Mitra, genius or?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’m getting increasingly more annoyed by the rhetoric surrounding Self Organized Learning. Steve Wheeler poses the black-and-white question about Sugata Mitra: is he a genius or a charlatan ? A cunning way to provoke reactions! 🙂 His interview with Mitra is well worth watching. Well, of course, Mitra is neither genius or charlatan. His ideas on self organized learning are interesting and familiar (self organization is a topic that has been studied before, the medium -technology- is the ‘new’  component) but ‘genius’, I don’t think so. Mitra has an established background as a scholar, has written a lot of articles, and although quite rooted in context, certainly isn’t a charlatan. What then, are things that annoy me?

  1. A lack of academic modesty. Any academic should know that, especially in educational research, finding a good convincing methodology is quite a challenge. On the one hand, some researchers using qualitative methods often are very anecdotal and provide ‘evidence’ that is rooted in context and hard to generalize. On the other hand, quantitative research often does not provide a rich picture of why things work. That’s why I believe both methods should be used to provide a picture that is as complete as possible. In any case, good research can be proud of its results, but always with the limitations in mind. It seems to me that this ‘academic modesty’ isn’t always in place, especially when scholars become famous with sweeping statements like ‘knowing is obsolete’. It’s what I don’t like about the adoration surrounding Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra, etc. Interesting ideas, sure, but please let’s keep both our feet on the ground. Then again, Mitra probably did not get 1 million dollars for being modest. In my opinion TED flourishes on big bold statements (ideas), so one could say that this end justifies the means. I don’t agree with that. And honestly, it becomes quite scary when “And in the end that we the creator of the sentient sapient and the created we have a symbiotic relationship.” is one of the statements (source). Another point, of course, is that the media inflates certain statements. Saying “Children don’t need to be taught how to use a computer.” (youtube) certainly is less poignant than “children can learn by themselves”.
  2. Condemning criticism. Often if criticism is expressed, the responses aren’t that mature. Example are:
    “You haven’t even tried out SOLEs” (Self Organizing Learning Environments), as if you can’t make a judgment of a piece of work/research, based on the evidence presented.
    “People will always be against change”, as if there isn’t real criticism but just an unwillingness to look at innovations, or using the word ‘vociferous’ to describe the criticism. One example is Donald Clark’s blog which I know as a critical, but always with arguments. I still think that the ‘outcry’  of proponents is much stronger.
  3. Insulting the education sector. The first two points can easily be addressed by writing blogs like this and engage in scholarly debate. This point, to me, has more to do with the picture you paint of the education sector. It’s the rhetoric of education ‘being outdated’. It’s the implicit hypothesis that you don’t really need teachers. The interview mentioned before states “Where you have a good teacher you can use the internet as a an extremely powerful learning tool. Where you don’t have a good teacher you can still use the internet and get to far above where a poor quality teacher will reach. And where you have no teachers you have a viable alternative.”. So in all cases the assumption is that using the Internet will improve the current situation. In my opinion, it builds on a movement that condemns current education (and its practitioners) and thinks education needs a big overhaul (“schools have to change, teachers have to change, which means curricula has to change, pedagogy has to change, assessment has to change” and “do we need education at all?”). Indeed, I think some things should be and can be improved, but phrasing it like this is just strategically damaging if you value education and learning. It will be used for politicians to justify budget cuts and reinforces an image that people have of education being ‘ outdated’. Ironically, many of the eduvangelists who think ‘people don’t want to change’ and are too negative about change, express a very negative view of current education. I don’t want that. Most of education consists of passionate, idealistic people who want children to learn as most as possible. Work with them, rather than condemn the education sector and suggest they either change or are obsolete.

What I would like to see is a research landscape where there’s room to explore big broad statements, but in such a way that we try to unpeel these statements. What works, what doesn’t, when does it work, when doesn’ t it work. I know this post is quite critical, so in a sense one could say that I use the same method I criticized under point 2. A catch-22, should i criticize criticism? Ah, well I did, didn’t i , but if we engage in discussion I will still listen to you. We can only do this if we work together. Amen. 😉

By cbokhove

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