, taking on religious intolerance, or inspiring crowdsourced art worldwide.

Mitra is beginning his program with a lab in India for the School in the Cloud. As a first step, TED posted the free downloadable Self Organizing Learning Environment toolkit online. The resource is designed to help educators and parents as they "tap into their innate sense of wonder and engage in child-driven learning."

Mitra's method calls for three basic ingredients: a group of students who can get together and collaborate, an online connection, and retired teachers who can lightly manage the process via Skype or videoconferencing. These moderators raise a question and then stand back and let the students figure out the answer, making encouraging comments like, "Isn't that interesting!" -- much as admiring grandmother might do. Mitra originally called it the "granny cloud."

In some ways, Mitra's revolution is not new. Critics of traditional education have been chipping away at rote memorization for many years. The Montessori method also embraces self-directed learning. Mitra is also humble in admitting that his method is not a replacement for school. "It's got to be complementary," he adds. The self-directed learning sessions can be run on weekends, for example, as a kind of "safe Internet café."

The pedagogical method works best with the age group of 8 to 12, Mitra says, because "teenagers make it harder. .... They say, 'Do we have to do it this way? Why don't you just tell us?'"

It can be tried at home, but it doesn't work well with a parent trying to manage it with one individual child. The key is having a group of kids -- ideally a minimum of six -- who can talk among themselves and collaborate on problem-solving. Mitra says he watched that dynamic in action when he wrote out the phrase "There are too many auto rickshaws in Pune" in big letters on poster papers and set them on the floor for non-English speaking kids to pore over. Each one had a contribution for a part of the phrase, and they figured it out.

Something similar happened in Kansas City, when Mitra posed the question to inner city kids: What is the purpose of theater? Five minutes later, the group did a Google search and came back with an agreed-upon answer. Having a consensus on what to say was key, to prevent individuals from simply parroting what they found on the first page of Google search results.

The education system in India is a legacy of the British Empire, which was interested in training generations of clerks to operate in the legendary bureaucracy, Mitra says. That approach has clearly become obsolete, he says. Successful people can work anywhere they want, and if they need to know something, they just need to know how to look it up.

Yet Mitra seems to have more practical skill-set building in mind, for a more effective and efficient education system to lift kids into better lives. "If it works, it will level the playing field," he says, "and that is what is missing in the world."

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Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City and the forthcoming Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow.

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