The experiment was deceptively simple. In 1999, researcher Sugata Mitra placed a computer in the side of a building in a Delhi-area slum in India. Very few of the children there attended school. It's doubtful any of them had used a computer before, let alone navigated the Internet.
"What programming is about is a new form of creation."
Mitra turned on the computer without warning. There were no instructions. The sudden appearance of a new toy was irresistible — kids quickly swarmed to investigate it. Within a few hours, they had grasped the idea of a cursor and clicking. "Most of the slum children were able to use the computer to browse, play games, create documents, and paint pictures within a few days," Mitra and his coauthors later wrote in a paper describing his theory of minimally invasive education. "Even in the absence of any direct input, mere curiosity led groups of children to explore, which resulted in learning."
Unlike the Delhi slum children, most kids in the United States have some familiarity with computers. Eighty percent of U.S. households have access to the Internet, and virtually all schools do (although WiFi connectivity can be lacking). And yet the ability to adapt — like the Indian children creating new knowledge in the face of an open-ended challenge — is perhaps the most essential skill today's students need to master for the 21st-century economy.